By: Dan Arel
Coaching youth hockey is no easy task, and rightfully so. Both USA Hockey and Hockey Canada require minimal training, nominal fees, and do this yearly for as long as you plan to coach. That doesn’t even include the fact that unlike other sports, you also need to be able to at least stand up on skates on the ice.
So, it’s no surprise that in many rinks, and this is not different for most youth sports, they rely heavily on parent coaches to help run their teams. What is unfortunate about this situation is that those rinks who are more heavily funded (often those owned by NHL teams) and can pay their coaches use “parent coaches” as a slight against these rinks and use it to steal talent away.
The myth of the parent coach has even become so prevalent that a recent book about youth hockey on the East Coast took shots at programs that use parent coaches, further pushing the narrative that a parent coach is a bad thing.
The coach is a major factor, or should be, for any parent and player looking for a team to try out for. Rinks and coaches are always looking to market themselves in a positive way to attract the most talent, and it’s unfortunate for the sport that some have taken it to the level of attacking some of the most dedicated people to the sport.
I will start here; I am a parent coach. I played hockey growing up, I have been a fan and a student of the game even longer, and I moved into playing adult league hockey long before I started coaching my son’s team. I take coaching incredibly seriously, I have my Level 4 USA Hockey certification, I take part in the NHL Coaches Association’s Mentorship Program, and I attend countless online webinars with professional coaches. I work hard to ensure I am always educating myself on the best way to coach a team.
And I am not an anomaly, I am not just that one parent coach who takes it more seriously than others. In fact, most parent coaches I know take these extra steps because we care about our teams, the development of our players, and we want to do the best job we can.
Do all parent coaches do this? Of course not, but I can also tell you the countless paid coaches who don’t do it either, yet somehow, it’s their paycheck that gives them more credibility than a parent coach, at least in their minds.
I have seen parent coaches who don’t take it as seriously, who don’t put in the work, and that’s okay too if they understand the limits to their coaching. Most parent coaches drop off after 8U, or around 10U realize they can be of help on the ice setting up cones, chasing pucks, or even on the bench opening and closing doors for young players.
What these parents don’t do is push to be head coaches or make decisions about player development, they offer a valuable service of helping kids and coaches. Properly run programs also recognize these parents and ask them to take on these roles, while promoting coaches who are ready for the next challenge.
Yet knowing all of this, each season as recruitment begins and tryouts kickoff, coaches begin the routine of bad-mouthing other coaches to build their teams up. Instead of working together to build each other up and to build the sport up, a culture is being born to tear each other down. Paid coaches and volunteer coaches are accomplishing the same goals, they are developing young players to love the sport, and to be good citizens on and off the ice. Can we really accomplish that if we are tied up in the petty nonsense of bad mouth each other to gain credibility points?
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are obstacles to being a parent coach, the biggest of which is having your own kid on the team and knowing when and when not to play them, being honest about their skill level, and knowing sometimes you’re going to sacrifice their ice time because even if they are the right player for the task at hand, you can’t always pick your own.
Parent coaches who fail to realize this run the risk of having short coaching careers when parents no longer wish to play for you. Yet is it not also true that non-parent coaches have a similar dilemma? Do they not have a favorite on the ice and often play their favorites more than others even if in that moment the player is not the most deserving? Of course it is! We are all humans and give into our biases from time to time even when we don’t do so intentionally.
So, parents and players, all of this is to say that you should not be swayed by rhetoric such as this. You should certainly pick the team you hope to play for based on many factors, coaches included, but not by arguments about is this coach hired or a parent volunteer. Once you do that you begin selling your child short. I have seen parent coaches go on to coach players into juniors, major junior, and beyond. I have seen paid coaches run kids out of the sport, and to be honest, I have seen the opposite too.
Once you’ve coached long enough, you’ve seen it all and realize it’s not about where the coach played growing up, it’s not about what level they reached in their career, and it’s not about their status as a youth hockey coach. It’s about how much they care, and how hard are they willing to work.
Tune out the noise and the rhetoric and pick your coaches based on what they are doing for your child and their team. Are they focused on player development or simply winning games and banners? Pick a coach that puts development first, who isn’t interested in personal accolades. You’ll have a much better experience when you do.