In the past, coaches held parents of the players at an arm’s length and avoided them as much as possible. This is a recipe for dissent, misunderstanding, and eventually a coaching change. One disgruntled parent can disrupt the team, and that is bad for every member of the team.
In today’s connected world, it is even easier for the parents and non-player stakeholders to communicate with each other through technology and dissent can spread easily. Players also want and need plenty of feedback and interchange with coaches and the same platforms work well to communicate with the team as a whole and individual players as needed.
From a top level, it is important to think of the team in a larger sense than we did in the past. No longer is it sufficient to communicate with just the players. A team with 20 players has somewhere between 40 to 60 parents and related adults we can call stake holders. It is important to get everyone on the same page and continuously remind them of how the team is doing and the progress they are making. Below are some suggestions that are critical for a successful season regardless of the win-loss record.
Leadership Through Communication
The head coach is the leader, and we now define the larger group to be as many 80 individuals. As the leader, the coach needs a strategy for each group.
A critical component for successful communication with parents is that the coach must be able to articulate why he/she coaches and what they believe in regarding the value and purpose they bring to the group. Once the head coach determines his or her philosophy and priorities, it is time to develop a communication plan.
The first step is an in-person meeting with all the off-ice stake holders. It should be mandatory that at least one parent attends from each family. The goal at this meeting is to outline the value proposition and how as a coach you are going to execute during the season. Explain the team rules and your expectations for the players and the parents.
An important component of those expectations is what the process will be if a parent has an issue during the season. They need to contact the head coach in the appropriate manner and have a face-to-face discussion. I also list things I will not discuss with them and will normally ask that their player attend the meeting also. Additionally, I ask that they do not contact assistant coaches with complaints or gripes. My assistant coaches will alert me if a parent is reaching out to them inappropriately.
As the team leader, the head coach must lay out these requirements right from the beginning. If any families are not present, a second meeting should be scheduled before their player suits up for a game.
A Support System
In many cases, the first team meeting is also when parents and coaches initially meet each other so I recommend using strategies to create an initial foundation of mutual support while relationships are being developed.
One approach is to enlist all of the parents as “Official Off Ice Assistant Coaches”, and therefore, it is their responsibility to be aligned with the philosophy and actions of the coaching staff. I suggest that it is OK to disagree but not in public at games and definitely not to their player. This helps to prevent or at least limit the type of corrosive impact even minor disagreements can have on the experience of other players and parents before they’re discussed with the coach.
I also suggest that each team have a parent “Culture Keeper” who helps to remind the other parents that we are all in this together, and they would not want to hurt the team. Ultimately, those negative vocal parents embarrass their own child in front of their teammates, coaches, and other parents.
Regular communication with parents is essential. Using your favorite platform, it is important to keep parents up to date regarding your views of how the team is progressing and what areas you are working on in practice. The season schedules should offer opportunities to send an update to the parents; after tournaments, mid-season updates, looking ahead comments etc. I call these communications “Thoughts from the Bench”.
Your communications should be consistent with your original comments at the beginning of the season. It is an opportunity to reinforce your approach and point out examples of improvements. One rule to keep in mind is “COP”: Constructive, Optimistic and Positive. All communications should be used to build and inspire the team as a whole.
I have found that face to face chats with parents before games also helps. As the players are getting ready, a quick walk to where the parents are gives you an opportunity to have a couple quick conversations or answer a question or two.
As you do these updates you will improve and become more comfortable doing them. The more you communicate, the better your team culture will be.
In summary, the very first meeting of the year is the most important, and then, as the leader, you must walk the talk. Be sincere and fair to all stakeholders, and your team will have a great environment to play in during the season. Continuous communication is critical so find ways to do it.
Hal Tearse has spent the past 40 years coaching youth, high school, junior and college hockey. Tearse served as Minnesota Hockey Coach-In-Chief for eight years and as Chair of the Safety Committee for six years.