By: Dan Arel
We hear a lot about relationships between coaches and players and how they help build winning teams. Carolina Hurricanes’ head coach Rod Brind’Amour was quoted as saying “I think coaching has become more about the way you relate to players than it is about what you’re actually teaching them.”
What is great about this statement is that it applies at all levels of hockey, not just at the professional level. But I think it applies even further as you move down the ladder into juniors, and even more so into youth hockey. At these levels, you’re not only building a relationship and gaining trust with a player, but you’re doing the same with their family. At the youth level especially, I think this parent/coach relationship is often overlooked and causes rifts in teams, players, and eventually can cost the team on the ice.
In youth hockey, players read off their parents. When our seasons start, I like to share an article with parents about why they should not talk bad about the coach in front of their player. It sets the wrong tone and players believe what their parents say. However, a coach needs to do more than simply ask that parents don’t disagree with them in front of their kids.
Instead, coaches needed to build a relationship with the family that is based on trust and realistic expectations. I have found that in these cases, if a parent sees their kid moved down a line, or their favorite position changes, they know the coach is doing this for reasons they understand. Perhaps the parent already knows if their child doesn’t skate hard, they will be moved down, or if a center won’t backcheck, they will be moved to wing.
Most importantly, the trust must be that as a coach you’re not moving a player as a punishment, but rather as motivation, or in some cases, to best utilize a player’s skillset so that they are more likely to succeed rather than to fail.
Yet, as coaches if we are afraid to have these conversations with parents and the player, and we fail to set these expectations, parents simply see their child being taken out of a position, or line, and don’t have a clear picture as to why. This is when those car ride conversations start about how a coach plays favorites or “why did Johnny get more ice time and not moved down a line?”
Building these relationships doesn’t mean you won’t get upset parents, but it does usually help in defusing situations quickly. When I first started coaching competitive hockey, my team made a championship game, and I sat a few players for a lot of it. Their parents were furious, and looking back, rightfully so because I failed to set these expectations earlier in the season and going into the tournament. I took what I learned and applied to following seasons and teams and have not had a repeat of that issue since.
After these relationships are formed, you more than likely will have parents reminding their kids to listen to their coach. Or if a player complains to their parents, they are more likely to back you up and remind them that if they want to make the top line to make sure they skate hard every shift. This in turn creates kids who trust you as a coach to coach them. This creates those winning teams you see because they believe in the team from the top down.