COMMUNICATING WITH THE PARENTS: Part II of Doug Abrams’ Experiences as a Youth Hockey Coach

 Using Email to Communicate With the Team’s Parents (Part 2)

By Doug Abrams

Part 1 of this three-part column urged community youth league coaches to consider using email to share observations and explanations with parents before, during, and after the season. The Part provided emails that I, as head coach, wrote and sent during pre-season practice sessions to the parents on our 9-10-year-old Squirt hockey team a few years ago. The team played in the “house gold” league (the higher Squirt house league) against seven St. Louis-area house teams. The season ended with playoffs and a State Championship Series.

Part 2 now provides emails (again in italics) that the coaching staff sent to the parents during the regular season. Next time, Part 3 will provide the coaches’ emails to parents during the playoffs and the championship series.

The Regular Season: “‘Teaching Opportunities’ Ahead”

Our team lost the regular season’s opening game, and the coaches sent the parents this email two days later after the next practice session:

“We can draw valuable lessons from Sunday’s loss because athletes at any level can sometimes learn more from losing than from winning.  Quite frankly, if our team goes 9-1 in the first ten games, it is better to lose the first game than the tenth. In the long run, the team will be better off if the players learn about skills and temperament sooner rather than later.

Here are lessons that the coaches and players discussed briefly in the locker room before last night’s practice:

1)         It is no embarrassment to lose to a strong team when you give your best effort. We lost to a strong team Sunday, and all our players gave 100%. Every day of the season across North America, half of all youth hockey teams lose the games they play. Every losing team returns to skate another day.

2)         Learning how to ‘win like a winner’ can be easy, but learning how to ‘lose like a winner’ can be tough. We told the players that they played like winners – intense, skillful, clean, and sportsmanlike. But we also mentioned that once we started losing, a few players began complaining about the referee or criticizing teammates from the bench. The complaints and criticism were not strident, but they did happen.

The coaches stressed that when you start complaining about the referee, you signal that you are giving up because losing teams focus on the ref. A team wins hockey games only by strong defense and strong offense – by keeping the puck out of the team’s net and by putting the puck in the opponents’ net. When players on the bench complain about the referee, they are not concentrating on what they must accomplish during their next shift on the ice.

The coaches also stressed that “TEAM” means all players supporting one another. Criticism leads to bickering that divides the team. Players who criticize teammates from the bench may make mistakes on the ice a few minutes later, and the critics will want and need their teammates’ full support. 

Both problems – complaining about the ref and criticizing from the bench – are issues at all levels of youth sports, and even in the pros. These problems are predictable because they occur on almost every youth hockey team at one time or another. The players understood what we coaches were talking about.” 

* * * *

In our second game, we faced the team that would finish in first place at the end of the regular season. We lost that game too, and the post-game email (sent after the team’s next practice, acknowledged that the parents and coaches still had “teaching opportunities” ahead:

“Here are the lessons that the coaches briefly discussed with the players before last night’s practice:

  • Hold your head high when you lose to a strong team after giving your best effort. In the locker room after the post-game handshakes, the coaches told the team that when players try their best (as we did), they should skate off the ice with their heads held high so that a casual spectator who just walked into the rink cannot tell whether the team won or lost.

2)         Hockey is only half physical; the other half is mental. For the past month, the coaches have told the players that the mental half of the game is as important as the physical.

We have a young team (mostly first-year Squirts), and the players were understandably nervous before the first two games, as they should have been. Before the game, the coaches told the players that if they try their best and have fun, the scoreboard will take care of itself. Of course, telling players to take a deep breath is easier said (by adults) than done (by kids).  Because much nervousness disappears once a player hits the ice for the first shift, the coaches kept the first few line shifts especially short so that every player could taste game action as quickly as possible.”

* * * *

Losing streaks can leave players and parents anxious, so the coaches wanted the parents to understand their central role in guiding the players from game to game, particularly through defeats. After our first two losses, the coaches sent parents this email:

“As the team improves each week and seeks to break into the ‘win’ column soon, we adults need to say and do the right things before, during, and after each game because the players remain alert to our verbal and non-verbal cues. Sports is important to these players. Words hurt, and the wrong words today can hurt for a long time. The players are more likely to remain enthused if they see enthusiasm in their parents and coaches. Parents play important roles because they spend much more time each week with their player than the coaches do.”

* * * *

Our third game was a tie, a step in the right direction. No victories yet, but the kids felt great afterwards. The coaches sent parents this email:

“The players should be proud of this morning’s 6-6 tie because we reached back for that ‘something extra’ every time we needed it. Pros and youth leaguers alike sometimes shut down mentally when the other team builds a lead, but we came from behind four times to earn the tie.  At the bench between the second and third periods (when we were down, 4-2), the coaches told the players to ‘show what we are made of’ in the third period and the team responded with four goals. 

