It’s that time of year. After months of practices and games, highs and lows, the majesty of playoff hockey is nearly upon us.
While the playoffs are a time for youth hockey teams to come together, showcase everything they’ve learned during the long season and have fun with their friends, it can also be a time of increased stress and anxiety – for players, parents and coaches alike.
Unfortunately, parents can unknowingly exacerbate the pressure their kids already feel. At home, in the car and in the stands, some parents get a bit carried away and spoil what should be a positive post-season experience.
As the head coach of the Warroad boys’ varsity team and a hockey dad himself, Jay Hardwick has seen all sides of the issue. He knows how tough it can be for parents to manage their own anxieties, especially if they were former players themselves.
“Kids definitely take cues from their parents, so it’s important to set a good example. Sometimes I need to remind myself,” said Hardwick, who watched his own daughter play in two straight State Tournament championship games.
A Proper Focus
Hardwick believes parents can actually help reduce playoff stress by sticking to their routines and the way they behaved during the regular season. It’s also extremely important for parents to do their best to control their emotions before, during and after games.
“I know how parents feel at this time of year, and with more on the line it’s easy to get wound up,” said Hardwick. “But some parents overdo it on the coaching or emphasizing the importance of winning. For the older kids, some say there might be scouts at the game. All they’re doing is adding more pressure to the kids. With added pressure, they’ll start playing not to make mistakes and can get away from what got them to where they’re at.”
While parents should avoid piling on during an already stressful time, Hardwick says it’s more than OK for them to talk to their kids about this next phase of the season.
“I think it would be odd not to talk about the playoffs as you know it’s what the kids are thinking about, but parents can frame it differently, so it helps reduce anxiety,” said Hardwick. “Talk about how the playoffs are a fun time of year that you’ve worked hard for, so let’s go have fun, work hard, play the game like you know how to play it. They need to temper expectations as well. Remind kids that not everyone wins a championship every year. There will be some disappointment. And use that as a learning tool for the next year. Have them focus on playing hard and having fun and that if they make a mistake, it’s OK, as long as they’re giving their best effort.”
We’ve all heard it – and most of us are guilty – of that instinctual urge to yell “shoot!” “move your feet!” and other commands from the stands. In the playoffs, with young players already on edge, it’s more important than ever for parents to resist that urge.
“Parents tend to want to give direction, from the stands, in the car and at the dinner table. And it might be a different message than what the coaches are telling the kids. The kids may not be sure who to listen to and it ends up being counter-productive,” said Hardwick. “It’s tough in the playoffs because there’s more cheering and everyone gets louder. Parents can cheer as loud as they can but don’t yell directions at the kids. I’ve seen it in youth hockey games where someone yells so loud from the stands that it jars the players and rattles them. That won’t help their game at all.”
On the way to the rink, Hardwick recommends parents try to keep things light, crack a joke and help the player relax. After the game, Hardwick advises parents to steer clear of a full-on critique session, and instead focus on the positive and try to make it more of a learning experience.
Tips for the Parent-Coach
What if the parent is the coach? How can that adult separate the two roles, so there’s not hockey coaching going on at home or treating their own child differently at the rink, which will only increase anxiety? Away from the rink, Hardwick believes a reactive approach, versus proactively bringing up hockey, can help parent-coaches avoid excessive situations.
“If you’re at the dinner table and your kid brings up the game, it’s OK to talk about it. It’s better if the discussion is invited. But you have to draw the line somewhere and give the kid a break. Because after a while, they’ll tune you out,” said Hardwick.
How to Handle the End of the Road
The old saying, ‘all good things must come to an end,’ couldn’t be truer when it comes to youth sports. Seasons can feel long, but they often end abruptly. This is particularly the case when they end in a tough playoff loss. It can be especially difficult for younger kids to process.
“It does feel like the end of the world sometimes,” said Hardwick. “Either way, win or lose, give your kid a hug. If they lose, say we’ll get ‘em next year. If they win, celebrate and say let’s try to do it again. If they gave everything they had and improved, there’s a lot to feel good about. It can get emotional, so either way, make sure they know you’re proud of them.”