I certainly have an open door policy when it comes to talking to my players. I invite them to come to me any time with issues, concerns, questions or just comments. I also ask them a lot of questions. Sometimes just “how’s it going today?” or “how is school going?” Sometimes it is a more pointed question where I am genuinely looking for an answer “how do you like playing with Sarah?”, or “what do you think of our power play breakout?” Whether the chat is conversational or more of an information seeking one, it’s important to connect with your players one on one regularly. I know one university coach who has his players check in to his office on the way out of the rink after practice. Mostly it’s just for a quick “see you tomorrow”, but it’s a one on one connect every day.
I try to have the same open door policy with parents when I am coaching players younger than junior (16 year olds). I believe it’s crucial to overall “team health” that parents are on the same page as the coaching staff - and that demands communication. I always encourage players to share our systems with their parents, talk about things they learned at practice, and chat about team goals and where the team is going. Often a player’s excitement will override a parent’s skepticism.
I know as coaches we often dread that one on one meeting with parents who you know have a concern about their player and the team. Often it can be contentious but, it’s a really important conversation to have.
I want to share a story of one of those conversations. I was coaching a high school boys’ team when there was still grade 13 in Ontario high schools. We had a varsity team and a junior varsity team that had an under-16 age designation. A defenceman in grade 11 that was trying out for the varsity team was still under-16 and at the end of tryouts he was slotted to be my sixth defenceman. But, I knew it would be developmentally far better for him to be the number one defenceman on the junior varsity team. He would be power play, penalty kill and be a “go to” player on the blue line. So, because coaches always know better, I cut him from the varsity team and sent him to junior varsity.
A couple days later I received a phone call from this player’s father. We talked honestly about the situation and I explained why I thought it would be better for the player to be with the junior varsity team. Then the parent said something that changed the way I approach these situations. He said his son was very disappointed to be cut because all of his grade 11 hockey friends made the varsity team. He went on, “I totally understand why you cut my son, and in some ways I agree he would develop better on the junior team but, it would have been great if you had asked him which he preferred - number six with you or number one on the junior team.”
He was absolutely right. There was absolutely no reason for me as a coach not to have checked in with a 15 year old athlete just to see what his feelings on the matter were. So, I asked him the next day, with an apology that I should have asked him before I made the cut, and he said he would much rather be number six with me than number one with the juniors. Problem solved. I was happy to have a strong number six, he was happy to be playing on the same team as his friends.
This was a great lesson for me that asking a player some simple questions can often lead to player buy in - as well as parental buy in.
Sometimes an irate parent can give you some insight into their athlete’s mindset as well. I had a female midget team a number of years ago and we had lost a tough Saturday afternoon game against a big rival by one goal. It was one of those goalie out, mad scrambles in front, couldn’t tie it up, endings to the game.
When I got to the office on Monday morning there was a very long e-mail waiting for me from a parent who hadn’t been at the game that weekend. He was quite upset about ice time distribution on the team and was quoting studies, association philosophies, Hockey Canada guidelines and anything else online regarding the merits of equal ice distribution. This was a parent I knew fairly well and I knew he was a pretty competitive guy. In his e-mail he never really mentioned his daughter but clearly, since he didn’t see the game, his impressions were solely based on a phone call home from her - and she wouldn’t have been upset about her teammate’s ice time!
I picked up the phone right away and called the parent. I said “Tom, Paula is my second line center, she plays every power play, she is the first over the boards on the penalty kill, there may be no one on the team that gets more ice time than her. But, I just didn’t feel that in Saturday’s game she was going to be the one to put the puck in the net with the goalie pulled, so I had six other players on the ice to finish the game.”
This gave us both great insight into his daughter in that she was really just disappointed that she wasn’t on the ice at the end of the game. The conversation allowed Tom an opportunity to support me as a coach with Paula, and it gave me an opportunity to maybe have a good one on one conversation with her later in the week about expectations.
At the end of the day, coaches should try not to avoid what can be dreaded conversations with parents. In most instances, issues can easily be dealt with and often team chemistry improved by having those tough one on ones with both players and their parents.