There is often a very fine line between being involved to show support and a desire for control when it comes to situations or activities that produce passion. Whether it’s pitching in to plan an important event or a supervisor assisting on a critical project at work, the initial level of desired involvement can escalate quickly as emotions or the stakes rise.
“Joystick” parenting or coaching is another prime example of this phenomenon. Simply showing support from the stands or bench can be difficult when mistakes and failures in games seem to summon us into a more active role.
“Parents love their kids so much that they want to do everything they can to help them succeed, and that’s not an unnatural thing,” said Wes Bolin, boys’ hockey coach at Woodbury High School and youth development director for Minnesota Hockey. “But it’s important to draw a balance. As parents, we aren’t always objective about our child’s abilities. We view them through rose-colored glasses and if they make a mistake, it raises our anxiety level to a point where we do things that normal parents wouldn’t necessarily do. It isn’t always becoming.”
So, what should the adults be doing and not doing during youth hockey games? Bolin offers these observations and recommendations:
- Yelling doesn’t help – The concept of a parent yelling instructions all the time isn’t really beneficial. The kid probably doesn’t even hear it much of the time anyway, so it’s actually pretty ineffective in terms of an instructional tool.
- Don’t add to your child’s anxiety – I’ve seen players not have fun or be worried because of how their parents may react to their performance. We want to make sure we don’t embarrass our own child and oftentimes negative comments do embarrass our kids.
- Support ALL the players – Parents should be encouraging and supportive of all players, not just our own. We’re going to watch our kids play, but we should cheer for all of them and be happy for everyone else’s success. I think that’s extremely important.
- Stay positive – There’s no need for negative comments toward officials, or players, in a youth sport environment. It sounds simple, and it really is!
- When the game starts, let the players play – Sometimes, coaches have a need to feel relevant as a coach and verbalize a lot. Perhaps I was guilty of this in my younger days. As we gain more experience, we understand that our coaching can come in different formats. Most of the coaching should be done in practice, and then minimally before the game, so that our communication from the bench during the game is positive and encouraging. I think a sign of a maturing coach is one who can allow the kids to play and not “overcoach.”
- Manage your volume appropriately – At the youth levels, there are so few situations that would require communication from the bench at the top of your lungs. There are situations where verbal cues are helpful, such as for line changes, or to get to a different spot on a faceoff. But for the most part my verbalization doesn’t necessarily help the players on the ice. It may be more useful for the players on the bench.
- Trust what you taught them at practice – Most success generally comes when the players figure out the game and situations on their own and key moments in the games happen because players have taken the skills and tactical concepts they’ve learned and make plays on their own, rather than direction from coaches in that moment. You’d be hard-pressed to find a game-winning goal that was scored because of a coach or a parent yelling something.
- Allow players some autonomy – At practice, create drills that put the kids in situations to think and not constantly step in and interrupt with verbal direction. Yes, in certain settings like the locker room they need to be supervised, but in terms of instruction, let them go. And avoid excessive pre-game speeches. Your pre-game speech doesn’t need to be more than 30-60 seconds. Let them be kids and get excited for the game.