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Hot-Button Issue: Playing Time

10/06/2015, 9:30am MDT
By Michael Rand - Special to USA Hockey

When it comes to hot-button issues in youth hockey that can lead to ugly situations between coaches and parents, playing time might be at the top of the list.

Parents invest countless hours and dollars into their kids’ athletic pursuits. Whether some parents feel entitled to see their kids on the ice as a result, or they feel they are truly acting on their kids’ behalf, the paths often lead to the same place: parents asking coaches to play their son or daughter more often.

Seth Appert, the men’s hockey head coach at RPI who has also served as head coach for USA Hockey’s Under-18 Men’s Team, has seen the potential for this conflict from both ends.

He has some simple advice:

“I can relate from my experience as a hockey coach and a soccer dad,” Appert says. “I think parents should stay out of it. I think playing time is between kids and coaches. Parents can help their son or daughter understand what’s expected and what it takes to earn that playing time.”

At 12U, USA Hockey recommends equal playing time for all. In the last minute of the game, if the team is up or down by a goal, then coaches may choose to play selected kids, but only in that situation. All families pay the same amount to participate. Unless players are misbehaving, not following the rules or disregarding the coaches’ instructions, then ice time may be used to hold them accountable.

Learning Lessons

While the argument that playing time is none of a parent’s business is probably good enough to stand alone as a reason to discourage a father or mother from asking a coach about it, Appert also notes some good related reasons as well.

Appert is an exception as an athlete who rose up to play at the NCAA Division I level at Ferris State before eventually making his career as a coach. The primary lifetime benefits of hockey for most youth players, though, will tend to be subtler and come in the form of lessons learned and character built.

“Sports are about teaching life lessons and falling in love with something for a lifetime. It shouldn’t be about becoming a Division I athlete or a pro,” Appert says. “I didn’t start playing hockey because I wanted to go Division I. I started because I loved the sport.”

The larger point within that sentiment is that lessons aren’t always best absorbed through always getting your way. When parents confront coaches about playing time for their kids, they send dueling bad messages: that the child deserves the time and that the child can’t communicate with the coach for him or herself.

“The greatest lessons you learn are in adversity and failure,” Appert says. “Sometimes in today’s society we prevent kids from learning those lessons by intervening on their behalf. Kids are smart and resilient. We need to encourage them, support them and let them figure things out on their own. That’s hard to do as a parent, but the lessons are stronger.”

From a Dad’s Perspective

As a soccer dad, Appert says he practices what he preaches. He even went to an extreme with one of his daughter’s long-term coaches.

“I don’t talk to the coach about anything. It was about a year-and-a-half of coaching my daughter before she knew I was a D-I coach,” Appert says. “She was coming to me to tell me why she was changing my daughter from forward to defense and after about 10 seconds I stopped her. I said, ‘I don’t care. You’re her coach. I trust you.’”

That’s not to say there isn’t a time and place to talk to a coach as a parent. But it is to say Appert believes a discussion of playing time isn’t one of those times.

“The only time I would get involved would be if I thought a coach was belittling kids or if the children were being wronged in a mental or physical way,” he says.

What Coaches Want

One way parents can help their kids, Appert says, is by helping them understand how to earn playing time. Though Appert says at the 12U level playing time should still be spread relatively evenly, coaches will naturally gravitate toward players they can trust at key moments in games and seasons.

“It’s a misconception that coaches just play the most talented players,” Appert says. “At the end of the day, coaches play players they trust. There’s no better feeling as a coach than to call a player’s name and have a very strong understanding of what they’re going to give their teammates on that shift.”

That trust is built through good practice habits and exhibiting the ability to be a caring teammate, among other things. Doing those things, Appert says, will go a lot further toward gaining playing time than any conversation between a parent and coach ever would.

“Are they going to be competitive? Are they going to have a strong work ethic? Is this about the team or the individual? A lot of that is shown in work ethic and body language,” Appert says. “Coaches reward players they can count on.”

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