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Coaching at the Kitchen Table

10/13/2016, 3:30pm MDT
By Michael Rand - Special to USA Hockey

It’s been a busy day. After a full day at school, the kids had hockey practice afterward. You had meetings. Deadlines. Maybe you even had to cut out early to help coach that practice, and more work awaits after everyone else goes to bed.

But you always try to make time for a family dinner – the one time of day everyone sits down in the same place. Sometimes it’s hard, but you do it because you believe it’s important. And so you sit down, after the long day, after the practice, and the first thing you think about doing is … talking hockey?

Sure. When else are you going to squeeze in valuable lessons or share your passion for the sport? But maybe in your approach you’re not thinking about the real message you might be sending, says Adam Naylor, a faculty member at Boston University and a sports psychologist who has worked with hockey families for more than 15 years.

If your temptation and natural inclination is to coach your kids at the dinner table, Naylor has some tips and thoughts to help navigate the process.

Know your role

Whether you’re an official coach of your son or daughter’s team or just one of the many unofficial ones, it’s important to know that, to your child, you are also “mom” or “dad.”

“Sometimes we have multiple roles and as parents we’re also coaches,” Naylor said. “And at the end of the day, at the dinner table we should perform the role we think is most important to serve our family the best – and that’s mom or dad.”

If you’re in full-on coach mode, you might not even realize it – and your child almost certainly will not.

“The kid doesn’t know what role you’re in,” Naylor said. “So if you’re going to err on a side, err on the side of shutting down the coach side.”

Know your tone

At the same time, Naylor isn’t saying you should never talk about hockey at the dinner table. It’s more a matter of how you do it. As such, it’s not a “black or white” issue, Naylor says, recognizing that if there’s a shared passion for hockey those dinner conversations “are the stuff we remember about growing up.”

So, while many parents realize that trying to talk about hockey on the car ride home from a game is often a bad idea, the nuance of the dinner table – often hours or even days removed from a practice or game – is different.

“The dinner table is more challenging. We tend to talk about what we’re enthusiastic about,” Naylor said. “But we can be enthusiastic about hockey without talking Xs and Os – and navigating that difference is the art of it, as is deciding if you’re capable of doing that.”

And even if you can do it in what seems to be a positive way, it’s important to keep yourself in check and make sure the message is being positively received by your child.

“It’s easy to say that if you love hockey you should talk about it also. But it can be smothering,” said Naylor. “Sometimes it’s enthusiasm run amok. We’re excited about our kids, about hockey, and we go down that road.”

Know your child

When that enthusiasm transforms into a form of dinner table coaching, it changes the message, Naylor says.

“There is that message that we care about hockey but it adds some accidental pressure – that it’s so important we need to do Xs and Os now,” he said.

And if you’re raising good children, they’re probably going to listen to you no matter what – especially at that 10U age. That’s normally a blessing, but in this case they might actually be better off tuning you out.

“Kids will listen even if they shouldn’t and then accidentally carry it into the rink stressed,” Naylor said. “You want to be careful because if they’re good kids they’re going to listen. Later on, kids can learn to separate and the best athletes become self-regulating.”

Know it’s going to be OK

The temptation to coach a child at the dinner table in the first place likely comes from a good place: you’re trying to help them achieve at a higher level or you’re seeing them struggle and trying to enhance their experience.

And let’s face it: parenting can be stressful, particularly when it comes to athletics. But again, Naylor says, it’s good to recognize our own stress because “we don’t want to put it on our kids by accident.”

As such, it’s fine to let the process play out. Try to relax a little and let your kids figure out the game on their own. It might lead to a better lesson than anything you could tell them.

“We’re so quick to throw parents under the bus, but this all starts at a place of caring and wanting what’s best for their kids,” Naylor said. “However, when we’re always telling kids what to do, we create a lack of problem-solving. We forget that sometimes being average and struggling is the best place for kids.”

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