There’s nothing like youth hockey in Minnesota. The practices, travel, tourneys and team bonding that happens over the course of the season are unrivaled and responsible for memories that last a lifetime. But nothing can ruin an otherwise positive experience faster than a group of parents who aren’t on the same page and exhibit inappropriate behavior that takes the fun out of the game.
Creating a positive parent culture on any team can play a major role in a young skater – and their family – truly enjoying their hockey experience. After all, parents should enjoy being at the rink too, right?
“A team’s culture can be contagious – you feel it – and it’s hard to have a positive culture on the bench and on the ice if you don’t have it in the stands,” said Maureen Sanderson, a trainer with the Positive Coaching Alliance, who currently coaches lacrosse at Hamline University and is a member of the Stillwater Area Hockey Association Girls Hockey Advisory Board. “The short-term benefit of a positive culture is it’s so much more fun for the parents and the kids. Long-term, maybe they will keep playing, growing and challenging themselves, and learning life lessons like grit, resilience, teamwork and determination. Sports are an important classroom for those lessons.”
Coaches and Associations Can Set the Tone
One common denominator among teams with outstanding cultures is an organized and supportive association and coaching staff. Team managers can also make a big impact on culture. According to Sanderson, who has coached youth ice hockey, lacrosse and soccer, it comes down to communication.
“Programs that have a positive culture are intentional about it. Coaches should be intentional about communicating expectations and the culture of a program to parents and players and bringing them into the fold to help define it,” said Sanderson. “Look for ways to reward parents for positive behavior and engage with them. It could be a weekly email with positive reinforcement for things like cheering or reminders of ‘how we do things,’ or handing out stickers or pins with the team logo in the stands. You may think you have a great culture, but there’s always room to make it better.”
Parents’ Role is Key
Sanderson believes parents need to trust that they are all in it together – and not just for their own player. She even encourages parents to watch someone else’s kids play a shift or two and cheer them on and avoid being so laser-focused on their own child. According to Sanderson, one of the first things parents should do is recognize that the sport experience is for the children, not themselves.
“When they’re on the ice, in the locker room, the experience is theirs. Your job is to be the biggest cheerleader for your kid, teammates, coaches and the program they are affiliated with,” said Sanderson. “It’s important to check yourself and think about what you are bringing to this as a parent and make sure it aligns with your child and the mission of the organization you’re aligned with.”
“Most teams I’ve been on, the parents get together and have a group chat and welcome everyone in. A parent meet and greet at the start of the season is great for team spirit,” she added. “It’s also hard to break in as a new parent and can be intimidating, especially if you didn’t grow up playing sports or hockey or if they’re from a different area. What should unite you as parents, just like the athletes, is feeling like you’re part of something. Parents can create traditions – a team cheer or clap. Any way parents can come together is a step in the right direction.”
Creating a Winning Culture On and Off the Ice
Can a positive parent culture actually help improve a team’s performance? “Yes, 100 percent,” says Sanderson.
“If you have a positive culture where everyone focuses on what they can control, you’re taking the anxiety out of it and allowing for growth. If you can allow for mistakes by player, coach and official, without your child having fear of getting critiques on the car ride home, you will see growth and results on the scoreboard. When you look at winning teams and ask what made the difference, it’s usually because they have chemistry and a culture that values every member of the program.”
Part of that winning culture is treating other parents, coaches, players, opponents and officials with respect. Of course, sometimes the best-intentioned parent can get caught up in the heat of the moment. In cases like that, it’s best the “family” polices itself.
“As a parent you need the moral courage to stand up for what’s right when others won’t,” said Sanderson. “If another parent is getting overly negative in the stands, be willing to discuss it with them one on one. Let them know it’s detracting from your enjoyment of watching the game. Make sure we’re all getting good out of this.”
“To cultivate a positive culture is to know your role, support your coach and have gratitude that your child has an opportunity to play the game they love,” said Sanderson. “If you have gratitude and can share it with parents around you, it can be a transformative experience for you, your athlete and his or her team.”
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