It is funny how the landscape of youth hockey has changed over the years as it is only mid-summer and we are already preparing for the upcoming season. It’s almost as if youth teams are chasing the Cup. Recently a few parents and other coaches over last few months asked about my thoughts in coaching my own son in youth hockey. It led me to sit down and think about the subject and reflect my feelings.
The story itself on how I started coaching is somewhat amusing because in the beginning I had no interest in volunteering my time as a youth hockey coach. I saw my dad go through it and have heard too many modern war stories. Today’s parents are certainly a challenging breed to say the least. Although if I can help a kid learn about his edges, how to properly pass, or finding passion for the game then it is worth it.
One calm, fall Sunday afternoon my wife answered a phone call and graciously offered my services to be an assistant to the head coach when my son first started in a house program at our local association in the Rochester, NY area. After that as they say has been history. I decided to roll up my sleeves and get involved.
The following year we decided to turn it up a notch as world-class chef, Emeril, so notoriously states. As I took to being the head bench boss as my son and I graduated to the travel ranks at the mite level.
The biggest aspect about being successful in coaching my son is that we keep the lines of communication open. This will be my sixth season coaching and I ask him before each tryout if he is comfortable with me as the coach. I know my time will soon come to an end as it should because he as a player and individual should experience a coach with different character, style, and actions. As I inform my current parents, every year I cut the strings a little more as the kids grow older and try to elevate them to the next level. My son is no different as I do not hold his hand as he will need to learn the game in an environment soon where dad is only on the sidelines. I feel it will build his personality and prepare him for the road ahead in life. Not only do I openly discuss his thoughts about hockey, but his mom is actively involved with his well-being too. Keeping the active communication going between parents and player worked during my days fairly well, so we’ll stick with the family recipe.
Often times on the way to practices we do not even talk about hockey. Well maybe a tad as we chatter about the previous night’s scores or who is on TV that night, but more so about how his day at school went, what’s new with his friends, and anything interesting perhaps one of his three sisters provided that day.
I don’t car coach and feel that every player will find his way innately. If playing beyond his youth days is in the cards then he will accomplish that goal on his own natural talents and motivation. No question his mother and I fully support him at the rink and outside, but it his life and his career, not mine. My dreams ended when I graduated from college and pursued a job in the “real world” rather than extending my playing days on an opportunity overseas in Europe. It is real not hard for me as my competitive juice is almost non-existent and my satisfaction stems from my son growing each season as player and person.
It is sometimes a fine line to teeter, though I try frequently to take off my coaching cap when at home and away from the rink. Sure we have discussions on plays of games, opposing players, or events though I owe it to my son to be his father and stop with the instruction and start with the love. He is still a young boy that requires attention from his parent and at the end of the day it is really all about life and more than just hockey.
My son gets the same treatment as his teammates. If anything I may demand a little bit more out of his game because I know his abilities the best. This is certainly is not accomplished in an over the top sort of way, but again communicating at his wavelength in a rationale manner so he can elevate his game to the next level. But that’s what I expect from all my players too. In fact as a coach I preach to my players about being both physically and mentally prepared in practice and game. One game last season, my son forgot his jerseys because I am not responsible for package his bag – that is his obligation. He is a big boy at the Pee Wee level and that is how I treat him. So like any other player he missed the first three shift of the game. Rules are rules regardless of what name and number is on the back of your jersey.
During practices and games I attempt not to signal him out intentionally. I will bark his name for both good plays and those that need improvement just like any other player. In all honesty, I sometimes hold back his success stories in front of the team because I do not want to paint that picture of favoritism. Sure I coach my son but there is also the entire team that looks for my direction and knowledge. My focus is not about one individual, rather it is all about the entire group as one.
That brings me to my next subject – the team. Today in youth sports it is hard concept to sell it seems. Too many players unwisely think of themselves. From an early age, I stressed to my son about making the right play and the right play is the one for your team first. My coaching philosophy does not change for any individual regardless of their skill level. To my team and my son I constantly stress about dedication, giving 100% effort, respect, and having fun. That is the same concept I advocate at home for school and existence.
In discussion with other coaches some will claim that they have difficulty on the bench or out on the ice instructing their son. They go on to mention they will have the assistant coach speak with their son as many times the receptive nature is absent. I guess I have been very fortunate as from day one the guidelines have always been the same. He understands that he is equal and there is no special golden pedestal.
I feel that we have a mutual respect for each other and I remind him that just have fun and enjoy the greatest game on Earth or should I say ice. Just because I am the coach there is no additional pressure to perform and prompt him not to get caught up in what you hear from others as people often like to fabricate stories. As a coach, I am well aware of other parents not only criticize my coaching style, but also magnify my son’s performance.
In all honesty, how many gossipy hockey moms do you know are first-class recruiters that are well on their way to being the Director of Amateur Scouting for the Stanley Cup Champs, Chicago Blackhawks. So there you have it on how I tell my son on how to handle the comments he might hear. Though I also think situations like this can be used as a learning lesson for him if things progress forward in his hockey career. Anybody familiar with the scouting world understands the pursuit of players happens early and with it comes the scrutiny. It is all part of the game these days and understanding early will make it that much easier to handle in the future years. Even outside of hockey, one’s work performance is evaluated whether it be in school or profession. It’s just the way of the world.
This is where my true title comes into play — first and foremost I am a dad. While in the hospital years ago as my wife gave birth to him and his twin sister, my label wasn’t a travel hockey coach. It was on that birth day and still today my main goal is to be the best father possible to him and his sisters.
While there are days we both need to put on our alligator skin, there are far my enjoyable times together made by a road trip to Buffalo, going against each other during a 3-on-3 tourney in a team practice, a hotel overnight stay, or even just enjoying the setting of being the last two out of the locker room after each practice.
It is a bond and interest we love to share that gives us quality father-son time many do not get to experience. In that regard I am very blessed. While many might call coaching their son a headache, I call it an opportunity of a lifetime. Gee, I’m so glad my wife volunteered my hockey knowledge that day as there is no better way right now to watch my son learn, live, and love the game.
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