Go to any hockey rink on a weekend and one thing is clear: there’s a lot of yelling (and sometimes screaming) going on. Coaches yell, players yell—and the loudest yelling is usually from the parents in the stands.
But is yelling at young hockey players (or athletes in any sport for that matter) a good thing?
As a dad of two kids who played many team sports, and as a minor hockey coach myself, I made a conscious decision early on to never yell at kids while they play.
Hockey is a challenging game to learn. Kids need to develop very complex skills such as skating while using a long stick to control the puck, and coordinating their actions with a bunch of other kids on the ice. Young players have enough information to process. Yelling directives at them just confuses them.
From a professional perspective—I’m a sport psychology consultant to Olympians and pro athletes—I know the science is clear: external distractions, such as spectators yelling, can affect an athlete’s ability to focus. If world-class athletes can be distracted by this stuff, you can imagine how it can affect a young player learning the game.
As a parent, it’s important to understand how yelling in the stands might affect your child’s focus and his or her overall enjoyment of the game. Personally, I came to the conclusion that yelling was a no-no and I made my decision based on two facts and two questions.
Fact #1: Kids hear all the yelling
For 30 years, I’ve asked the elite athletes I consult with if they can hear the noise from the fans. The typical answer is, “Yes, but it doesn’t bother me. It’s just noise.” When I coached minor hockey and high-school basketball, I asked kids the same question and the typical answer was something along the lines of: “Yes, I can hear but it doesn’t bother me most of the time…”
So don’t fool yourself, the myth that kids on the ice don’t hear the yelling from the stands is false. In more cases, kids are able to ignore all the yelling, but they do hear it. And in some cases, the noise becomes a distraction.
Fact #2: Kids do recognize your voice amongst the noise
Athletes, from beginners to pros, learn to deal with the ambient noise of a game, but certain specific noises can distract even the most seasoned and talented. Often what disrupts an athlete is a sound that they fear or anticipate with anxiety.
For example, a pro golfer can ignore the roar of the crowd on another hole, but the sound of a camera at the wrong time could distract her. A pro basketball player can make a free throw while thousands of screaming spectators are trying to distract him, but one comment from a courtside spectator known for heckling players could be distracting.
The same rule applies to an eight-year-old, whether he or she is playing hockey, soccer, or any other organized sport or activity: they’ll be able to keep their focus in a noisy environment unless they recognize a familiar voice amongst the noise. And this is especially true if they fear being embarrassed. Your voice will stand out from the noise and can take their focus away from the game.
Two questions to ask yourself before you choose to scream from the stands:
Minor hockey should be about what kids want. And kids want two things: to have fun and improve. As a parent, when it comes to deciding to yell or not in the stands, ask yourself two key questions:
- Is my screaming preventing my kid from having fun?
- Is my screaming preventing my kid from being fully invested in developing skills?
If the answer is “yes” to either of these questions (or if it’s not an overwhelming and definite no), you should refrain from yelling. Simple.
What to say at the rink:
I’m not saying parents need to be totally quiet during games. There is a place for positive and encouraging cheering. What I am advocating for is if, as a parent, you want your child to have fun and be focused on the game so he or she can improve, choose your moments and your words very carefully.
How and when to cheer for your kids in a purposeful and positive fashion:
- Keep quiet during play. Refrain from yelling directives like “Skate!”, “Shoot!”, or “Pass!” so kids can actually focus their attention on the game and on learning to read the play.
- Cheering good actions (a goal, a nice pass, or a great effort) during play is okay, but keep it generic and make sure you do so for all players—that means your kid, her or his teammates, and opponents.
- In between whistles or during breaks in play, cheer for effort, sportsmanship, and, most importantly, for all players (see point #2).
- Never, ever criticize players, coaches, or the referees. Ever.
- After the game, especially during the car ride home, restrict yourself to six words: “I love to watch you play.”
Hockey is one of the most exciting sports around, especially when you’re watching your daughter or son play. As hockey parents, we gain from reminding ourselves that hockey is about our kids having fun and improving. It’s also critical to remind ourselves that what we yell and do in the bleachers influences our kids on the ice.
After looking at the facts, I choose to refrain from yelling most of the time. When I do, I try to do so in a purposeful and positive fashion. The more kids are left to have fun and improve their skills, the more likely they will remain hockey players for life.