COMMUNICATING WITH THE PARENTS: Part Three of Doug Abrams’ Column on the Power of E-Mail

Using E-mail to Communicate With the Team’s Parents (Part Three)

By Doug Abrams

 Parts One and Two 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.

Part One provided emails that I, as head coach, wrote and sent during pre-season practice sessions to the parents on the Central Missouri Eagles, our 9-10-year-old Squirt hockey team a few years ago. Part Two provided emails sent to the Eagles parents during the regular season. Together the Parts presented a template for community youth league coaches who seek to enhance communication with parents.

Part Three now closes the trilogy by providing (again in italics) my emails to the parents during the league’s post-season playoffs, a single-elimination tournament for all eight teams that led to the State Championship Game, with its surprises for the Eagles.

The Playoffs: “The Path Is Always Strewn With Uncertainties”

As in any tournament, only one team could win the title. The coaches urged parents to control their expectations and continue their positive outlook:

 “Playoff tournaments are adventures, and the path is strewn with uncertainties. The players understand the meaning of post-season playoffs, and they will play their hardest, as they have while the team progressed during the regular season. (Now that we have finished with a winning record, who can remember that our first three games were two losses followed by a come-from-behind tie?)

At practice last night, the coaches told the players that if they try their best in a game, they will never regret the outcome later, win or lose. We meant it.”

* * * *

The Eagles won our opening-round playoff game against a team we had beaten twice during the season. Then we faced the first-place team in the semifinals. The game was tied late in the third period, but . . .

“The players took yesterday’s 4-3 loss hard because it came in single-elimination playoffs and ended our season.  The game was close, and our players finished with the grace they have shown all year, by shaking the other team’s hands in the proud hockey tradition.

Shaking hands after losing can be tough, especially when the team plays as well as we did yesterday. In recent years, some youth leagues in various sports have even considered dispensing with the post-game handshakes following trouble in the line. A few hundred youth hockey teams played in America this weekend, and half the teams lost. No team behaved with more class than our players did.

In the locker room after the game, we told the players that the parents and coaches are proud of everything they accomplished all season; that the other team yesterday wanted to win as badly as we did; that in an evenly-matched game, someone loses; and that every Eagles player will have future opportunities to shine in hockey again.” 

* * * *

With the playoffs over for us, the coaches sent the parents another wrap-up message a day later. We spoke not only about the players’ on-ice performance, but also about the team’s community service project, which the players had selected and performed earlier in the season:

“We chalked up achievements thoroughly impressive for a team of 9- and 10-year-olds. As the players developed their skills, they carried the team as far as their abilities permitted; earned opposing coaches’ praise for sportsmanship; finished the regular season with a winning record; and advanced to the State Championship semifinals.

The players learned citizenship and empathy by collecting hundreds of cans of food for the Central Missouri Food Bank, the local agency that in these difficult times serves children and their families who find themselves in less fortunate circumstances than our team’s families.

Each player assumed an important role, and no player warmed the bench. The season is over, and the coaches hope that the families will remember the past few months with relish. All team members — adults and players alike — share credit for a job well done. It was a good run.”

* * * *

It was time for many of the players to turn to baseball and other spring sports — or so we thought until I received an unexpected phone call from the State Championship Tournament director two days later. The two teams that were slated to face off in the upcoming Championship game had just been disqualified. “Would your team,” the director asked, “like to play next weekend for the State Championship against the other team that had narrowly lost their semifinal game?”

Our team manager polled the parents, and the answer was a unanimous “yes.” After two hastily scheduled practices, we drove to St. Louis for title game and won, 7-6. In just two weeks, the  Eagles had lost and then won the State Championship, a winding path that few teams ever travel.

The coaches sent this email a few hours after our victory in the title game:

“We are so pleased that our players will savor the State Championship because they are good kids. Coaches can teach individual and team skills, but we cannot teach goodness, hustle, desire, dedication, camaraderie, and the other intangibles that define teamwork. Guided by their parents, players must bring the intangibles to the rink with them.

Even if we had lost this morning’s game, each player was already a winner for what really counts. A cooperative scoreboard was icing on the cake. To quote the earlier email: ‘All team members — adults and players alike — share credit for a job well done. It was a good run.’”

