MAHA District 2 Champions 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019
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By: Topher Scott
It has been about a month since I took over as the Hockey Director of a AAA program here in Central NY. It has been an interesting process to say the least, and I feel like I’ve learned more about the youth hockey industry in the past month than I have in all the years I’ve been involved in the sport combined.
Throughout the past month I have been doing a lot of listening…and have held back from doing a lot of speaking. Rather than come in and impose a plan right away, I wanted to talk to as many people as I could to get a sense of where things were at and where people wanted them to go.
One of the toughest things about going this route is that people want answers right away. Since we have to run tryouts literally the week after the season is over (rule mandated by the State), people are in a frenzy right now trying to figure out what they’re going to do next year. It’s painful.
But there’s a difference between doing things quickly…and doing them right. I want to do them right, and that takes time. It takes time and it takes a whole lot of feedback. And boy, feedback is what I have gotten. And honestly, it’s a bit troubling.
Because in my conversations with many parents, coaches, kids, and others…there is a certain word that gets brought up with a disturbing intensity:
The youth hockey model…and the youth sports model in general…operates and feeds off of fear. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Fear of Judgement. Fear of the Unknown.
The parents feel it. The coaches feel it. The kids feel it. The administrators feel it. The fear factor is crazy…and it’s everywhere.
So I’ve put a lot of thought into where this fear comes from. Why does the youth hockey industry make so many good people go crazy? And how do we get to a place where people can enjoy the experience rather than always looking over their shoulder? I’ll try to answer both these questions below.
Where does the fear come from?
In my opinion, the fear factor in youth hockey comes from two places:
1. The too-early professionalization of youth hockey.
2. The disconnect between parents and coaches.
Too often, and too early, we treat kids like professionals. We treat them like professionals before they are physically, mentally, and emotionally ready to handle it. At too young of an age, KIDS:
Play 70-80 game seasons.
Are being ranked on how they play, for the whole internet to see it.
Are being recruited to “Exposure” camps and “All-Star” teams.
Are being recruited to college and/or junior camps.
Are being coached like adults whose purpose is to win at all costs.
These things certainly affect the kids. Imagine being 14 years old and reading negative reports about your play on the internet. Seriously, for the people reading this that write those reports, imagine your 14 year old self. I’m sure you were mature enough to handle what people said about you, who knew NOTHING about you but saw you play a hockey game or two. I’m sure you were mature enough to let it slide and not let it affect your self-worth. It’s pretty easy for 14 year olds to do that, right?
Or imagine being told that if you don’t make a certain team at 14 years old, your dreams of playing college or pro hockey are done. Yes, that happens. And unfortunately, our industry perpetuates it.
These kinds of things affect the kids for sure…but honestly I think it affects the parents more because it creates the biggest case of FOMO that I’ve ever seen.
Parents want what is best for their kids. And most will go to the end of the earth to try and provide those opportunities for them. The problem is, the early-professionalization of our sport drives the parents to feel like if they don’t do “X”, it will ruin their kids chances at “Y” way too early. There is so much information out there trying to persuade them that the grass is greener on the other side.
If your kid doesn’t play on a top ranked team…
If your kid doesn’t make this tournament team…
If your kid doesn’t apply to this camp…
If your kid doesn’t get seen at this showcase…
If your kid doesn’t have an advisor…
The list goes on and on.
And if you look at the long list of the “If your kid doesn’ts…” very few actually have an impact on a kid’s goals and dreams. 99% of them are pure fluff centered around adults making money off of FOMO. The one statement that should really matter is this:
“If my kid plays for a good coach with a good culture…their chances at getting to “Y” are GREATLY increased.”
I know because I’ve seen it as a college coach…and I know because I lived it.
When I was younger, my parents kept me with the good coach of the not-so-talented team rather than having me play for the “All Star” team that was heavily recruited and had a coach with the wrong intentions. Three years later, the All Stars came to play for the good coach because our rag-tag group of kids that loved to play began beating them and they were having a miserable time with all of the pressure to win that was put on the kids and the families.
It was a great experience having gone through it, and looking back it was a PhD of what hockey development looks like. Half our team went on to play college/pro hockey.
And as a college coach, it’s easy to see what the kids that really make it have in common:
They have a passion for the game.
They love to play. And through that love to play comes a love to get better. And the better you become, the better your chances of achieving your goals and dreams.
That ever-important passion is something that can be sucked out of kids if you treat them like adults too early. I’ve seen too many talented kids go through it. Way too many.
Seriously, way too many. So parents, please, if you want to help your kid achieve their dreams of playing hockey at a higher level…keep that in mind. The best thing that you can do for your kid is to put them in an environment where that passion can flourish.
But here’s where it gets interesting. Because the feedback that I get from the coaches completely flips the script.
