“What I wanted most for him was that he be honest and humble. … I told him always that there are two magic words to live by: please and thank you. These are the two words that open doors all over the world.”
— Zdenek Chara on his son,
Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara
The subject of this hockey column began at a Little League game. I was sitting in the stands, trying not to fall asleep. It was 88 degrees on the car’s thermometer, but it felt like a hundred in the shade. This is Sam’s first year of kid-pitch; torture is too kind a label for what most of these games feel like.
You can’t walk in a run under league rules (average scores would be 23-18 if you could), so our pitcher was throwing what seemed like his 30th pitch of the at-bat with the bases loaded and two out. It was another bad ball, but hot, tired and frustrated by the 29 pitches he’d already seen, the batter took a college-try swing at it and struck out.
The kid standing on third base went ballistic on him. This same kid, who I know and love from other contexts, had been giving his coaches hell about the batting order when we first arrived at the game.
“How could you swing at that? Whatterya DOING! Come on!”
Mr. Unsportsmanlike Conduct was so angry at his teammate that he threw his helmet at the fence. Looking around for his parents, I found them shrugging in a “what can you do” kind of way, and the coaches said nothing. I remembered the time Sam got reamed out by a teammate for letting in a bad goal. It upset him for days. Maybe this kid’s target wasn’t that sensitive, but no little kid should have their mistakes amplified and thrown back at them with taunts from their teammates.
We were soon losing by several runs to this Mr. U.C.’s team, which appeared to put him in a better mood. Good enough so that he climbed up on the dugout benches and catcalled, “We’re crushing them!” repeatedly as our team took the field.
Let’s face it. Kids act like kids sometimes. And when sports were played in backyards, there was always somebody to punch you in the mouth if you acted like a jerk, or you just wouldn’t get invited back to play next time. Now, everything is organized, we punish the punchers, and everybody gets to play every week. We can’t turn back time and go all “Lord of the Flies” anymore, so parents and coaches have to step up and teach kids how to be team players.
It’s often said that there are no hard and fast rules in parenting and coaching, but I’m prepared to offer some hard and fast rules for teaching sportsmanship to kids. I have to credit most of these to Jeff Morton, one of Sam’s hockey and lacrosse coaches, who was kind enough to share with me his coaching guidelines (which seem to work quite boffo for Sam and his teammates).
1. Yell at a teammate for a mistake, get benched.
2. Yell at a coach, get benched.
3. Yell at a referee, get benched.
4. Smack talk the opposing team when you are winning, one warning. Second time, benched.*
5. Excessive celebration after a goal, one warning. Next time, get walked over to the opposing bench to apologize.
*This is a tricky one. Some good-natured smack talk between friends is a great part of the game.
You aren’t squelching any competitive fire to hold children to high behavioral expectations on the field of play. In fact, you are helping them. Trust me. I make my living coaching competitive athletes. If your child can’t control their emotions and channel them at the right moments into the right actions, they won’t have any deep success in sports as they grow older. And the best time to learn is when they are young.
As Jeff says, “There is little to teach during a youth game except how to be a team player, to try hard and see good things happen, and that umpires don’t reverse calls. There is a huge difference between a competitor and a punk, and to see that all we need to do is to place the behavior in other contexts. Do you dress down a teacher in school and expect to get away with it? Do you second-guess your friend’s parents if they give you the wrong snack? Is it OK to trash-talk kids that don’t read as well as you? Make fun of kids that don’t look the same or can’t draw as well?”
Exactly. Drive goes nowhere without discipline.
So maybe your kid has a bit of an unsportsmanlike streak. Or maybe one (or more) of his or her teammates is a jerk. What if your child’s coaches don’t subscribe to Jeff’s guidelines and they don’t feel comfortable disciplining their team’s behavior? Well, it might be that they just need to hear that it’s OK to do so from you. Talk to the coaches specifically about what behavior you find troubling (without the kids present). Brion O’Connor, the Goalie Guru of these pages, passed on to me a really helpful website to which you can refer coaches and other parents at www.positivecoach.org.
But also, don’t forget that while a coach’s game and practice strategy should never get the parental second guess, your child’s behavior is absolutely under your authority. If I ever saw Sam admonish a teammate like that he would have to apologize to his teammate, apologize to his coach and assure him it would not happen again, and get benched (grounded) at home.
Some would say that’s harsh. I would say there is a reason why both my kids are competitive, driven athletes who would never dream of harshing on a teammate or second-guessing their coach. It’s just. Not. Acceptable. And they know it.
Make sure your kid knows it too. Hockey is a team sport. Even for the greatest talents, they’ll go no further than the rest of their team (see Exhibit A: the 2012-13 Pittsburgh Penguins). Being a great teammate is the most important talent they can have, especially since most of them are skipping the NHL and going straight into the game of life.
April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.