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Coaching Youth Hockey

I am a person trying to make a difference and leave everything and everyone a little better and happier every chance I get.

Lately a series of “you wouldn’t believe it if I told you” events have had me thinking and questioning: am I really naive thinking I can make a difference? These feelings are mainly due to my role as an assistant coach of a girls ice hockey team. This team is led by a coach who “gets it” and wants to make a lasting impact on a group of unbelievable young ladies who we believe can change the world, on and off the ice. I know, no small task right?

We had numerous discussions about what we both thought was best for the direction of the team (which both our daughters play on) and best for the growth of the girls as athletes but more so as people. We wanted to create the best team, built with all the intangibles we felt sports can bring to young ladies.

Our team’s philosophy from day one was ALL IN—it was based on a culture of fun, accountability, teamwork and more. We envisioned a group of girls who would be challenged by coaches who challenged each other in a safe environment. Our hope was for all of us to step outside our comfort zones, to find the greatness inside each of us, to realize failure is ok and can teach us so much and that together we are better. We cared about our girls as people before athletes and believed everyone brought a unique special talent to our team.

Obviously, it hasn’t been a straight or easy path in today’s “win at all costs, get to the next level quick, me me me” environment the youth sporting culture has become. With entitlement at an all time high, parents expectations of college scholarships, social media pouring out mixed messages, extended seasons, “elite” teams, year-round athletes, extra conditioning and the works, we faced difficulties. We spoke often and had difficult conversations; we continually looked to improve ourselves and our team while keeping our core values intact. We always asked “Where’s the fun? Is everyone growing and developing? How can we improve?”

We recognized we were doing some things differently than what had been done previously but believed without a doubt it was worth it. We tried not to get caught up in the immediate as we were laying the foundation for the big picture. We had immediate goals but a vision as to where we wanted to go. There was nothing better than seeing happy and confident young ladies working together to achieve a goal and believing in themselves and each other.

With over half a season under our belts, we had our share of ups and downs. We went through periods of conflict, change and confusion with the girls and each other and we made mistakes but we faced everything head on, openly and honestly. We discussed everything that came up as coaches and when necessary as a team. We stayed the course knowing change takes time—it isn’t easy and it isn’t for everyone. It was a process we were willing to see through as we were all in for the long haul.

Slowly, the girls started to believe and see they all mattered, they saw mistakes were ok and even encouraged, they understood we were serious about the process, about our culture, about being a team in the best sense of the word. They became happier, better and more relaxed. Did they like every rule or all the things we had them doing? No, of course not… does anyone? However, they accepted them for the good of the team and began to play together and understand our why. They started to experience teamwork, which brought happiness and success! IT WAS WORKING! IT WAS FUN! IT WAS OUR HAPPY DAY!

Now, I have not mentioned the level we play, as to me it’s irrelevant. I would expect the same from any team regardless, as level is often based on God given talent. We believe, plain and simple, whatever the team, it’s giving your all while being held accountable to being the best for your team through good or bad!

Not to be obtuse, as it is seen everywhere in sports, right or wrong, the higher the level, the higher the expectations; the more money invested, the more parents (and society) feel they have a right to voice anything, a right to ‘coach’ their child, other children, the referees and even the coaches. As much as I disagree, no one and no subject is off limits anymore! So let me now mention we are an American Tier 1 hockey team playing in the highest division in Canada (AA) and ranked in the top 25 in the country (US). So if you’re a person who was just looking at it from the hockey side, we were killing it! Did I mention we rolled all our lines, alternated goalies for the most part and have had every girl play on the power play and penalty kill?

And, most importantly, our girls were happy and having fun while learning and growing! What could people complain about? Well, if you’ve been around youth sports or any sports for that matter, there are certain things and certain people who will always complain, regardless of the good going on.  It usually comes down to how far they want to take it. Most complain a bit in their small groups, finish the season and leave to find whatever it is they are looking for, but not our small group of parents—they came together for different reasons but bonded over a common unhappiness and took it to a whole different level!