After the game, we talked to the players about an incident that happened late in the third period. An opposing player evidently said something derogatory to one of our players. (Not worth repeating here.) The coaches told the players that we cannot control what opponents say or do, but we can control what we say or do. The coaches said that we must exercise self-discipline, even after misbehavior by opponents. We stressed that our team plays and behaves right, win, lose, or draw.

The parents and coaches can help by continuing to set the example that we want the players themselves to set on and off the ice. We adults watch the kids play in practice sessions and games, but (whether we realize it or not) the kids also watch us. And children ‘learn what they watch.’

Ethics begins at home, and football coach Knute Rockne was right that “one person practicing good sportsmanship is far better than 50 others preaching it.”

* * * *

Future games produced some wins and some losses. By the last month of the season, we seemed headed for a fourth-place finish in the eight-team league. From the beginning, the coaches told the parents that the players would carry the team as far as their abilities permitted. The players were proving the coaches right, but our email reminded the parents that the players had not done it alone:

“You may have noticed that we have near-perfect attendance at every practice and game. Near-perfect attendance does not happen by accident, and it is quite unusual on many youth sports teams. Kids do not have to play unless they want to. Sustaining  the ‘want’ is a primary responsibility of parents and coaches.

By this time late in the season, some players might look for reasons to skip practices or games if their parents browbeat them about hockey at home, or on the ride to or from the rink. Or if the coaches browbeat the during practices or games. We adults compliment the players with praise for their hustle, but the players also compliment us with their continued enthusiasm.

In a way, it is a shame that rules prevent us from having a different parent join us on the bench each period. You would be thoroughly impressed if you could watch the players’ faces. The players care, and the parents deserve the lion’s share of the credit.

For the rest of the season, we will probably win some games and lose some games, as every youth league team does. Achieving full potential signals success, and we adults should be proud of the players as we ‘keep the fires burning.’”

* * * *

Just when fourth place looked like a lock, we lost 9-2. This email followed:

1)         Hockey is only half physical; the other half is mental (again). When we fell behind 3-1 early in the second period, the mental half began to unravel, as it often does even in the pros. The coaches reminded the team that giving up the first few goals does not assure defeat. Sometimes the easiest time to score is when the opposition relaxes right after they score, and mentally strong teams can sometimes overcome an early deficit (as we did a few weeks ago when we came from behind four times to gain a tie). Our coaches will remain patient because NHL coaches earn hefty salaries for reminding their multi-millionaire players about the very same things. 

2)         During the game, the coaches tried rearranging some of the lines. A few forwards wondered why they were asked to play on a different line, or to play defense; a few defenders wondered why they were asked to play forward.

Tomorrow night we will remind the players that hockey is a team sport, not an individual sport. The coaches know which players prefer skating forward and which ones prefer defense, and we try to let players do what they feel most comfortable doing, consistent with their experience. But we will also remind the players that no team succeeds for long when everyone expects to get everything they want all the time. The kids will belong to teams (in sports, employment, and otherwise) for the rest of their lives; squirt hockey provides an early chance for adults to explain the need for mutual sacrifices.”     

* * * *

What are the sometimes overlooked rewards for parents and coaches? Consider this email:

“After yesterday’s game, the opposing coaches told me how much they enjoyed playing our team this season. We won both games, but the coaches said that the games were clean and sportsmanlike. ‘The way youth hockey should be played,’ one said. I extended the same compliment to their team.

Too often nowadays, we hear about parents, coaches, and players who spoil games because they cannot play with class, win, lose, or draw. Our players showed the same class during our early-season defeats as they did during this weekend’s victories. The opposing coaches gave us a genuine compliment yesterday, and we coaches wanted to share it with the parents, who have worked with us all season to teach the right lessons on and off the ice.

Now that opposing coaches are giving our team well-deserved praise, perhaps the parents should take a moment to give themselves well-deserved praise for setting the right example. At the pre-season parents meeting, the coaches warned that throughout the season, we would sometimes feel tempted to scream at the referees, or otherwise to vent our frustrations during games. The parents and coaches promised to set a wholesome example for the players by resisting temptation, and we have kept that promise all season.

Acting right is much more difficult than talking right. Mark Twain put it well: ‘Action speaks louder than words, but not nearly as often.’ It is no surprise that other teams’ coaches have praised our players for sportsmanship this season. A proverb says that ‘the apple does not fall far from the tree.’”

* * * *

The regular season ended on a high note:

“Saturday morning’s 7-2 victory guarantees us a winning record this season. Success in youth sports, however, has many indicators. After this morning’s victory, I talked with a squirt parent who made a thoughtful point. The parent said that our team’s greatest success is that the players, parents, and coaches genuinely like one another and get along so well. Camaraderie makes a solid place in the standings seem that much more worthwhile.

With more achievement ahead as we prepare for the playoffs, we hope that each family already views the season with a sense of satisfaction. Well-earned satisfaction is a sign of accomplishment.”

* * * *

We did finish the regular season in fourth place. The next stop was the single-elimination playoffs for all eight teams, climaxed by the State Championship game and its surprises. Part 3 of this column will provide the coaches’ playoff emails next time.