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The Five Most Important Factors in Choosing A Great Coach

Friday, October 26, 2018 - by Bill Kerig

I find myself in an unusual place: standing on the parent side of the parent/coach tryout meeting for a travel hockey team. This is the meeting where the coach tells prospective parents what they should expect if their child makes the team. It’s also the one time of the year where the coach has to sell himself to the parents who are going to pay for their kids to play on his team. I’ve run a dozen of these from the coaches’ side, but now, for the first time my son is trying out for a hockey team that I don’t coach (He is 13 and it’s time.)

At this moment, I’m a typical youth sports parent, facing a handful of coaches and admins of a hockey club that we’d spent years fighting (in a rivalry kind of way). The team plays one level up and my son wanted to tryout to see how he stacked up against the better hockey players in Salt Lake City. He is in the locker room, getting ready for the third and final session of the tryouts. After two skates, it looks like he may be offered a spot. The club is three times more expensive than our club, and the travel will involve airline tickets. One season with this team will cost me at somewhere around $8,000. I’m listening intently.

The lobby of the hockey rink echoes. Rubber mats, benches affixed to the floor, the zam spinning laps loudly. There is a gap of 10 yards in front of the coach. It’s informal and awkward at the same time. Parents backed up against the wall of the skate rental booth. Figure skaters straggling through the lobby in twos and threes. The sound is bouncy and the coach must speak loudly to be heard.

The head coach clears his throat and, having captured the room’s attention, introduces himself as Coach Mulholland. Since I know him as Davis, I note the distinction. He’s telling us that he’s a coach. He’s not your buddy, he’s not your neighbor. He’s “coach.” This I like. It tells me that this is a man who takes coaching seriously and expects parents to as well (when a doctor introduces himself and wants to gain your trust, he doesn’t say, “I’m Dave”).

Next, Coach Mulholland tells the room how long he’s been playing hockey (nearly 50 years), where he played his college hockey (Penn State), that he still plays in men’s league, and how long he’s been coaching (18 years). He tells us his history with the organization (his son played in it and is now playing elite hockey on the East Coast) and that he no longer has a child on the team. Next up, his goal for this year (to create great young men and women, and to get competitive players ready to play at the next level, and to win state). Next, he introduces the other coaches, all with the coach honorific (Coach Rugello, Coach McElvy, Coach Levy, etc.). Lastly, he tells everyone in the room about how he would like their feedback (he’d like the players to get used to talking to the coach about challenges, and as a secondary channel, to hear from parents).

As a parent, I have a good feeling about this man, and his program. He’s been around; he knows his stuff. I look around the room and see that I’m not alone. Parents are smiling, nodding. This, I realize, is almost exactly how I’ve given the same talk a dozen times before. Same order, same emphasis.

Later, in the stands, I listen to parents. Most talk as if they are very eager to have their children be coached by this man and his staff. What I listen for is the way that they talk about the why. All the comments are either about where the coaches played their hockey (all the coaches played in college), or what other parents have said (John’s son played for him last year and he loved it). It was an hour and a half skate, so I heard a lot.

Back in the lobby, as players and parents anxiously wait for the team list to be posted, I sneak off to a quiet corner of the rink and write down my own lists. These are based strictly on what I heard in one day, in one rink, in the state of Utah. One list ranks the importance of the factors that the coaches would like the parents to consider when deciding whether it’s worth $8K to have their child play on this team. The other ranks the relative importance of factors that parents talk about with each other. I did not ask either stakeholder group their opinions, I merely listened and made notes on what they emphasized. Here they are:

Coaches List of Important Factors When Choosing a Great Coach:

  1. Years playing
  2. Top level played
  3. Years coaching
  4. Philosophy and goal of the coach and the organization
  5. Parent/athlete feedback

Parents List of Important Factors When Choosing a Great Coach:

  1. Top level the coach played
  2. What other parents say about her/him
  3. Philosophy and goals of the organization
  4. Years coaching
  5. Years played

Interesting that neither group mentioned training. It never once came up in any of the discussions I heard. Nor did any mention of background checks or Safe Sport training. These are the things that the governing body of ice hockey, USA Hockey, wants to stress. So now I’m wondering, which factors are more important to you? I’m really interested in this. Send me your list here or just connect with me and message them over.

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