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3 Keys to Difficult Conversations

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 10/02/17, 4:15PM CDT

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Confrontation is rarely comfortable.

This is particularly true for coaches and parents of young athletes, who, when engaging in challenging conversations with each other, also must bear the added elements of emotion, personal bias and potential long-term impact on their players' sports experience.

As a result, sometimes-awkward discussions about key subjects – such as playing time, roster decisions, discipline, player health or other personal issues – are often “put on ice” or skipped altogether.

According to Andrew Shriver, Minnesota Hockey District 15 associate coach-in-chief and Positive Coaching Alliance certified trainer, communication is key to player/parent/coach relationships, and these types of conversations – balanced with positive messages – are critical.

“Communication will form the foundation of a relationship, and that relationship is the single most important thing to a successful youth sports experience,” said Shriver, a father of three with coaching experience at all youth levels. “Sometimes having difficult conversations is necessary. Even if it doesn’t bring about agreement, at least there’s an explanation. That can make a big difference.”

Setting a Communications Game Plan

Shriver believes the best communication – particularly between coaches and parents – starts back before any issue even comes up and that setting a positive tone from the start can open lines of communication later. Shriver suggests having a clearly defined approach to communication, with a plan for “surprises.”

“For coaches, starting the year with positive messages and discussing clear expectations with a few innocuous policies (such as a 24-hour waiting period before discussing things that might be ‘hot’) helps communication become more effective on all fronts,” he said. “If the only time we meet is to address concerns, we know it’s not going to go well. So try to have (parent) meetings set up in advance to give and receive feedback and quell some of the intensity before it reaches a fever pitch.”

There’s a Time and a Place

Joel Johnson, associate head coach of the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team, has encountered nearly every scenario imaginable working with players of all ages in his career. As a hockey dad himself, he knows firsthand the emotions and biases that can muddy rational discussion. According to Johnson, where and when difficult conversations take place may impact their outcome.

“When emotions are involved we don’t communicate as thoughtfully as when we take those emotions away,” said Johnson. “As a parent, I would never talk to a coach after a game. As a coach, I try not to talk to parents after a game. There’s too much emotion involved. The car ride home should be all about encouragement. An off-day, or when everything has settled down, those are the best times to talk.”

Both Johnson and Shriver believe technology can be both a benefit and a hindrance to good communication. Johnson advises parents to never deliver emails or texts that start with, ‘don’t tell my child I’m sending this.’

“Anything that deals with a disagreement or potential conflict is best handled over the phone or in-person,” he said.

The Subjects Matter

When determining which subjects are appropriate versus off-limits, age is a key factor, according to Johnson.

“The younger the players are, the more communication is appropriate and the more conversations are very specific to hockey, such as basic technical and tactical awareness, showing encouragement, building confidence,” said Johnson. “As the player gets older, it’s the same encouragement but with more constructive feedback, opportunities to talk about life and academics and those types of things. There are more layers to conversations.”

Johnson added, “but subjects like playing time should be for the coach and player, not the parent.”

Shriver agrees.

“When it comes to the finer points of the game, parents need to put their trust in the association and the coach. Seeking some level of clarity and understanding is okay, but let the coaches coach,” said Shriver. “Any time a kid’s safety or well-being is in question, that’s an appropriate subject to discuss to whatever extent the parent needs to on behalf of their child. And coaches need to be sensitive to that. But if it’s about the team or the player’s role on the team or an opponent, parents should stay in a support role and encourage their player to engage the coach about it first. Talking about other players is also something parents and coaches should avoid,” he added.

At the end of the day, being respectful, open and honest with each other can go a long way to improving overall communication between player, parent and coach.

Remember, while everything isn’t always perfect, there are so many positive aspects of this great game. In fact, many of the best parts of hockey are the lessons that are bigger than the game itself.  We need to make sure to honor that and keep the focus on the big picture, even if we have a couple of tough conversations along the way. 

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