November 30, 2010

Criticism should be doled out in moderation

By Lyle Phair

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

As we drop the puck on yet another hockey season, it’s safe to say that many new adventures will unfold. Each practice and each game are new chapters in the novel that is the season.

Countless lessons will be learned by those new to the game and re-learned over and over again by those who have experienced it for years. We might forget. But the game never stops teaching.

As a coach and a parent, I know every year I need to remind myself to make sure that I am approaching the game from the proper perspective. As we all know (or if we don’t yet, we soon will), it is pretty easy to get caught up in the emotions of the moment, and do something or say something that we will very much regret later on.

There are plenty of reminders at almost every youth sporting event that takes place, be it soccer, baseball, football or hockey. Someone, somewhere will get out of hand and have to be reminded of what exactly youth sports are really all about.

One such reminder occurred this past spring. It was one of those beautiful nights in mid-May, warm enough yet cool enough to make for a great night for a game. And there were plenty of games going on that night -- three soccer games on adjacent fields, with a lacrosse game sprinkled in for good measure.

There was plenty of action and plenty of excitement. And, as you would expect, there was plenty of noise, much of it coming from the parents and coaches on the soccer sidelines. They were shouting, among other things, encouragement and directions to their young stars and starlets on the field.

As much as I have grown to have an appreciation for “the beautiful game” -- although it is not even close to hockey in terms of being a sport -- the one thing that I will never quite accept is how parents and spectators are right there with the team on the sidelines. And, with that closeness, comes the noise -- the encouragement and cheering, which is good, and some of the directions and sideline coaching, which is not so good.

On this particular night, what caught my attention was an exchange from the field directly behind us. Two teams of what looked like 9-year-olds were squaring off in a hotly contested match. Two athletically dressed, alpha-male coaches prowled the sidelines, toting clipboards and barking orders non-stop to their young charges on the field.

Suddenly, one of the coaches, a little angered by something he saw an opposing player do, blurted out something to the effect of, “Hey, No. 7, keep your hands to yourself or I’ll show you what to do with them.” Apparently it was unheard or ignored, because it was soon followed with a, “Hey, No. 7, I told you to watch it or we’ll take care of you.”

That apparently caught the kid’s attention because his response was something that everybody heard, not just on their field but for three fields over. And not so much because of how loud he said it, but what he said.

“Hey, Mister. I’m just a little kid,” was his response. I happened to turn in that direction just as the words were coming out of his mouth. The confrontation was interesting. A barely 4-foot 9-year-old standing up to and staring up at a 6-foot-3, 225-pound, 30-something coach. The coach’s reaction was priceless. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t respond. How do you respond to that? He turned, put his hands in his pockets and slinked down the sidelines, head down.

Lesson learned, apparently. At least for that night. The silence was deafening.

The coach probably wasn’t a bad guy. Most coaches aren’t. It’s tough to call anybody a bad guy for devoting the kind of time, energy and commitment it takes to coach a team in any sport. Most coaches mean well, as do most parents. Sometimes we just get caught up in the emotions of the moment and need a little dose of reality to set us straight.

Something similar to that scene is sure to get repeated over and over and over this hockey season, as it does every hockey season. Not so much the response from the player, but the over-exuberant yelling from the adults. Many coaches do it. Many parents do it -- if not at the rink, then probably on the way to the rink. Or, worse yet, on the way home after a tough game where the kid didn’t play quite up to expectations.

Here’s a little news for you: The kids already know when they don’t play that well. It’s not that difficult for them to figure out. They know what they did wrong and what they can try to do better next time. And, rest assured, if they didn’t know during the game, at some point they were told about it by their coaches. More often than not they are told more times than they need to be.

That’s sort of the nature of coaching. It’s about correcting mistakes and trying to right wrongs. But obviously it is much, much more than that. It’s about teaching the game, allowing players to learn the game and build skills, and inspiring confidence. All too often we coaches spend too much time on the correcting and not enough time on the inspiring. I know I am guilty as charged on that one. It’s something I try to remind myself about every time I go to the rink or soccer field.

What is sadly humorous is that while the players already know where they stand and what they did wrong well before any of us adults needlessly drill it into them again, they really don’t care as much about it as we adults do. It’s not that they don’t care about doing well and playing their best and winning and losing. They really do. But it’s just not as important to them as it is to the adults.

They are kids. They move on to other things in their kid lives. They do care, but they also do a much better job of keeping it in perspective than some of the adults do.

That’s something to keep in the front of your mind on your way to the rink this season: They’re just kids.

Lyle Phair can be reached at