Handling Fear in Youth Hockey

By: Topher Scott


It has been about a month since I took over as the Hockey Director of a AAA program here in Central NY.  It has been an interesting process to say the least, and I feel like I’ve learned more about the youth hockey industry in the past month than I have in all the years I’ve been involved in the sport combined.

Throughout the past month I have been doing a lot of listening…and have held back from doing a lot of speaking.  Rather than come in and impose a plan right away, I wanted to talk to as many people as I could to get a sense of where things were at and where people wanted them to go.

One of the toughest things about going this route is that people want answers right away.  Since we have to run tryouts literally the week after the season is over (rule mandated by the State), people are in a frenzy right now trying to figure out what they’re going to do next year. It’s painful.

But there’s a difference between doing things quickly…and doing them right.  I want to do them right, and that takes time.  It takes time and it takes a whole lot of feedback.  And boy, feedback is what I have gotten.  And honestly, it’s a bit troubling.

Because in my conversations with many parents, coaches, kids, and others…there is a certain word that gets brought up with a disturbing intensity:

FEAR.

The youth hockey model…and the youth sports model in general…operates and feeds off of fear.  Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Fear of Judgement. Fear of the Unknown.

The parents feel it.  The coaches feel it.  The kids feel it.  The administrators feel it.  The fear factor is crazy…and it’s everywhere.

So I’ve put a lot of thought into where this fear comes from.  Why does the youth hockey industry make so many good people go crazy? And how do we get to a place where people can enjoy the experience rather than always looking over their shoulder? I’ll try to answer both these questions below.

Where does the fear come from?

In my opinion, the fear factor in youth hockey comes from two places:

1. The too-early professionalization of youth hockey.

2. The disconnect between parents and coaches.

Too often, and too early, we treat kids like professionals.  We treat them like professionals before they are physically, mentally, and emotionally ready to handle it.  At too young of an age, KIDS:

Play 70-80 game seasons.

Are being ranked on how they play, for the whole internet to see it.

Are being recruited to “Exposure” camps and “All-Star” teams.

Are being recruited to college and/or junior camps.

Are being coached like adults whose purpose is to win at all costs.

These things certainly affect the kids.  Imagine being 14 years old and reading negative reports about your play on the internet.  Seriously, for the people reading this that write those reports, imagine your 14 year old self.  I’m sure you were mature enough to handle what people said about you, who knew NOTHING about you but saw you play a hockey game or two.  I’m sure you were mature enough to let it slide and not let it affect your self-worth.  It’s pretty easy for 14 year olds to do that, right?

Or imagine being told that if you don’t make a certain team at 14 years old, your dreams of playing college or pro hockey are done.  Yes, that happens.  And unfortunately, our industry perpetuates it.

These kinds of things affect the kids for sure…but honestly I think it affects the parents more because it creates the biggest case of FOMO that I’ve ever seen.

Parents want what is best for their kids.  And most will go to the end of the earth to try and provide those opportunities for them.  The problem is, the early-professionalization of our sport drives the parents to feel like if they don’t do “X”, it will ruin their kids chances at “Y” way too early.  There is so much information out there trying to persuade them that the grass is greener on the other side.

If your kid doesn’t play on a top ranked team…

If your kid doesn’t make this tournament team…

If your kid doesn’t apply to this camp…

If your kid doesn’t get seen at this showcase…

If your kid doesn’t have an advisor…

The list goes on and on.

And if you look at the long list of the “If your kid doesn’ts…” very few actually have an impact on a kid’s goals and dreams.  99% of them are pure fluff centered around adults making money off of FOMO.  The one statement that should really matter is this:

“If my kid plays for a good coach with a good culture…their chances at getting to “Y” are GREATLY increased.”

I know because I’ve seen it as a college coach…and I know because I lived it.

When I was younger, my parents kept me with the good coach of the not-so-talented team rather than having me play for the “All Star” team that was heavily recruited and had a coach with the wrong intentions.  Three years later, the All Stars came to play for the good coach because our rag-tag group of kids that loved to play began beating them and they were having a miserable time with all of the pressure to win that was put on the kids and the families.

It was a great experience having gone through it, and looking back it was a PhD of what hockey development looks like.  Half our team went on to play college/pro hockey.

And as a college coach, it’s easy to see what the kids that really make it have in common:

They have a passion for the game.

They love to play.  And through that love to play comes a love to get better.  And the better you become, the better your chances of achieving your goals and dreams.

