This weekend I observed a coach advising his player serving a penalty that he shouldn't have been beaten on the previous (penalized) play because the opposing skater was a girl. What resources are there to help coaches, officials, parents and hockey associations confront and discourage sexism in the sport of youth hockey? Can you recommend any resources to help coaches and officials discourage and/or confront sexism in mixed-gender youth sports?
PCA Response by Lead Trainer Joe Terrasi
Thank you for bringing up this pertinent and difficult question. In this reply, I will briefly address separate dimensions of player development, ethical considerations, and thoughts on what to do next.
To get an additional perspective, I reached out to Caitlin Cahow, 2-time medalist with the US Women’s Olympic Ice Hockey Team. She remembered her youth playing experience vividly and spoke of mixed-gender teams on which she’d played. One of her core observations was that her youth coaches who enjoyed the most success in developing players made a point not to compare players based on size, speed, skill, or gender. They worked to help each player improve and to create a team culture that fostered supportive relationships between players. Her thoughts echoed what we heard from Mia Hamm at last summer’s National Youth Sports Awards and Benefit: A great coach celebrates all youth athletes.
This is in keeping with Positive Coaching Alliance’s core principle of mastery teaching. We work with coaches to develop tools to help athletes focus on effort, learning, and useful ways of processing mistakes (the “ELM tree of mastery”) as these are within each player’s control. We discuss with coaches that comparing oneself to other athletes (whether opponents or teammates) is an impediment to improvement as well as a threat to love of sport. Positive Coaching Alliance is fortunate to work with Dr. Carol Dweck as a member of our National Advisory Board. Her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is an excellent resource that details how a fixed or comparative mindset is an impediment to improvement. In the book, Dr. Dweck provides excellent tools for coaches, teachers, and parents to foster a productive growth mindset (for children and adults alike). While you’re waiting for your copy of the book to arrive, PCADevZone.org offers an enormous collection of useful resources, including many from Dr. Dweck.
USA Hockey has shown excellent leadership as well by ensuring that their American Development Model (ADM) pays specific attention to the needs of young women in the game. Their online resource at https://www.admkids.com/ is an excellent resource for coaches and parents.
In all, focusing on player comparisons leads to substandard player and team development.
More important than the skill development component, the situation you describe raises questions about ethics and the values we impart. Fostering attitudes that young women are inferior is demeaning to all women and is harmful to young men and young women players alike. In the “Double-Goal Coach” model in which coaches strive to win and to teach crucial life lessons, we stress that the life lessons are primary and paramount. It’s unfortunate to know that a co-educational team is reinforcing unhealthy understandings of gender difference when it could be such a powerful tool to break down stereotypical divisions and negative behavior.
The difficult task is to choose the next steps that will improve the situation. Team, organization, and league culture must be intentional and carefully built and cultivated. It’s not enough to offer the right words in a mission statement; your entire community is at task to move those values off your website and onto the ice (and into the locker room, bench, stands, and post-game pizza parlor). It is essential to work with organizational leadership to make sure that what we do is an accurate embodiment of what we say.
Working with a specific coach can be challenging. The goal is to have a positive effect on behavior, not to win a verbal argument that only widens divisions. Concerned parents who will be effective in achieving this goal must bring excellent social and emotional skills to bear as they work to become better partners with the coach (and ultimately improve behavior). Early, positive contact - the building of an authentic relationship with the coach - is essential. Gratefully honoring the coach’s commitment is important groundwork to becoming partners rather than adversaries. The adults in the situation (coaches, parents, and organizational leaders) are called on to act as a team just as we’re trying to teach the players. It will take a strong adult-team effort to put aside antipathies in the service of creating better athletes and, more importantly, better people.
Thank you for your question, and thank you for your commitment to youth sports.