But when it comes to relating to an 8-year-old hockey player, it’s anything but simple for an adult. While our grown-up minds are used to dealing with problems and stressful on-ice situations with adult solutions, youth hockey players are often on a much different track.
In a tie game with a minute left, some of them might be thinking about scoring a goal. Some might be thinking about postgame snacks. Some might be thinking about cartoons. And still others might be thinking about what their parents will say on the car ride home.
Going inside the mind of an 8-year-old is a proceed-at-your-own-risk task, but it’s one that is necessary when it comes to youth hockey, says Dr. Adam Naylor, a faculty member at Boston University and a sports psychologist who has worked with hockey families for more than 15 years.
“When I got into this field, the thought was that I was only going to work with elite athletes,” Naylor says. “I’ve been stunned by how many families I’ve worked with.”
Seeing It Through a Different Lens
Naylor supports the notion that adults and youth hockey players see the hockey experience through a much different lens.
“There should be a magic set of glasses we give parents so they can see through a kid’s eyes,” Naylor says. “But they see through an adult lens. They see it as wins and losses, they see it costs money, so there’s some stress there.”
Inside the mind of an 8-year-old is a much different place.
“If you have kid glasses, there’s this: they want to enjoy themselves and it’s not just giggles,” Naylor says. “They want to compete and learn stuff. They need to learn a few basic skills. And they need to have friendships at appropriate levels. Safe goofing off, which drives adults nuts, is one of the motivators.”
Interestingly, Naylor says, the reasons a lot of kids enjoy hockey are the same reasons elite players enjoy it when they get older.
“I share this so often when I do USA Hockey clinics: if you look at the best hockey players out there, these are the same reasons they play,” he says. “Guys in the summer are in flip flops, going to the gym and hanging out with their buddies.”
Sympathy for Parents
At the same time, Naylor says he sees the challenges of being a part of a sports family and he has plenty of sympathy. He says that while USA Hockey does a good job supporting parents, there’s no perfect instruction manual for how to be a hockey parent.
“I’m slow to throw parents under the bus. It’s caring run amok,” Naylor says. “Nobody is even given a user manual when they become a parent, and then it’s an advanced manual when you become a hockey parent. I’m never going to fault a parent for caring. I just want them to care a little bit better.”
The worst sports parents “give the rest a bad name,” Naylor says. Kids at that age are trying to please their parents and have a hard time saying no, regardless of how misguided the parents are.
The key for parents who get too worked up and can’t handle it when youth players aren’t on the same page, Naylor says, is to “take a step back and be able to laugh.”
“If you’re not able to say you were an idiot, you’re missing awareness,” Naylor says.
Work the System
Remember the different kids from the beginning of this story who were thinking about goals, cartoons, snacks and the ride home? They all have a place in 8U hockey – and parents need to trust that each individual experience will be positive in the right setting.
“The key to not overcoaching your kid is to be a good consumer of the program and then step back,” Naylor says. “Remember, you made the choice that this is a safe place for your kid to learn, and then step back.”
That might change over time, but particularly at the youngest levels of hockey, that’s an appropriate approach.
“When athletes are younger, I’m a much bigger believer in working with the system – meaning coaches and parents,” Naylor says. “You can teach a 10-year-old how to breathe so they feel less stress, but if they’re in a bad environment, all the stress is going to come back.”
So let kids be kids. And most of all: never assume you know what’s going on inside the mind of an 8-year-old.
“Try to help with dialogue: instead of ‘did you win?’ ask, ‘how did you play?’ Let your kid speak first,” Naylor advises. “Parent education and coach education is critical to create a healthy athlete. It’s not the pushing that makes a great athlete. It’s allowing them to thrive and develop their own skills.”