That ever-important passion is something that can be sucked out of kids if you treat them like adults too early.  I’ve seen too many talented kids go through it.  Way too many.

Seriously, way too many.  So parents, please, if you want to help your kid achieve their dreams of playing hockey at a higher level…keep that in mind.  The best thing that you can do for your kid is to put them in an environment where that passion can flourish.

But here’s where it gets interesting.  Because the feedback that I get from the coaches completely flips the script.

You certainly have coaches and admins perpetuating the FOMO in the parents by professionally coaching their kids at too early of an age.  But you also have parents putting the fear into coaches for NOT coaching their kids professionally enough.  All youth coaches will empathize with the following scenario:

They catch heat from the parents of the more talented players if their kid doesn’t play all game and thus not coaching to win.  They are threatened by the best players’ parents that if they don’t play their kid all the time, they’ll leave and find some other coach that will.  Their kid needs to win so they can be on a top ranked team so they will be scouted.  Oh yes, this happens.  Again…at way too young of a level.

But on the other side, coaches will also catch heat from the parents of the kids on the bottom end of their team if they do shorten the bench.  They will hear from those parents that their kids are losing their love for the game because they don’t play enough.

So…

They have one quarter of their team’s parents upset at too little coaching to win and not playing their kids enough.  And they have another quarter of their team’s parents upset about too much coaching to win and not playing their kids enough.  It’s lose-lose and we are losing a lot of good coaches in our sport because they just don’t want to deal with this kind of madness.

These scenarios…they happen EVERYWHERE.

This dynamic between some parents (especially parents of the more talented kids who have FOMO) and the coaches is extremely unhealthy and it toxifies team cultures.  So again, let me reiterate:

*I played for teams with a great coach, great culture, and bad talent.  We ended up being better than the team with the bad coach, bad culture, but great talent.  Over time, coaching and culture won out.  The talent/ranking didn’t.

*As a former coach in college, PASSION is a huge differentiator between kids that make it and kids that don’t.  If the culture you are generating within your team (whether you are a parent or a coach) is creating an environment that doesn’t foster passion…you need to take a look in the mirror and make some changes.

At the end of the day…the fear of judgement, the fear of missing out, the fear of the unknown…these are real fears in the youth hockey world.  And if we don’t take steps to address them, our game will continue to suffer.

So how do we change it?

There are two ways to reverse the fear that permeates our youth hockey world.

1. Proper parent and coach education

2. Reminding people to reflect upon their “Why”

Very few organizations invest time and effort into coaching or parent education.  And in my opinion, those are the two things that are most important to building a good team or organizational culture.

Coaches need to be prepared to better themselves not only about the game of hockey, but about teaching, leadership, communication, etc…  Organizations should be holding drill shares, putting on seminars, encouraging their coaches to be on the ice with other teams, and much, much more.  The better we can educate our coaches, the better our players will be.

And parent education…this is an absolute must.  We need to educate the parents about the youth hockey journey, what it entails, and what lies at the end of the ride.  Education can minimize the FOMO that so many feel as it provides expectations and knowledge about the process their kids (and themselves) will go through.

At the Hockey Think Tank, we put together a Parent Guidebook to help hockey parents out there.  Hopefully it can help any of you trying to navigate the youth hockey journey.  Click here to download: https://thehockeythinktank.com/parent-guidebook/

And what is the first section in the Guidebook?

“What is your Why?”

Parents: Why did you put your kid in youth hockey? I would guess that 90% of you put them in there to make friends, build character, exercise, and learn life lessons.

Coaches: Why did you want to coach youth hockey? I would guess that 90% of you started coaching to make a positive impact on kids.

When we take a step back and remember our why, the stress and insanity seem so juvenile.  We get so caught up in the craziness that we often forget the noble reasons we chose to put our kids into sports in the first place.  That fear we once felt…for many it just dissipates because our kids becoming good people is what really matters…not them becoming superstars.

My hope in writing this piece is that people involved in youth hockey can be encouraged to take a breath.  Take a step back and remember what youth sports should be about.  Only then can we process what makes us fearful about the journey we’re in and begin to take the steps necessary to mitigate it.  And only then can we begin to change the culture so more kids, coaches, and families can enjoy the greatest game on the planet.

25 Responses
  1. Justin DeSorgher

    Awesome.

