I’ll never forget the expression on his face. It was like I cancelled Halloween, Christmas and his birthday all at once.
There are few things more gut-wrenching than robbing joy from kids, and I seemed to have done it without even realizing it. How in the world did I let this happen?
Well, before we go there, let’s back up a bit.
I’m not sure I could have been any more excited to coach my son’s Squirt team this year.
I loved hockey growing up. High school hockey provided me with some of my favorite memories and best friends to this day. When my little boy showed interest in hockey, all I could think about was ensuring he had the same type of experience. I’ve taken him to The Tourney three years in a row now, and we’ve gone to handful of Wild games. I want him to see the sights and sounds and joy this game can bring, even as a fan.
Despite sharing some really cool moments together, I still felt like I’ve been missing out the last few years. My work schedule hasn’t allowed me to coach, and I’ve missed far too many of his games.
This year was going to be different though. A new job, with far less travel, meant I was going to make sure I was there for him in every way I could be.
Heading into the year, I knew the first part of the season might be a little tough. Our team has some real competitive and athletic kids, but we are young and inexperienced. From the moment I was named head coach, I spent hours researching different coaching strategies and scheming practice plans to make sure we maximized each practice hour with as many puck touches and repetitions as we could, knowing it would pay off down the road.
So far, the practices are going just like I envisioned. We’ve been able to keep all of the kids super active, and they’re definitely improving and having fun. Perhaps the best part, my son seems to really enjoy having me on the ice.
When the first game rolled around, I was super excited. The whole team was ready to play against a different color jersey, and I was looking forward to not only being at one of my son’s games but actually having the opportunity to be a part of it.
The game didn’t exactly go according to the script I had in my head though. The other team had a couple of pretty good players, and they caught us flat footed in the first period. The worst part for me though was even our best players were just letting them do whatever they wanted. I was pretty heated when I talked to them during the intermission, but I did my best to focus on simply increasing our effort level.
At the time, I thought the team reacted really well. We closed the gap in the second period and in the third, we actually scored more than they did. The final score was 8-3, but I felt good about how we responded after a slow start.
It wasn’t until I was walking out to the car that I realized my mistake.
My son and I were half way to the vehicle when I heard him ask in a nervous voice, “can we still get ice cream?”
I froze for a second.
You see, I had made a habit of taking him out for ice cream after every game I was at the past couple of years. Since I wasn’t able to make many, I figured it was a great way to prolong those moments, and it kind of became our thing. I hadn’t even thought about it this year until he mentioned it though.
As soon as I saw his face, I knew there was more to the story than forgetting our post-game ritual.
“Why wouldn’t we?” I asked.
“You sounded so mad at us during the game,” he responded with a discouraged look.
Immediately, I felt my heart drop into the pit of my stomach.
I quickly tried to console him, emphasizing that while I love the game of hockey, I’ll always love him more, regardless of how he plays.
Thankfully, his smile returned shortly after he got two scoops of chocolate chip cookie dough at our favorite ice cream spot, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how crushing it was to think I made him feel that way. As a dad, it broke my heart I might have negatively impacted his love for the game, and as a coach, I couldn’t help but wonder if his teammates felt the same way.
It didn’t take me long to vow to myself to approach challenging moments during games differently in the future. I still believe we should have high expectations for kids and try to get them to reach for them, but I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of my tone and body language and the type of influence I have as a coach and parent.
Hopefully, you’re able to learn something from my experience too. I hear about kids dropping out of hockey (and other sports) every year, and while I've never heard one admit it, I worry too often it’s from an adult making an unintentional mistake like I did.
Let’s focus on getting kids to love coming to the rink. If we can accomplish that, the rest will take care of itself.
- A Concerned Coach