Communication, the expression goes, is a two-way street. In youth hockey associations, though, communication is the key to navigating a complicated four-way intersection between individual players, parents, coaches and the team as a whole.
Each entity has a set of ideal expectations for the others – best illustrated by a matrix showing the flow of expectations from group to group (see image at the end of this story). While some might seem like common sense, associations are diverse groups filled with kids and adults of varying backgrounds.
The way to make sure everyone is on the same page – and the right page as the season begins anew – is clear, says Brian Copeland, Junior Tigers hockey director and coaching education coordinator for the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association (CSAHA).
“For us, it all starts with communication,” Copeland says. “We probably over-communicate. We don’t want there to be any questions about why we run our program a certain way.”
The CSAHA has earned USA Hockey Model Association status. All Model Associations have fully committed to the age-appropriate skill development best practices within the American Development Model (ADM). Copeland is a firm believer in the ADM and is looking for long-term gains.
“The consistent message from us is that it’s a marathon and not a sprint,” Copeland says. “We might be doing things at the 10-year-old level that might not win us the most games. One of our bantam teams went undefeated, and if you trace back to when they were squirts, maybe that team only won 30 percent of their games. Yes we’re going to lose some games because we don’t focus on dumping the puck in on our power play.”
Communicating that message to parents, however, has required what Copeland terms a “learning curve.” Still, creating that clear expectation through communication is essential and is part of what a parent should expect from a coach and association.
“It’s a development model, and we’re pretty up-front about the fact that this is our program,” Copeland says. “Anyone who wants to be trained here, we will welcome you with open arms. But if you think there’s another model you want to be associated with, we’re not going to stand in your way. What we find is that almost anyone who does leave for a year tends to come back pretty quickly.”
Working with Parents
The communication between coaches and parents in the CSAHA has a trickle-down effect, too, to the relationship between parents and kids. Parents who aren’t on board with a team’s direction are more likely to create havoc.
“It’s really association and coach to parent,” Copeland says when asked what area of communication often needs the most attention. “What we’ve learned is kids want to play. It doesn’t matter what structure we put on the ice. They’re having fun. It’s usually the car ride home where things start to get slanted in a certain direction.”
This comes from two opposite extremes: parents new to the sport whose “sole focus is on their kid and not the entire association,” Copeland says, and parents who played hockey and might question approaches that are different than the ones they grew up with.
“We try and inform them on why we do it,” Copeland says. “We have some high level (former players) who were a little hesitant to the way we were doing it, but once they see it in action, they’re completely sold.”
Structured but Fun
When it comes to expectations a 10-year-old player should have for a coach, Copeland is clear: coaches should be actively keeping players engaged, but players should be ready for structure as well.
“As soon as a kid that age stops having fun, they’re done with hockey. So we have to find a way to make it fun, but there’s also nothing wrong with running a disciplined practice,” Copeland says. “It’s the same as a third- or fourth-grade teacher would do in a classroom. You have to keep them engaged to learn, but you can’t have an unruly classroom at the same time.”
Repeating the Message
Even when messages are conveyed clearly and expectations are laid out properly, it can take more than one try for everything to fall into place.
Copeland says the CSAHA often has follow-up meetings with parents throughout the year – often reinforced with USA Hockey training videos and other educational materials – to remind them of the association goals and to keep them supportive without interfering.
Young players, too, often need a patient approach from coaches when understanding expectations.
“There are going to be times where three or four coaches are trying to get a message across to a player, and it’s the fifth coach who says it in a way that particular kid gets it,” Copeland says. “Sometimes it can be the tone, sometimes it can be the actual message. We try and give them multiple messages under the same direction, hoping that one of them connects.”
Copeland once again used the term “over-communicate.” But when setting expectations in a youth hockey association, maybe there really isn’t such a thing?