One of the most common questions from burgeoning coaches at the USA Hockey coaching education clinics are tied to player behavior and how to approach it.
“We have coaches who work with players, especially with what’s going on with different rules and regulations and the occasional changes,” said Flint Doungchak, USA Hockey Pacific District coach-in-chief. “What they’re worried about is how they coach with kids with behavior issues.”
The Oregonian is a long-time instructor in the USA Hockey Coaching Education Program (CEP) and always opens the floor for newer coaches to ask questions during the sessions.
“How do I deal with a kid who doesn’t want to do a drill or doesn’t want to come to practice?” questions Doungchak. “That’s probably a more common theme we see from coaches. So that’s not something we necessarily cover in our regular curriculum, but it’s something we address all the time.”
Patience comes first in the process of development
Before even dealing with behavioral issues, Doungchak said that an early, crucial lesson coaches can learn is patience. Especially those dealing with younger players.
“We have to remember that an 8- or 10-year-old is going to be way different in the way they perceive feedback from coaches who might perceive them as problem athletes,” he said. “A lot of times, at the end of the day, they’re just kids making mistakes.”
Coaches need to give players room to figure things out and sometimes that can be frustrating for both students and teachers.
“We tend to, as coaches, give kids the solutions to problems rather than letting kids work through problems. We try to tell them how to do things rather than allow them to figure things out by themselves,” Doungchak said. “The reason why that is connected – in the course of trying to figure out something on your own, you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to get frustrated, you’re probably going to act out a little bit as you’re trying to figure it out. Coaches sometimes aren’t patient in that process.”
If a child is trying, even if he or she might be doing it wrong, it’s important to stay cool. A coach showing frustration might derail a child’s effort to get it right the next time and make the child more apt to lose effort or confidence, which will harm performance.
“I think all of it is connected: the way we train our coaches, the way player development works and the way players are most responsive to the development process. It’s not effective to yell at an 8-year-old, yet, some coaches do it. And really, I don’t think it’s all that effective to be screaming and yelling at a 16-year-old, either.”
Listening doesn’t mean understanding, nor executing
Sometimes, even advanced players, don’t understand what a coach is saying. The way coaches explain one concept will work for one player, but it might not be understood by another. Just because a player wrecks a drill, doesn’t mean he or she is a bad actor.
“In some cases, players are in the middle of the process – they completely understand you, they completely understand what the outcome is or the goal is, but they’re still in the process of trying to [physically] figure it out. We need to be patient in that process.”
For younger players, it’s even more significant to realize that you’re coaching children – not NHLers.
“They completely understand you, they might be able to execute the capability, but they’re 10 or 12 and they don’t want to do it. Kids are still kids, and to them, it’s a game and still something they want to just play,” Doungchak said. “Sometimes we force structure on something that’s still a game, still fun for kids, and we take the fun out of it and when you take the fun out of it, kids may act out. That may be perceived as a behavior problem when really that may not be the case.”
Recognizing bad behavior
So how patient should a coach be? Well, every case is different.
“It’s difficult, because coaches are sometimes trying to identify something as a character flaw issue and whether or not that character issue or that character flaw needs to be corrected by a coach or a series of coaches, so we raise those kids to be good people,” Doungchak said. “And that’s really different from saying, ‘Hey, that kid is trying but he’s not getting it.’”
It’s not always easy for coaches to identify whether a player is acting out or maybe simply immature. However, that’s part of a coach’s learning curve – one that is often only gained through experience.
Doungchak said character flaws and a lack of understanding are two very different scenarios and require different responses. Naturally, those answers come with time and experience and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
“It takes a little bit of experience and understanding to stop and analyze and ask yourself, well, ‘Is there a reason the kid is not on time?’ or does the kid just need a little bit of structure in his life?” he asks. “I’m not advocating for wild pandemonium on the ice. We all need to be able to stop and start a drill and blow a whistle and have management. But what we’re looking for in differences is the ability to discern if a kid is being disruptive purposely. Is there some type of character flaw? Or does he just want to have fun at practice and he’s not truly trying to be disruptive. That sometimes comes with experience in trying to understand a kid’s intent. That’s part of the art of coaching that’s not so black and white.”
When to include parents?
Coaches need to include parents well before any behavioral issues fester. Doungchak said coaches need to lay out expectations in advance.
“Every player needs to know it, every parent needs to know it and every coach needs to know it. So there’s three right there, because if you don’t have that triangle of people – coach, player, parent – then you can’t be consistent to the application of whatever rules you have,” he said.
Once you define the expectations, inform those three parties and apply the expectations consistently. Doungchak emphasizes it can’t just be the coaching staff and parents, it has to also be on the player and have a consistent application of rules and expectations.
“Whether it is being on time or a basic rule like you don’t ever hit another player with your stick,” Doungchak said. “That’s a good rule where you need application of the player, the coach and of the parent. After that, if things start to get out of hand, then that communication takes place between all three.”
“Let’s take the hitting with a stick example. If an assistant coach observes that, then he needs to inform the rest of the coaches so they can keep an eye on that and let the kids know and let the parents know. Then there’s got to be appropriate accountability.”
Every situation is unique, but at some point, coaches might need to raise the bar for how they hold a player accountable for the things he or she is doing, which Doungchak said should be proportional to what’s going on.
“Sometimes coaches mistakenly assume that kids and parents and other coaches have the same expectations and are applying those expectations and rules equally, and that’s not always the case,” Doungchak said. “It’s better that everyone is on the same page to achieve the same things. That’s a lot easier than it sounds.”
Theoretically, the same rules and expectations go for all teams in an association, regardless of age or gender.
“Us as coaches know that our administrators know, making sure that our coaching directors know, making sure that our board of directors know and that those policies are in line with whatever the board of directors have and making sure we’re consistent there.”
Document when dealing with bad behavior
Doungchak gives coaches a final reminder that, with SafeSport, there is due process at higher levels and, even though coaches don’t like to do it, they need to document their engagement during disciplinary action.
“You don’t necessarily need to turn it into the board, but if something gets really out of hand, it really helps your board of directors during an Article 10 process, even if it’s something written in a log book,” he said. “Because otherwise it’s difficult for them to enact discipline according to their rules if it’s perceived to be the first time.”
“A lot of coaches think, once I talk to a kid, it will get better. But if it doesn’t, you need to use the process and if you haven’t written things down, it’s difficult,” Doungchak said. “Even if it’s internal and something as simple as the date and what was said with the kid. That will help coaches a lot too.”