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The Car Ride Home: Steering the Conversation

By Touchpoint Media, 11/09/20, 4:15PM CST


Hockey moms and dads, imagine this scenario:

You had a rough day at work – flubbed a project, lost an account, dealt with angry customers and everything else snowballed. Now imagine that during your car ride home, your boss sat shotgun, asking questions about your mistakes, criticizing colleagues and reminding you how poor your performance was until you pulled into the driveway.

Too many kids are experiencing a similar situation after youth sports practices and games.

But it doesn’t have to be.

“I think you can have a conversation, it’s all about how you approach it,” said Cailyn [McCauley] Olesen, former Owatonna star and now head coach of the North Wright County RiverHawks. “You’ll find that kids often want to talk about things, but they want to drive the conversation and tell you how they’re feeling. It’s an opportunity for parents to steer the tone to be more positive and supportive.”

The immediate moments following a practice or game — especially after a loss or bad performance — can be a minefield, even for experienced sports parents. Should adults initiate conversation? What’s appropriate to discuss? Should they just avoid talking altogether and turn on the radio?

Olesen shared some suggestions to help parents make the car ride home a road trip to be remembered…in a good way.

Silence Can Be Golden

Parents shouldn’t feel the need to fill awkward silence, which most often shows up after a negative experience on the field or ice. As a parent, seeing your child looking sad triggers the natural response of trying to comfort them with words. Sometimes, according to Olesen, it’s best to let our kids sit with their emotions for a bit and process things before we engage them.

“It’s okay to give it some time and not jump right in to talking about it when they get in the car,” said Olesen, who was named the 2019 Class AA Coach of the Year. “Even as a coach, if I get emails from frustrated parents, I’ll give it 24 hours to settle down. Especially after a really bad game, let them decompress for a bit and then maybe ask how they feel about things. But bring it up in a soft manner instead of analyzing everything right away.”

Avoid the Double-Negative

A repeat of criticisms or advice your child may have already received from coaches will most likely not help.

“There are a lot of emotions after games and practices, and everything is fresh on the mind. The last thing you want to do is re-live it in the car,” said Olesen. “Let’s say the game didn’t go well. You get a lecture from the coach. Then on the car ride home you get it again. It can wear on a kid. And when most of what you’re hearing is negative, you can’t escape it. It follows them everywhere. Kids need a break from that.”

“As a player, I was hardest on myself, so after games I was still processing everything, thinking about what I could have done better,” Olesen added. “To then have your parents talk about those things – it feels like a lecture. And you don’t want that lecture.”

Be a Parent, Not a Pundit

Olesen cautions against criticizing coaches, officials or their child’s teammates or opponents. Instead, conversation should remain as empathetic and reassuring as possible.

“As parents we have our opinions, especially if we used to play the same sport. But we should focus more on how the kids feel, what was good about the games and things the kids can control,” said Olesen. “If a kid starts talking negatively about a certain person or situation, it’s up to the parent to turn the conversation positive, maybe ask the player about what went well and what they think they can work on.”

As a young athlete, Olesen had the unique circumstance of having her father as her coach. She saw different sides of the car ride home experience.

“When I was younger, I hated those conversations. And, sometimes it was tough to get feedback. I loved my dad as a coach, but at that moment I didn’t want to talk about it. A lot of times he wanted to talk about something and I didn’t and we’d both get frustrated and had arguments about it,” said Olesen, who later played soccer collegiately at Winona State. “Other times, I struggled with not getting playing time. At first my dad would say, ‘yeah, it’s frustrating,’ but then he turned the conversation into what can you do to improve. That’s what parents should do. It’s less about what you did or what happened and more about what are you going to do about it.”

Remember These Simple Dos and Don’ts

To keep it simple for parents, Olesen offered the following dos and don’ts when it comes to the car ride home:


  • Give your young player time to decompress. They may not want to talk right away, so let them drive the conversation.
  • Keep the conversation positive. Be supportive and steer the discussion to what was good about the game or practice they just completed. Pointing out the positives, whether it’s a certain play, skill or behavior, can help players learn from each game regardless of the score.
  • Focus on things they can control. Ask your player about things that went well and/or things they can improve on, as a team and as individuals. Ask them: did they do their best, did they have fun, etc.?


  • Force it. Emotions are high after games, especially after losses; it shouldn’t turn into an argument, so don’t have the conversation if the kid doesn’t want it.
  • Critique them or others. It will not help to focus on mistakes they made or talk about other players or bad calls by the officials; if the coach made a mistake (which happens), constantly talking about it creates a bad environment and can change the attitude of the kid playing for them.
  • Make too many “statements.” When adults make statements, it reduces the role children have in the conversation about their activity. Instead ask questions so the kid can direct the conversation – i.e. what are some goals to work on this week, what are action steps to achieve them?

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