Psychological Balancing Act

I’ve had perhaps my most challenging couple of days as a hockey coach this weekend as an unforecasted storm was unleashed in the dressing room of my girls’ team during a local tournament.

I first started seeing some cracks in our teams’ communal armour a little over a week ago when I noticed a couple of players conducting their pre-game warm up and preparation away from the rest of the team. As the players are 13 and 14 years old, I had decided to give them the freedom to conduct their pre-game stretching and rituals on their own, with minimal supervision assuming they would fall together in lock step. However, some felt others were not following the team line. I tried to address the situation at the time by reminding the players of the importance of an all for one and one for all attitude; the importance of playing and acting as a team.

A second pre-game issue involved head-high shots being fired at our goaltenders. The purpose of these shots is to warm the goalies up; give them a chance to get used to the feel of the puck. But they don’t want to feel it up around their noggins. Players launching the questionable salvos argued they were only trying to work on their shots, but failed to realize this practicing should not happen a mere 10 feet in front of the keeper. We suggested if they needed practice is should be done from well out above the faceoff circles. Even some parents in the stands (not only those of the netminders) raised issue with the proximity of these shots out of concern for player safety. We had tried to talk through the whole situation in a previous practice, but our discussion seemed to have fallen on a few deaf ears.

I found out quickly divisions within the team were drawn a little deeper than I realized. Factions had apparently formed over the last several weeks centred around a couple of particularly strong personalities. I knew from the beginning that managing different personalities came with the territory, but I admittedly underestimated how divisive these temperaments could be or how quickly they could attack the fabric which holds a team together. I even had one player questioning her position and interest in continuing. Her parents weighed in as well with claims of a long smoldering flame of discontent. I obviously had no idea things had reached such a febrile pitch.

I decided, with some decided trepidation, a frank team meeting was required prior to our next game to air whatever differences had arisen; a meeting I knew had the potential to go sideways with dire results. I was as open and honest as I could be with my players’ delicate psyches again recognizing they are for the most part young, but rapidly maturing adults. I told them the negative stuff had to stop if we hope to have any success as a team. Harsh feelings were visible and verbalized. Then again a lot of good questions and comments were conveyed. At the end I believe we made some progress, though only time will tell. We were able to pull out a victory with a strong effort in the game which followed. And maybe this win along with a few more will serve to heal some wounds. Yet, I know this is a situation we will need to monitor more closely now that some damage has been done.

This is the part of coaching I knew about, but hoped, I would not have to deal with. Even lost a few hours sleep over it.

On the brighter hockey side, the team actually prospered through the turmoil managing to get into the semi-finals of the tourney. That’s where our journey ended this morning as we dropped the semi-final tilt to our oh-so familiar league rivals by a score of 4-2. Here’s hoping the scales weigh more in our favour both on and off the ice from here on in.


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