We had a family ‘opt out’—our “all in” philosophy was not their style. Did it hurt? Yes, of course it hurt. Anyone who thinks they are doing something good and right wants it to be accepted by everyone, but it was out of our control, so we rolled with it. Adversity has been our team name since day one; we haven’t played one game with a full roster due to injury, conflicts and life. When we thought we reached the peak of what could go wrong, we were not even halfway up the mountain. But through it all we communicated as a staff and to our girls. We were honest even when we didn’t have answers, we were all in together and it would not just be ok, it would be great! As coaches, we questioned, we argued and we cried but more than anything we believed in our girls, in each other, and in our vision. We could feel the good and we could see our girls learning and growing, all for the better. We were all happy… or so we thought.

Enter the parent dynamic of youth sports. Now, not all parents cause problems and it’s unfortunate that so much time is spent talking about the ones that do instead of the awesome parents every team has. We too have a group of highly supportive parents who let us coach, encourage their daughters and understand their role as parents. Unfortunately, as mentioned, it is all too often about the other group, which we experienced first hand. The group who takes notes, times shifts, talks about coaches and kids, who coach from the sidelines and at home, who are never satisfied no matter what, who need to be the best, have their child play with the best, win at all costs and rarely share our “we before me” mentality. A group who is chasing something and will run over anyone who they feel is in their child’s way—no matter who gets hurt.

This small but vocal group on our team has recently taken it to a whole new level: harassment, slander, intimidation, anonymous email accounts, threats to our character, inappropriate unsubstantiated rumors about our relationship, going as far as issuing demands (in writing, using an anonymous account,  to the league) for the head coach to make immediate changes with a deadline. Nothing changed in the way we were doing things since we laid out our plan in May, so to say we were shocked is an understatement.

This disgruntled group took it so far that after a parent meeting we felt threatened and needed to get higher ups involved. I was also advised to share all the information with an attorney as their threats and accusations could have an impact on my career as a teacher. I have cried more tears than imaginable, yes some for me but most for the girls, the coach and even parents. Why would they do this? How could they be so mean? What had we done that was so awful?

My daughter is on this team and she was so happy. I didn’t understand and don’t know if I ever will! As for the girls, how would this affect them? What were they being told? We no longer could contact them because of this group and it’s painful when things end so abruptly and with such malice for reasons beyond comprehension. Many of their lies were retracted when they found out the conversations were being recorded. One even said perhaps they went too far but didn’t think the head coach would stand his ground. It was the textbook definition of manipulation and bullying… and it was being done by parents!

As coaches, we had every intention of finishing what we started and not being intimidated by a group of parents. We wanted to leave, it was horrible to be treated the way we were, but for our girls who were caught in the middle and at 14 years old cannot rationalize what was going on, how could we walk away? It didn’t seem right!

However, this toxic atmosphere grew and continued for weeks with no let up. After a final confrontation between the loud minority and the head coach, he and I found no other positive and safe solution but to remove our daughters and ourselves from this malicious environment. It was one of the hardest and most painful decisions ever!

This outcome did not come quickly or easily as we love these girls, love our team and loved and believed so much in what we were doing. Truly, we were not only looking forward to playoffs and an honest shot at winning States and hopefully heading to Nationals, but more, the next three years of coaching and creating a fantastic experience both on and off the ice for our girls. Certainly, growing them to reach their full potential as athletes, but more as young ladies who would hopefully continue to grow and develop confidence and strength to navigate their teenage years, as well as friendships and memories that would last a lifetime along with lessons to help them all through their lives. It is heartbreaking to know we, as both coaches and parents, along with our daughters and their teammates will not have that moving forward.

For me, being involved in coaching teenage girls has always been one of the most rewarding (and trying) things I have been a part of and I am forever grateful for the opportunity: the good, the bad, the ugly, the spectacular and everything in between. I never thought I would give it up for anything as these girls brought me happiness and joy that far exceeded the sadness and frustrations. But sometimes, as we tell our girls, doing what’s right and best is hard, but it’s important to stand up for what you believe in even if you have to stand alone. To know that our belief in something bigger and better for our team caused a few parents to turn to such vindictive and hurtful tactics is something I am sure I will never understand and I know I will never completely get over.

I find it very sad that a group of parents caused not one but two extremely dedicated and caring coaches to walk away, coaches who they may not have agreed with but had nothing but the best interest in developing their daughters’ athletic abilities but more developing their confidence, attitudes, efforts and behaviors in ways that would hopefully help them find success and navigate through the adversities and failures life throws at us.