You certainly have coaches and admins perpetuating the FOMO in the parents by professionally coaching their kids at too early of an age. But you also have parents putting the fear into coaches for NOT coaching their kids professionally enough. All youth coaches will empathize with the following scenario:
They catch heat from the parents of the more talented players if their kid doesn’t play all game and thus not coaching to win. They are threatened by the best players’ parents that if they don’t play their kid all the time, they’ll leave and find some other coach that will. Their kid needs to win so they can be on a top ranked team so they will be scouted. Oh yes, this happens. Again…at way too young of a level.
But on the other side, coaches will also catch heat from the parents of the kids on the bottom end of their team if they do shorten the bench. They will hear from those parents that their kids are losing their love for the game because they don’t play enough.
They have one quarter of their team’s parents upset at too little coaching to win and not playing their kids enough. And they have another quarter of their team’s parents upset about too much coaching to win and not playing their kids enough. It’s lose-lose and we are losing a lot of good coaches in our sport because they just don’t want to deal with this kind of madness.
These scenarios…they happen EVERYWHERE.
This dynamic between some parents (especially parents of the more talented kids who have FOMO) and the coaches is extremely unhealthy and it toxifies team cultures. So again, let me reiterate:
*I played for teams with a great coach, great culture, and bad talent. We ended up being better than the team with the bad coach, bad culture, but great talent. Over time, coaching and culture won out. The talent/ranking didn’t.
*As a former coach in college, PASSION is a huge differentiator between kids that make it and kids that don’t. If the culture you are generating within your team (whether you are a parent or a coach) is creating an environment that doesn’t foster passion…you need to take a look in the mirror and make some changes.
At the end of the day…the fear of judgement, the fear of missing out, the fear of the unknown…these are real fears in the youth hockey world. And if we don’t take steps to address them, our game will continue to suffer.
So how do we change it?
Video gamers use controllers to dictate the action on the screen. In youth hockey, joystick coaches try to control all the action on the ice with their voices, shouting directions from the bench.
“You see it a lot in games at the youth level,” USA Hockey Coach-in-Chief for the Minnesota District Christian Koelling said. “You see a lot of coaches shouting instructions from the bench during the game. The odd thing is you don't see any NHL coaches doing that. Even NHL players make mistakes but coaches don't yell the entire game and try to tell them what to do every second.”
Hockey is a fluid, quick-thinking sport full of twists and turns. Players need to learn how to make decisions for themselves in real-time.
“Yelling doesn’t really provide any benefit because the players on the ice can't even hear you most of the time,” Koelling said. “Even if they could, they won’t be able to make that play based on you yelling what to do.”
Additionally, it can have a negative impact for the kids that are closest to the bench boss.
“All the players that are on the bench are probably not too excited if coach is yelling play-by-play,” said Koelling, who is the director of hockey operations for the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.
Good coaches can fall into this impulse during the heat of the moment. Koelling said that coaches need to consciously step back and remember kids need to learn on their own.
“There are ways coaches can help that process along but shouting instructions throughout the game doesn't help produce results,” Koelling said.
Shouting out instructions throughout the game, or even practice, certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. Many coaches’ coaches used the push method: always telling players what to do and where to be.
“I think a lot of our coaches grew up with the traditional learning method that everything was push. The push method is centered around the coach,” Koelling said. “The pull method is centered around the player and it requires more patience and it requires more time, but ultimately there's a better outcome. With the push method, you might have more immediate outcomes but it's not good for long-term development of that player.”
Rather than always telling a player where to go or what to do, getting players think for themselves is the ultimate goal of a coach.
“Asking questions is really important as a coach because it opens the door for players to reflect and studies show that learning occurs with reflection,” Koelling said. “So just asking players what they did well and what they might improve in the future are really good ways to open that door up and allow players to learn.”
Self-reflection can also be a good way for players to recognize mistakes without having to feel the criticism of the coach.
“Pulling the feedback from the players instead of telling them what they did wrong is more powerful. If, as a coach, you can get them to realize what they did wrong or what they may need to improve on without giving them negative feedback, then it creates a more positive environment for players to learn.” Koelling said.
It might be difficult for some coaches to loosen their grip. Often, coaches might feel pressure from parents, administrators and even other coaches watching from the stands.
“I think coaches need to be confident enough in themselves if a practice, game or even a particular drill looks unorganized or unstructured. Sometimes that's when some of the best learning can occur,” Koelling said. “I think coaches may feel pressure at times that they look like they don't know what they're doing if there isn't that structure in place.”
Controlling every aspect of every game and practice by constantly shouting directions doesn’t allow for learning. Koelling said that coaches need to realize they are teachers and they need to focus on long-term development over short-term results. Asking questions, using the pull method and not vocalizing directions from the bench are ways coaches can get the most out of their players.
“It allows a player to figure out how to learn on their own. It allows them to truly understand something – a concept – rather than just doing something because they're told to do it,” he said. “Not only does it help them understand a concept or learn something in a more thorough manner but it also sets them up to learn more efficiently down the road as well.”