Walking the walk: the coach as role model

Richard Monette and Jim Grove are minor sport coaches who respectively coach a boys Novice hockey team and a girls Under-14 soccer team. Active for Life recorded a bit of their recent conversation on how coaches affect kids’ behaviour.

RM: Twice a week I lace up the old skates, grab my stick, put on my helmet and lead a team of eager 8-year-olds onto the ice. On the weekend, I walk behind the bench, open the gate and pretend to be Scotty Bowman.

It’s great fun. The kids are eager and they love to play so they work hard at every drill. As a result, they’ve improved throughout the season and even won the league final. It was a great accomplishment for our tiny minor hockey association.

JG: Similar story with my girls’ soccer team. We won some, lost some, and tied some through the regular season, but the number one thing was how much fun they had at practices and games. They worked hard in training because it was fun, and they improved a lot. It surprised everyone when they pulled off a big upset win against one of our top rivals in the cup semi-finals at the end of the season.

RM: I was also pleased that we were the least penalized team in our league. In fact, we had half the penalty minutes than the second least penalized team. Some of the 8-year-olds on those teams played with a really aggressive edge. At times it verged on violent.

JG: I’ve seen the same in both girls and boys soccer over the years. This season was much better, but there have been some years where it was clear that the players were being encouraged, or at least sanctioned, to be violent towards their opponents.

RM: Modeling by coaches is a big reason. Researchers have found that coaches have a big impact on how aggressive the athletes are on the ice. The aggression was measured by how many minutes the team got in penalties.

Reading about that study inspired me to dig a bit deeper into our Novice league statistics, and I saw the same correlations: the most penalized teams had coaches that were vocally aggressive from the bench.

JG: When we pulled off that upset win at the end of the season against our big rivals, I saw something similar that really caught my attention. Their girls were sobbing and crying uncontrollably after the game. They were in utter despair. It made shaking hands really awkward and weird. I immediately asked myself, how could a group of 13-year-old girls be this worked up?

And then I looked at the coaches and the parents. They all looked very serious and downcast, even angry. I would not want to have to ride home in the car with those people. That tells me that those girls are under a lot of external pressure from the adults, and especially the coaches.

Compare their reaction to when my same girls’ team lost their cup quarter-final last year against an opponent they had beaten all season. They didn’t even come close to crying. They frowned a bit and clearly felt disappointed with the result, but it only lasted for about 15 minutes. Then it was, “Hey, who’s going for ice cream?” I thought that was great; even though I was disappointed with the loss!

RM: I think that shows how the kids’ behaviour reflects the culture that the coaches set within the team. For example, we came up with “The Bear Code” to make our team values clear. We gave a copy to every player. We also printed a large version that each kid signed to state that they would live by “the code”. That version was taped on the wall in our dressing room before each and every game.

I think our success stemmed from the fact that all the players lived by our code all season. What was even more rewarding is that one of the teachers at our school commented that our hockey players were very respectful, helpful and supportive of other students.

JG: You say you think you won because of the culture of the team?

RM: Absolutely. Winning was great, but it’s the way the team won that was rewarding.

JG: I know exactly what you mean. I am coaching a “select” team that aims to win games. But I am also very aware that these girls are still kids, and their main motivation is still to have fun and be together. Part of my job is to support that and build a positive culture like you describe.

From a practical coaching perspective, I’m also acutely aware that they are still developing as players, so I shouldn’t expect them to be delivering career-peak performances and winning every game at 13-years-old. In my view, that’s just silly and unrealistic.

And in the case of your hockey team, I’m sure your attitude towards their playing conduct made a huge difference. It seems pretty clear that you focused on skills and getting better, rather than being thugs.

RM: I like to think that’s the case. And I like to believe they’ll be better players in the long run as well.

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