In walking away from something we both loved, we know as adults it was right but the suffering we share for removing our daughters from friends they have grown so close to and a game they love to play at the culmination of all we’ve worked for this year is heart wrenching. Although we know it was the best decision, this pain is something we can only hope diminishes over time. We are hopeful that as our daughters (and all the girls) grow and mature they will not only better understand and respect what happened, they will take away valuable lessons on right and wrong, actions and consequences and that most things in life come down to how you treat people.

I will conclude by asking: is this what our culture now wants for our children? Is this what is tolerated and accepted? Is it ok and even encouraged to spew lies and bash someone’s character and reputation? To make false accusations that could hurt children and families? Is it ok to tell a coach how to run a team? Who he needs to remove? Do we do this to teachers? To bosses? Is it ok to speak to another human being with such malice and hate? Is a game, a potential scholarship, a ‘like’ on social media that important? If your answers are “yes”, who is it that important to? The adults? Society? The kids?

Why can’t the best team compete at the highest level as well as instil values, be fun and be a positive experience for the athletes?

Sure, winning is fun and a goal but should it trump what’s right and what’s best for the players? We tell our players all the time: we can do everything right and still lose on the scoreboard. It’s sports, but that doesn’t mean we are not still champions. Being champions starts on the inside! Winning is so much more than what the stats and society say, but does that mean we shouldn’t always give it our all? Are we failures if we lose? If our team isn’t the best on the stat sheet? If our child is not the best on the team? Is it ever ok to treat a human being with anything less than respect?

We have to acknowledge that parents are a major reason why good coaches and referees walk away and why players quit. We have to find a way to remedy this or the future of sports and all the fantastic lessons it can teach will be lost and for what? A chance to play at a higher level, a scholarship, a trip to the big game? Isn’t it supposed to be for the kids? Shouldn’t this be their game to play? As parents, shouldn’t we just enjoy watching our kids play and encourage them to be good teammates, to give their best effort, to have fun and to leave it all out there? It will be over faster than we can imagine and then what? What kind of memories do you want for your child? Is being a state or national champion worth it if you intentionally hurt people to get there?

Good coaches need support so they don’t walk away as they are making a huge difference in a world where kids need more positive role models. Parents need to be educated on how to behave and support their athlete so they both can have the best experience.  However, when they can’t follow the rules there needs to be consequences from the teams, the organizations, from society. We need to protect coaches and the players. Yes, it’s unfortunate, but sometimes someone needs to stand up for the athlete—even if it’s against their parents. The zero tolerance rule is rarely enforced and the unfortunate reality is that sometimes parents’ actions may affect their child’s place on a team. These are life lessons. The loud minority needs to be dealt with in a way that returns sports to the kids and parents and coaches who are doing it right. It’s a game—it’s supposed to be fun!

It’s an uphill battle but there are good people willing to fight it. There are good coaches and organizations getting it right, but we need more. If something doesn’t change, read the stats: kids are quitting at younger and younger ages and at alarming rates. Because of this they are losing all the awesome benefits being part of a positive team experience can provide, not just during their playing days, but for a lifetime and that is heartbreaking! If you don’t care about the positive benefits of playing, think of it this way: how can they get the accolades, get to the next level, get the scholarships, get to the big games if they quit playing? Plain and simple—they can’t!

I have no idea what the future holds for myself, our awesome head coach, our daughters or the girls left behind to wonder why all this happened. All I know is my heart is broken for so many reasons. But, I believe if you do what you know is right and good then everything happens for a reason, which will be revealed in time.

I know, too, that our story is not unique and that is all kinds of sad and wrong!

Most of all, I believe without a doubt there are people who want a good and positive (this does not eliminate competitiveness) team experience for their kids at every level, but more so, I believe in the wonderful effects this has for players throughout their entire lives! I believe there are people willing to fight for those families, those athletes and those coaches, like us, who walked away from something we loved to stand for what was believed to be right. I believe we all make a difference in every choice we make. It all comes down to what kind of difference you’d like to make!

I CHOOSE GOOD.

I CHOOSE RIGHT.

I CHOOSE HAPPY.

I CHOOSE POSITIVE.

I CHOOSE TO BELIEVE.

So that when all is said and done I can say with 100% certainty that I did my best to try to leave things better and happier. I can hold my head high and know I am not perfect, I am not for everyone, I made mistakes but in the end I practiced what we preached: I went ALL IN, was accountable and left it all out there

Can you?


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