* * * *

A few days later, the coaches sent the parents another farewell message. Unlike the earliest playoff emails, this one followed a narrow victory, not a narrow defeat. Still, another “teaching opportunity” beckoned:

“When we lost the close semifinal game, we saw long faces in the locker room afterwards because the players took the State Championship series seriously and the loss really hurt. Quite a turnabout now when we see the photograph of the players beaming with the medals around their necks and the State Championship banner in front of them moments after the final game! I emailed the photograph to one of my own former coaches yesterday, and his reaction hit the target: ‘There is nothing like the smiles of a champion. If only we could freeze that feeling for moments when we need it.’

The real lesson from the post-season’s unusual ending concerns not the reward of winning, but the work it takes to win. When two evenly matched teams face off, the winner is usually the team that prepared harder for the game, and then tries harder in the game. Before players can score, they must make sacrifices that might not seem like fun at the moment. Sacrifices such as doing the drills, doing windsprints at the end of practice, scrimmaging hard, and waking up at least three hours before an early-morning game. The Eagles players made sacrifices, and the result speaks for itself.

 The Eagles had some good fortune during the season, perhaps even some ‘luck.’ But, as golfer Gary Player said, ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’”

* * * * 

A week after the State Championship game, the team appeared on the mid-Missouri NBC-TV affiliate’s morning show, whose host praised the players as winners on and off the ice. A week later, the team appeared on the floor of the Missouri House of Representatives and the lawmakers unanimously passed a Resolution honoring the players for “developing and maintaining an excellent reputation for sportsmanship and fair play,” and for “collecting several hundred cans of food for [local food banks] that assist mid-Missouri children and families in need.”

Three weeks after the title game and the appearances on television and the House floor, the coaches urged the parents to look ahead:

“The players feel proud for giving 100% effort all season, and parents should feel proud for your unwavering support and encouragement. As you guide your players in future sports seasons, continue focusing on what is really important. Urge your players to have fun. Urge them to train hard for every game and to compete earnestly. Urge them to strive for victory, respect sportsmanship, and carry their teams as far as their abilities permit.

The players met and exceeded our reasonable expectations, and they did it the right way – with sportsmanship and fair play. Unexpected youth league championships such as ours can be the most memorable championships of all because the players reach the pinnacle on their own terms, without coping all season with needless pressure. Would the players have had fun, and would they have achieved so much, if their parents and coaches had dropped hints all season that success depended on winning the state title?

Everyone should take happy memories from this rewarding season. Lasting memories frozen in time. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, a youth league team’s greatest achievements often lie in ‘the journey, not the destination.’ The Eagles’ journey became a roller coaster near the end, but the kids had a great ride.”

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.

COMMUNICATING WITH THE PARENTS: The Magic – and Power – of Email from Coaches

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

By Doug Abrams

 Community youth sports programs and their coaches increasingly seek to maintain open lines of communication with parents before, during, and sometimes even after the season. The term “transparency” is in vogue in politics lately, and transparency also remains essential in community sports. Without substituting for ongoing face-to-face communication with parents individually or as a group, email can provide coaches a convenient, effective way to share explanations and observations.

This column presents several of the emails that I, as head coach, sent to the parents on our mid-Missouri Squirt hockey team for 9-10-year-olds a few years ago. We played in an eight-team “house gold” league (the higher Squirt house league) against St. Louis-area house teams. The season ended with playoffs and a State Championship Series.

Before the first pre-season practice session, I told the parents that I would email them a day or so after many practices and games to report what the coaches said to the players in the locker room, on the ice, and on the bench. I sensed that the parents would reinforce our messages about teamwork, fair play, 100% effort, and similar values if we coaches took the lead.

Email or other written mediums enable coaches to maintain a wholesome team environment, but a coach’s messaging with parents comes with two commonsense ground rules. First, the coach should make certain that the email distribution list contains only the parents’ email addresses, and not the players’. I urged parents to share the emails with their player if they wished, and I believe that they did share most messages. Whether to share, however, was up to the parents in their own homes.

Second, the coach should not send parents any message that would prove embarrassing if a player or any unintended third party reads it. Emails can quickly be forwarded far and wide, as one soccer coach of pre-teen girls learned to his distress a few years ago when his lame attempt at humor at some families’ expense went viral within a few hours. Humor and sarcasm often fail when words appear only in writing on the computer screen, unpunctuated by a friendly tone of voice or a wink or smile.

