One of the toughest things for coaches to overcome is “the car ride home”. By that I mean the things that are said to a player outside of the rink from their support system. That support system is mostly parents and family but can also be scouts, advisors and agents at the older ages (I will just refer to all these as parents in this piece). As coaches we need to make sure our players are on the same page as a team and not on someone else’s page.
I would hope that all coaches are concerned with the development of their players and not just winning hockey games - and I don’t think that is different at any level right up to the NHL. Our teams will always win more hockey games when all of our players are improving. Players need to know in their hearts that their coaches care about their development, care about their well-being, and care about them as people. One way to foster that is to connect with all of your players individually every time you are together. One of my favorite things to do in our school rink is to sit on the bench inside the front doors so that I see all my players on the way to our dressing room. I get a chance to look each of them in the eye and say hello before we hit the ice for games and practices.
An online coaching friend Karl Norton wrote to me about this topic just this week. Coach Karl said:
“I greet all players with a fist bump whenever I see them. In the (book) The Talent Code (by Daniel Coyle), I read about the teacher who greeted every student as they arrived. The point is to be very clear - I'm happy to see you and glad that you're here! That's my way of expressing that point whenever I see them. An interesting twist evolved with my U-10 team. The single bump evolved into a double and then quick multiple bumps. One day, I accidentally missed a young player and he immediately squeaked "What about me?" They notice!! I do this with all players without any favoritism - it sends a clear message that I value all of them. I also ask them questions about how they are doing and that helps develop our relationship.”
The next piece is to convince parents that their player is important to us and that we are concerned about their development. I have been working with a very talented minor bantam player on his skill set for the past few months. I was very impressed that his coach for next season sent home a note as to what he saw as the skills that needed to be worked on. There were only three and he was very explanatory of what those skills were and why they needed to be improved. The message was delivered to the player at a skills session and sent home to parents in an e-mail so that everyone could be on the same page (including me!). Not only was the player able to work on some specifics but parents were brought into the loop and allowed to see that the coach was genuinely interested in the player’s development and improvement.
Parental buy in is so crucial to team success that I would recommend taking the time to write report cards for players frequently during the season. This can be a living document that gets added to for each player as the season progresses. Things that should be included are skills, game play, discipline and work ethic/attitude. Make these reports like a school report card. Comments should include what has improved, what needs to be improved, and how to make those improvements. This report card needs to be made available to the player’s support system and, coaches need to be available to discuss the report with parents if they wish.
Getting back to the car ride home, I listened to one coaching webinar about elite junior tennis players say that parents should only ask two questions on the way home: “water, Gatorade or chocolate milk?” and “What do you want to eat?” Clearly, typically for most athletes, there will be more that they want to talk about. To truly help the car ride home, coaches should have a group discussion with parents at the beginning of the year specifically about the car ride home. The discussion should not be “how to parent” but about how parents can help to “develop their player” during the car ride home.
Here are some things I would point out in that discussion with parents:
1) Don’t force conversation about the game if your player isn’t interested in talking about it. Get a feel for their mental space. And remember, the parent’s mental space is not important to a player’s development.
2) Ask what coach said after the game. Not only will this give a parent a good indication of what a player might also think about the game but it allows for parents to help support the coach, and the development of the players and the team.
3) Don’t allow your player to blame others for a poor game. It’s not the goalie’s fault, it’s not the referees fault. Parents should focus on the things that their player can control.
Finally, if as a coach you get the feeling that there is conflicting messaging from parents to some of your players you have to address that head on. It’s crucial that parents are on the same side as you when it comes to the development of their athlete. Make sure you can have a one on one conversation about this and find some middle ground. If middle ground can’t be found then maybe that family is not a good fit for your team community. Make it clear that you are responsible for the entire team and not just one athlete. Your decisions are based solely on improving each player and the team as a whole and being the best the team can be at season’s end.
For more on team building and connecting with players check out Creating a Culture of Confidence. This is a terrific "how to" eBook for coaches in all sports available at Amazon or by clicking the link below.