    I’m a former HS coach who has been in youth hockey for 4 years now, coaching a u12/u14 cohort and now my sons u6 team too. I think you’ve hit the issue on the head, and did so in a way that didn’t bring up two hot button (but true I think) issues in unrealistic parents and over competitive coaches. Leaving those divisive populations out and focusing on the recognition that everyone is dealing with a similar fear (tries to?) puts us on the same team. And I your solution of education is the right one for sure, although not everyone wants to hear it.

    It’s going to be a long road to change some of the negatives in this culture (one which has so many positives), but recognizing the issues and having people in place who can move forward with solutions is a great start. Thanks for the hard work!

    1. jiml

      Justin, couldn’t agree more. Trying to think of a creative way to share this with some of the parents on my Squirt team. Have a lot of players leaving our great town program for the numerous reasons stated in the article here. Well written piece that nails it on the head.

  2. Andy Hillig

    Topher! Thank you for sharing; this came at the right time for me! All of it makes perfect sense and is precisely what I’ve been struggling with, having 2 boys in AAA hockey.

    My only question is: how do you know if you’re playing for the right coach or not and when is it right to change coaches so that your child learns other coaching philosophies as well?

    There are many programs (not just hockey) that make it a policy to shuffle coaches in their club/association every couple of years so that the same coach isn’t with the same age group through their whole youth experience.

    1. Topher Scott

      If your kid enjoys going to practice and they are getting better…the coach is doing his/her job. I think it’s that simple.

      1. Chris Lansdown

        This article nails it. My daughter moved up a level and age group this year. Playing pewwe BB. Means that next season she should be trying out for AA and making A definitely. But due to really bad coaching, always saying negative things never positive, shortening the bench and only coaching systems never the skills( hockey Canada says 75% of drills at this level should be skill based) now he wants to shorten the bench further to win. She has decided to leave rep hockey and play in the house and for the select team. I support her decision. Being a Hockey coach myself this article rings so true. Thanks for writing it.

    1. Absolutely love this post Topher. My 13-yo AAA player has been invited to play for 4 spring/summer “all-star” tournament teams and an “elite” combine in Massachusetts. Two of the tournament teams are playing in Europe! And all of the guys who were trying to recruit him tried to play up the “exposure” factor. Give me a freakin break. If playing in 65 games including 5 Tier 1 showcases around the country during the regular season doesn’t give my son enough “exposure” then he’ll just have to settle for not being good enough.
      The way these guys talk to you, and show you who else has already committed to playing, it’s totally preying on FOMO. Some of these “elite” tournament team companies are more like glorified travel agents who get their cut off the top of the trips. It’s pathetic.
      We’re very fortunate to be with the AAA team that my son plays on. His coaches expect a lot out of them. They demand effort and playing a certain way, but they also realize that they’re 13-yo kids and allow them to have a lot of fun too. My son’s favorite thing to do is go to practice. That’s a huge testament to his coaches.
      Thanks for writing this post.

  3. Mark R

    “99% of them are pure fluff centered around adults making money off of FOMO.”

    This sentence is the essence of the entire issue.

    I have watched the number of people making a buck off the sport grow exponentially. It sickens me to watch these people profit from preying on people’s (parents and players) fear, uncertainty and doubt.

  4. Serena

    Our son wanted to play since he was young watching his cousin play. My husband and I had nothing to do with it, infact we didn’t know anything about Hockey. We had him in other sports and we finally said ok to Hockey . We really didn’t understand the pressure of Hockey until he started traveling. It’s unbeleivable. I honestly don’t care for that kind of pressure and how some parents and coaches treat their kids. We try to keep a balance with hockey, School and as long as he has passion and likes going to practice and having fun we will support him.

  5. ICE: Dan Mccraith

    Great read. You could easily replace the word hockey with Soccer,Lacrosse,Baseball, or Basketball. It’s a youth sport problem of FOMO. Need to continue to try and get through to parents.

  6. ES

    An association’s leadership can and should nip it in the bud early on. Back your coaches! Back your kids! Explain to parents that all the kids are going to get equal playing time. I guarantee that If they are getting in scenarios, feeling like they matter and can contribute, gain confidence, and have fun they are going to improve and foster a life long love of the sport. I guarantee that a 9 or 10 year old isn’t going to be pissed that they didn’t play the whole game or get more playing time. Kids are humble adults should be too!

  7. Brian K.

    This may be one of the best youth hockey articles I have ever read! Everything about it is accurate and this type of activity is what really brings out the worst in parents. Especially now at the end of so many teams season. We look to the next year instead of playing out this one and the kids suffer the most as the FOMO sets in. Well stated!!!