This column comes in three parts. Part One presents below (in italics) some of the coaches’ emails to our Squirt parents during pre-season practice sessions. Next time, Part Two will present several of our regular-season emails. Part Three will conclude the trilogy with several emails sent during and after the post-season playoffs and State Championship Series. The emails appear in their entirety, except that I have deleted names, passages that relate only to routine housekeeping matters, and passages that would repeat an earlier email’s content.

I hope that this collection of season-long emails portray a team whose parents and coaches put the players’ interests first. The coaches’ emails helped set the tone from the first pre-season practice session, through the regular season’s ups and downs, and climaxed by a surprise ending in the playoffs and State Championship Series.

Pre-Season Practice Sessions: “A Great Way to Start”

For many players and their parents, our Squirt house team was their first experience in hockey, and perhaps their first experience in organized sports. We coaches wanted every player to love hockey and participation in sports generally. Even before the first parents’ meeting, we sent this email to the parents:

 “Last night’s opening practice was a great way to start. These are good kids, they really want to play, and they get along with one another.  These three building blocks – goodness, desire, and camaraderie — signal a team that will achieve everything we are capable of achieving.

 The coaches would like each practice session and game to be a learning experience. As the players hone their hockey skills, we also want them to learn the lasting lessons that thoughtful adults teach in youth sports. With periodic emails after practices and games, the coaches will explain what we told the team and will enlist the parents’ help in reinforcing the lessons at home. Last night, the coaches conveyed three lessons:

 1)  “Mistakes.” We told the players that they must be ready and willing to make mistakes on the ice because making a mistake is the best way to learn.  Try a skill you find difficult, fall down, and then get up and try it again. At any age, some players want to practice only the skills that they think they have already mastered. They hesitate to work on more difficult skills because practicing strengths is more comfortable than practicing weaknesses. Complete players practice both.

 2)  The coaches made a “deal” with the players. If the players give 100% effort in practices and games, the coaches will support, encourage, and teach. Players will not be criticized, ridiculed, or yelled at for trying their best and doing something incorrectly. Performance suffers when players fear the reactions of coaches and teammates when something goes wrong.

 3)  The coaches told the players that a team succeeds best when all teammates are friends with one another. No cliques and no favorites. When we paired off for drills last night, some players immediately (and predictably) paired off with a friend they already knew. The coaches stopped the drill, explained why the team suffers when players favor their friends and overlook other teammates. We required each player to choose a different partner each time.”

* * * *

After the first practice, the coaches wanted to introduce our core values to the parents. This introduction came a few days before the first parents meeting, whose full agenda would include discussion about how the parents should behave in the stands at practice sessions and games. The coaches sent the parents this email:

 “A generation ago, the British Association of National Coaches captured the essence of athletic competition: ‘Sport without fair play is not sport, and honours won without fair play can have no real value.’ ‘Fair play’ surely means the sportsmanship that our coaches and parents will display all season, but fair play also means much more than that.

‘Fair play’ also means that coaches must treat their own players fairly. Ours is a house league team competing against other associations’ house teams, and every player is important to the whole. Everyone will play in every game. No benchwarmers.

When coaches try to win by taking the fun out of the game in practice sessions or games, the coaches either overlook the hurtful effect on players, or else wake up in the morning wishing for a do-over. Forgetting that the players come first does not bring honor (or, as the Brits spell it, ‘honour’), nor does it bring coaches much lasting satisfaction.”

* * * *

A few weeks later, the opening game approached:

“After practicing for more than a month, the Squirt team will play our first league game this Sunday afternoon.

1)  Ever since the first practice, we have told the players that they are responsible for leaving the locker room as clean as when they arrived. This responsibility means picking up their own tape, candy wrappers, and so forth. On the road or at home, rink employees should not have to clean up after the players. In this and other ways, our players will set the example.

2)  We will have rotating tri-captains this season, with a different three players having the opportunity each game. At this young age, being a captain is part of the leadership education that sports should teach. Each player will get three or four opportunities to be a tri-captain throughout the season. The tri-captains will help prepare the team in the locker room and then assemble the team at the net after pregame warmup, outside the coaches’ earshot. Parents can help by talking with their players about the roles of team leaders.”

* * * *

The coaches’ emails, already well received by the parents, continued during the regular season (Part II of this column), and then during the post-season playoffs and State Championship Series (Part III). More to follow next time. . . .