By Doug Abrams
Last month, the Timmins Times of Ontario, Canada reported that the Timmins Minor Hockey Association had imposed a three-month suspension on a coach who made vulgar locker room comments to his 12-year-old team as it prepared for a game. Because Rick Wolff’s blog attracts a polite audience, I will say only that the reported comments were laden with sexual innuendo directed at one player’s mother while the player was sitting in the room. The Times said that the rest of the team laughed during the coach’s monologue, but that the targeted player felt “isolated and embarrassed.”
The Times treated the suspended coach charitably when it called his comments “crude jokes about the boy’s mother.” If the coach’s lame attempt at humor had occurred in the United States, he might have faced charges of emotional child abuse.
The Timmins story invites a discussion of what youth league and high school coaches, in their leadership roles, should not say to their players in pep talks and at other times. The Timmins hockey coach either ignored or violated six commonsense guidelines:
1) Speak to the players from the top of the “youth coaching ladder,” not the bottom. Adults do not achieve the status of “coach” simply because they are appointed to the position. For anyone with years of experience in the game, the “youth coaching ladder” has three steps. The ladder begins at the bottom with “Player,” and it extends to “Ex-player” before reaching “Coach” at the top. If the suspended Timmins youth hockey coach was once a player, he is now an ex-player. But has not yet achieved the maturity that marks the status of “coach” at the top of the ladder.
Players sometimes make crude locker room statements in front of the team, but teammates can easily ignore or dismiss statements that are particularly harsh or directed at one person. Ex-players sometimes recount stories of crude locker room banter without serious consequences. Coaches are different, however, because they supervise youngsters who deserve leadership from the top step of the ladder in return for their respect.
2) Think before speaking. Before, during or after a game, the most effective “off-the-cuff” remarks to the team are remarks that the coach has prepared or considered in advance. Of course, games take unpredictable twists and turns that require coaches to think on their feet and respond quickly with unplanned instructions, critique or inspiration. Coaches have little reason, however, to deliver impromptu pre-game comments in the locker room. Coaches should plan their pre-game talks as carefully as they plan their starting lineups and general game strategy.
Verbal agility marks a good coach, but so does careful planning. The more that mature coaches plan what they will say to their young players, the less likely the coaches are to cross the line into commentary they will later regret.
3) The coach cannot “unring the bell.” In mid-July, federal district judge Reggie Walton declared a mistrial in the perjury trial of seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens. Prosecutors had shown the jury a video that included statements that the judge had earlier ruled inadmissible. “I can’t in good faith leave this case in a situation where a man’s liberty is at risk when the government should have taken steps to insure that we were not in this situation,” said the judge, “I don’t see how I can unring the bell.”
Judge Walton’s point was that he could not expect the jurors to forget what they had already seen and heard. Coaches cannot expect their players to forget either. The Timmins youth hockey coach later apologized to the boy and his parents and the team, but the apology for his off-color remarks came too late.
4) When in doubt, don’t say it. If the coach wonders whether particular remarks would be inappropriate for the team, they probably are. When the coach considers whether to single out one player for ridicule or criticism in front of the team, the coach should take a deep breath until the urge disappears because constructive private criticism is one thing, but public embarrassment is quite another.
5) The playing field is not level. The Timmins youth hockey coach explained later that he meant his sexual innuendo to be a harmless joke. Coaches often banter with their players, but the coach is an adult and the players are children. Banter may work when it encourages back-and-forth between relative equals, but youth coaches and their players are not equals, particularly in an insult contest. The Timmins 12-year-old could not trade sexual innuendo with his coach, and reasonable adults would not have wanted the boy to.
6) The coach is not the players’ friend. The Timmins coach also later explained his sex-laden insults by saying that he wanted to “get in the spirit of being one of the guys.” An adult coach, however, cannot be, and should not want to be, “one of the guys” on a team of 12-year-olds. The players have friends near their own age. The coach is not the players’ friend; the coach is a leader who shows friendship. There’s a big difference.
[Sources: Len Gillis, Timmins Hockey Coach Suspended for Crude Jokes About Boy’s Mother, Timmins Times, http://www.timminstimes.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=3465251 ; Len Gillis, Minor Hockey Responds to Timmins Coaching Controversy With a Letter to Parents, Timmins Times, http://www.timminstimes.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=3479972 ; Larry Lazo, Video Triggers Mistrial in Clemens Perjury Case, USA Today, July 14, 2011]