Being the parent of a hockey player is a lot like learning how to skate. You might think you know what you’re doing, but once you actually commit to it, things are more slippery than you expected.
But it doesn’t have to be that hard, said Ben Frank, president of Junior Reign Youth Hockey in California. Frank sees plenty of first-time hockey parents in a state known more for outdoor sports than ice sports, and he offers these tips for those new to this whole hockey parent thing:
1. Be patient and realistic
If parents are simply trying to introduce their kids to hockey, success should be measured in clearly defined stages, Frank said. Maybe the first trip to a rink is about simply trying it. Maybe the second time is about persevering if they fall down.
“As they fall in love with it more, asking you if they can come back, then you can start progressing the goals to more skill-based things,” said Frank. “Getting mad because kids don’t want to stay, or putting pressure on them because they’re lying down making snow angels on the ice, those are mistakes some parents make. Sometimes just letting go is important. Be patient and let kids enjoy it at their own pace.”
2. Do your homework
Not all hockey clubs are created equal, Frank said, and finding a good first experience for your son or daughter can have a major impact on their long-term hockey interest.
“The first thing I recommend is they should be looking for a USA Hockey club with American Development Model principles,” Frank added. “It’s critical even at the starter levels. That first experience for the kids is going to be important. If that first experience is done with care and intentionality, that can be an amazing thing for the rest of their life. All the best experiences I’ve had in my life came from hockey – life lessons, physical skills, you name it. If it starts the right way, that’s more important than gear or anything.”
A good club should present a clear plan and message about supporting kids.
“Ask the right questions about the philosophy of the program, even if it’s just a starter program,” he said. “The people involved are critical. They should be supporting, nurturing with kids.”
3. Understand that hockey is not easy
Chances are that a naturally coordinated young athlete can pick up a lot of land sports pretty quickly. On the ice, though? That’s another matter, and parents should be prepared.
“It’s important for the parents to understand that hockey requires a completely new and foreign form of locomotion,” Frank said. “Parents think if you can run and jump and throw you’re going to be OK, but if a kid has never skated before, it’s hard at first.”
It can be particularly difficult for a parent who has never played the game.
“If parents have no experience, they have no idea how hard it is,” Frank added. “They might wonder, ‘Why aren’t they going faster?’ They don’t grasp that it requires learning a whole new skill set. Other kids who are younger and smaller, even if they’ve been doing it for a couple months, can be so much further ahead.”
4. Know your role within a club
Youth sport associations may have some paid staff, but primarily they rely on an army of volunteers consisting mainly of parents. Even if you’re new to the sport, you can get involved.
“At a starter level, you don’t need a ton of specific hockey-coaching knowledge,” he said. “You need to offer positive support and have a simple goal of wanting the kids to have fun.”
That said, volunteers won’t succeed if they don’t know their roles or commit to a role that is too big for them.
“Sometimes volunteers, if they don’t understand the role, they will come from a good place but they aren’t prepped on what the goal of the role is. That’s critical,” Frank said. “Don’t take on more than you can deliver. And deliver on what you say you’re going to deliver. If you say three times a week or one time a month, do that. Kids are relying on all that planning. And all those positions are important.”
5. Be curious but supportive with your club
If you’ve done your homework and selected a club that you feel comfortable with as a parent, then it’s time to trust the decision.
“You need to accept that you selected that club and you should be supportive of the club,” Frank said. “Take the time to understand what the program is trying to do.”
With that said, coaches and other association members should be approachable.
“Parents shouldn’t feel like they can’t ask questions or have a discussion with a coach. If you’re in a place where you aren’t allowed to question anybody, it’s probably the wrong program,” Frank said. “But come at questions with the right approach.”
Remember, it’s just a game, and it’s supposed to be fun. It’s not about wins and losses, goals and assists, especially at the 8U/10U levels. Hopefully your child learns to love the game, makes lifelong friends and memories, and learns important lessons along the way.
In the words of the late Bob O’Connor, former USA Hockey national coach-in-chief:
“To win the game is great. To play the game is greater. To love the game is greatest of all.”