Playing on a hockey team is supposed to be a great experience for the kids, guiding them into all sorts of positive character traits, improving their technical skills, and giving them plenty of opportunities for exercise and fun.
Coaching a hockey team or even being a supportive, involved parent is supposed to be a positive experience, as well. After all, all of the adults are working toward the same goal: a great season that the youth and adults enjoy. Oh, what a dream world it would be if life were truly that simple!
But there are some simple things that adults can do to keep the positive spirit alive and well during the experience. There are steps to take that can help the coach minimize unacceptable outbursts and handle rude behavior if and when it does arise.
Before the Season Begins
It is crucial for coaches to set the tone for the season before players put skates onto the ice for their first practice. There are a few tips to help the coach get off on the right foot. And if needed, a parent can gently nudge a coaching team into taking these steps by simply asking about when they are scheduled or asking to get a copy of written documents. If requested respectfully and well before the season begins, parents can provide provide a broad hint that these actions are a part of good coaching.
Design Good Documents
Before the season ever begins, make a clear list of your goals for the team from a coaching perspective. In all likelihood, it will include things like helping all players improve skills, setting the stage for all players to enjoy the game, teaching teamwork and sportsmanship, and instilling values such as persistence and patience. Distill these down into short and sweet bullet points, and presto! You have your Team Goals document ready to share with parents.
Lay out another section with your rules for parents and players. Be sure to word everything in positive language, and keep the total number on each list to no more than five. You will want to include rules such as coming to practice prepared with proper equipment, putting team success first, and following coach’s directions on the players’ list. The parents’ list should include guidelines for appropriate conduct and communication. Some ideas include making an appointment to discuss any concerns, making only supportive comments to players on the field, and waiting 24-48 hours before trying to discuss anything that has caused strong feelings.
The final document you will want before the season begins is a summary of the practice schedule, important dates for games and tournaments, any reminders that families need to keep in mind such as equipment lists, and the coaching staff’s contact information.
Hold a Parent Meeting
A parent meeting is much preferable to simply sending out a welcome packet, because it’s an opportunity to meet face to face with parents and set expectations for a positive season. As coach, you can review the goals for the team and the expectations for parent behavior. Go over requirements such as making only positive comments from the sidelines and never speaking to coaching staff, officials or volunteers when angry.
You can even set consequences for undesirable behavior, such as suspending the privilege of sideline presence or even suspending a player for parents’ bad behavior if that’s within the realm of the organization’s guidelines. If you’re not certain what you are and are not allowed to do in terms of consequences, be sure to clarify with an official from the league or organization that oversees your team.
Make a “Parent Emergency Plan”
Nearly all problems are best handled if there are policies and procedures in place before a crisis. Decide in advance how you will handle disruptive or rude behavior from parents in different situations. Write down your plans and be sure to share them with the organization and with the parents before there is a problem.
Consider recruiting a volunteer team parent to help you with communication with the other parents, to serve as a sounding board for ideas before you try them out on the rest of the group, and perhaps even to deflect some upset parents by having them help you schedule appointments with parents with concerns. The volunteer team parent may also be willing to be a second adult at meetings needed for conflict resolution, to be an unbiased third party, and to serve as a witness if necessary.
And finally, know the chain of command in your organization. Who is your immediate “supervisor” and how do you contact him or her? Understand the organizational procedure for handling conflicts or other challenging situations with parents, and use the support that is offered.
During the Season
You’ve laid the groundwork, held the parent meeting, and communicated your expectations and rules clearly, and you still have an angry parent approach you. The way that you handle that situation will determine if the situation escalates or gets defused.
Stick to Your Procedure
These situations are exactly why you’ve gone to the trouble of making a plan. Now follow it! Stay positive and professional. Remind the parent of how you expect communication to be handled: no strong emotion (enforce a cooling off period if needed), at the appropriate time and place (by appointment if necessary), and in level voice tones instead of yelling.
Keep the Focus on the Players
Remind the parent of your team goals and your team rules. Remind the parent of any consequences that you already have in place that apply to this situation. Keep the conversation focused on the good of the team and on helping all of the players on the team grow and learn.
Some parents may try to shift your focus onto their own child or their own grievance. Your job is to keep returning the conversation to the good of the team and meeting the goals that you have said from the beginning would be your focus.
When arguments get heated and tempers rise, situations can quickly escalate to harsh words and even violence. Refuse to participate in any discussion with volume levels above civil discourse. It is even okay to tell a parent that you’ll be happy to discuss the situation when they’ve calmed down. Walk away if you have to.
Be a Good Listener
Many times, parents who act out in rude ways are simply trying to be heard. Be a good listener, as long as the speaker is being polite. Hear their concerns and acknowledge their validity. Listening does not obligate you to make any changes, and it prevents you from becoming defensive. In fact, if you make a habit of listening regularly (like before and after practices or at regular parent meetings), small concerns can be addressed before they become big concerns and emotionally charged problems.
And a Few More Tips
Many organizations offer conflict resolution training, including employers and service organizations. Consider taking a course because the tools will help you in nearly all of your endeavors. And if you can’t find a course, educate yourself using reliable books and digital resources.
Set a Good Example
Examine your own behavior both on the field and off. Are you modeling good communication and level-headed responses to difficult situations? Are you setting a good example to the youth on your team about how to communicate and how to handle conflict? The kids are watching and learning from you.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Many conflicts are symptoms of miscommunications at their core. They can be prevented with good communication strategies. Be sure that you are sending clear messages about your expectations, team management, and any other issues on a regular basis and that you are listening for parent concerns and needs.
It’s also important to be sure your messages are being received. Check in with players and families, asking them to restate your messages from time to time. It is not safe to assume that they received the message just because you sent it home on a note or told the team.
Communication is the key. Good communication with both parents and players will resolve most problems before they even start.