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The Battle of Controllables vs. Uncontrollables

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 12/01/20, 11:15AM CST


Life can be stressful enough as it is, yet humans universally make it more difficult by focusing on things far beyond their realm of control. It’s a daily reality and challenge made all the more obvious by the current pandemic.

Youth sports is no different – as parents and players alike spend too much time sweating the small stuff, which can take the joy out of the game.

“If you obsess over things you can’t control you will get stuck in a negative, downward spiral that is very hard to get out of,” said Ashley Holmes, assistant women’s hockey coach at Augsburg University. “You will waste your energy on things you can’t change, and that leaves less energy for you to use toward something that you can change. Having so much negative energy will cause stress and anxiety, which sucks the fun out of everything.”

Like in life, in the context of a hockey team, there are more things that you don’t have control over than things you do. The key is understanding the difference.

Defining “Controllables” vs. “Uncontrollables”

To distinguish between “controllables” and “uncontrollables,” Holmes suggests players and parents ask themselves a simple question.

“I would have them think about the event they are troubled by and then have them ask themselves if there is anything they could do that would change the outcome,” said Holmes, who played hockey collegiately at the University of North Dakota. “If the answer is yes, then it is controllable. If the answer is no, then it is uncontrollable.”

Generally speaking, Holmes believes players can only control the things they have a direct influence on, which is essentially only themselves. “Most of the game is uncontrollable,” she said.

Holmes provided a few examples to help players and parents distinguish between the two:


  • The ref makes a questionable call
  • Fans of the opposing team are yelling at you
  • Coaching decisions
  • Teammate mistakes
  • The ice is in poor condition
  • The talent level of your opponent
  • Adversity


  • Having a positive attitude and growth mindset
  • How hard you work at practice and in games
  • The energy on your bench
  • Being coachable and a good teammate
  • Recognizing areas of your game to improve
  • Preparation
  • How you respond to adversity

A Positive ReAction

One of the least effective ways to deal with uncontrollable situations is to complain about them or make excuses. Coaching philosophies or decisions are common uncontrollables that create angst for many parents and players.

“Complaining about a coach’s decision won’t help, it will only create a bigger divide between the player and their coach,” said Holmes. “Players and parents must accept the coach’s decisions for what they are, because they can’t control them, and then create an action plan to get better. No one can control what happens to them, but you always have a choice on how you respond.”

“It is incredibly important that kids learn to grow from adversity or failures,” Holmes added. “Parents play an important role in showing and reassuring their child that mistakes happen and it is OK. Parents should not allow their kid to complain but instead teach them how to learn and grow after adversity strikes.”

Model the Mindset

Hockey parents and coaches have even less control over things that happen during the season than the kids do, which often leads to frustration and can manifest in less-than-ideal behavior that may have a negative influence on their young skater(s).

So how do you avoid falling into the trap of obsessing over things you – and possibly your player – can’t control?

Minnesota State University women’s hockey assistant coach Shari Dickerman, who has three kids of her own, says it’s simply about controlling your own attitude and actions and remembering the impact they have.

“Kids tend to follow their parents’ lead. If a parent is constantly blaming other players, coaching decisions or officiating for their child’s lack of production or playing time, that young player is going to start to believe that is someone else’s fault,” said Dickerman. “Parents should try to encourage their child to focus on their effort, attitude and compete level. Any coach appreciates a player who always puts forth their best effort and has a great attitude.”

Dickerman also suggests parents focus on the fun.

“Hockey should be fun, and parents need to remember that kids play because it’s fun. Some will be better skaters or develop skills earlier, but where your kid might be as an 8U or 10U player is likely not where they’ll be at the next level,” said Dickerman. “If you want your young player to have the best chance at success, you should encourage them to always give their best effort and be a good teammate. As parents, we should be supportive of our player and their teammates. Behaviors we can model are being supportive of the coach’s decisions, referee calls and assume all kids are doing their best. If we are up in the stands complaining or yelling or bashing other players to and from the rink, how can we expect our kids to be good teammates and good people?”

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