The hockey team has adopted a practice of handing out a “knight's helmet” to a special player after every game on our 10U hockey team. So far, the helmet has been passed to every player and has started to make its rounds a 2nd and 3rd time, with the exception of our son. He is the only player on the team that has not gotten the helmet, and it has been pretty demoralizing for him. He is not the strongest player on the team, but he's extremely coachable, eager to play, a great teammate, and he's become a more solid defenseman as the season evolves. I feel the helmet has taken away from the team effort and has placed the focus on single players. I'm not sure it's accomplishing what it was initially meant for.
PCA Response by Youth Hockey Coach and Staff Member Rich Pruszynski
The situation you describe is certainly one where it's understandable that you and your son would be upset and demoralized.
The concept of rewarding players on your son's team with the knight's helmet is what PCA calls, “targeted symbolic reward.” If used correctly, it is something that can serve as a very powerful tool and actually elevate individual and team effort, and on-ice play. On the other hand, if used incorrectly by only rewarding players who scored the most goals, for example, that can have dire consequences for individual players' morale, oftentimes negatively impacting team camaraderie.
I'll begin by sharing a bit more about “targeted symbolic rewards”, and then provide a few ideas about what you can do to perhaps have your son address the topic with his coach or you address it with him if you deem it is necessary.
As PCA's Founder, Jim Thompson states, “targeted symbolic rewards” are a tool to get athletes to act in helpful ways without undercutting internal motivation. What gets rewarded gets done. What the coach gives attention to gets done, because a coach’s attention is rewarding to players.
The knight's helmet can and should certainly be rewarded to skaters who experience success in conventional ways, ie. scoring a hat-trick or achieving a "playmaker" (3 assists), but mostly it should be used to target unsung activities that contribute to the team’s success. Over time, coaches need to make sure each skater earns the helmet so it is not just the most talented skaters who are continually being recognized, which then can negatively impact overall team morale.
At PCA, we encourage and celebrate the concept of rewarding effort (hustle plays on defense, blocked pucks), not outcomes (goals scored). This is considering “controlling the controllables.” Athletes can control the amount of effort they put into something, but not always the result. Targeted symbolic rewards work best when coaches thoughtfully target them to behaviors that we want to see more of from ALL players. And, as we know from Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset, if you reward actions that are the result of talent rather than effort, you are not going to see more effort. Not everyone has the talent to make big plays, but everyone can increase their effort. If players regularly earn the knight's helmet for hustling, you are definitely going to see a lot more hustling.
So what can you do next? I think you need to encourage your son to have a brief conversation with his coach or ask if you could meet with him together. Ideally, give the coach a heads-up by coordinating a set date/time to meet where you can calmly approach the topic. Immediately before/after practice might be convenient for you, but can be bad timing for a coach, so consider both schedules before requesting a time.
I would suggest that you begin by mentioning that you like and understand the concept of the knight's helmet. I would discourage specifically asking why your son hasn't earned it yet, but instead, point out that he is motivated to earn it and wants to know what he can do differently since he hasn’t had that opportunity yet.
There may be a specific reason your son hasn't earned it yet. You and the coach can have an honest dialogue about that, in which case you've already asked the right question about how and where your son can focus his efforts. But in all honesty, this feels to me like the coach might simply be unaware that your son hasn't yet earned the helmet yet. This brief interaction might be all it takes to make him aware and set things in motion for the coach to find that special on-ice hustle play for which to reward your son.