  8. Shell

    It’s also important to realize that some 10 year old kids absolutely will care about playing time and lines. I 100% was one of those kids. I was not a great teammate to players I thought were not getting it done. A good coach reigns in kids like that. I wish a coach had told me to get with the program earlier. But don’t always think it’s the parents. My parents always asked, probably hoping I said no, if I wanted to keep playing. I’m in Europe now and they are still asking.

  9. Joe Machado

    Topher, THANK YOU for your article. You are bang on, on all points, not that you need my validation. I spent a significant amount of time volunteering in a minor hockey association and during my tenure held various official positions. I had many dealings with parents and coaches, particularly when I served in the role of Supervisor of Coaches. The conflicts that came to light requiring me to get involved, happened way too often, with the child always placed in the middle. I witnessed first-hand situations where the parent did “stuff” that only served to embarrass their child, or the coach selectively picked who he wanted to play during a game rather than who’s turn it was in the line-up. It was a vicious cycle and almost always inevitable. I could write a whole book about the short-comings of the minor hockey system and tell stories that would make many people cringe. I believe that I always handled every situation with the child’s best interest in mind.

    I then bought a junior hockey team and witnesses some of the same scenarios play out in a much bigger environment where the stakes were much higher. You are 100% correct that communication between coach and parents is essential to maintain a healthy balanced relationship. We implemented a series of strategies in hockey operations. to provide a safe and productive environment for players and pretty much everyone involved. For the most part it worked, but still much room for improvement! Treating kids like they are adults and placing unrealistic expectations on them, is a recipe for disaster and they will be doomed to fail. Not only in hockey, but in life. Keep up the great work and lets allow kids to be kids, have fun in a safe environment and allow them to flourish at their own pace, on their own time!

  10. Matt

    Thank you for sharing Topher. I’m considering volunteering to help with youth hockey and the culture surrounding coaching, parents and the players is something that’s always on my mind. I think you provide some good insights.

  11. Mike

    This is great stuff – but the association you have taken over has used fear techniques to steal players away from other organizations and forcing players to forego their high school hockey careers all in the name of “making it” and promoting the organization. I sure hope you make your new association a better place to play hockey, but honestly, it is not currently a place I would allow my kids to play.

  12. John

    Great article. I heard one of your podcast guests say that youth sports are basically recession proof, since every parent wants the best for their kids and will do anything possible, no matter how ridiculous, to try to provide that. With two boys in hockey and having coached myself, I have seen the good and bad. I’m also guilty of, at times, being harsh on coaches, players, my kids, etc. The end of season discussions and rumors seem to start earlier every year. Organizations making big announcements, naming coaches, never mind the growing prep school industry. It only encourages FOMO. Thank you for your efforts. Education is a huge part of the solution.

  13. This is by far one of the most spot-on articles I have ever read. It should be mandatory reading for everyone involved with youth sports. I have been involved with youth hockey for the last 9 years, coaching, managing, board president, travel director….you name it. One conclusion I have come to is that no matter how hard you work at it or what you do, there will always be crazy parents. We are a tier 2 organization in a small market sandwiched between 3 major metropolitan areas. In the last 20 years there have been maybe 2 or 3 players (male or female) that have played division 1 hockey. No matter how hard we try to get parents to temper their expectations it often falls on deaf ears.

    Two years ago, we were able to miraculously find a female coach for our girls program. A coach who played at the highest levels of D1 and USA Hockey. She had also coached Tier1 and division3 at the collegiate level……..to this day we have parents questioning her on coaching, complaining because she plays everyone and doesn’t short the bench, complaining that practices don’t devote enough time to systems and PP/PK (you have to be able to accept a pass to do most of those things one might argue)…….it’s absolutely insanity. It’s not like we are in Canada where qualified coaches fall on trees either. I’m a level 4 coach and this person has forgotten more about hockey than I will ever hope to know. The audacity of parents who have never played the game to think they know more than someone who has played at the highest levels is pretty mind-boggling actually.

    The problem we run into is that because of FOMO, some of the parents can impact the makeup of the next years team(s) because of their antics. One kid leaves and it’s a domino effect. As a result, we have had to institute a policy that if you leave for anything by a top tier 1 program, you won’t be welcomed back. As an organization we see it as premature and selfish and it isn’t fair to the other kids in our small market who work hard to get better, only to have one pre-Madonna sabotage an entire team. Curious to know what you thoughts are on this.

    Thanks for sharing!

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