I am sure many of you are aware that in the past several years, the media and many Canadian youth hockey organizations have begun to pay attention to the ridiculous behaviours of some minor hockey parents. You are probably conjuring up an image from your youth or own child’s playing days of that parent who relentlessly yelled at the pint-sized players, teenage referees and volunteer coaches on the ice. I to, have many of these memories myself, strong images of “bully parents” who forget what the whole point of minor hockey is about: a place for kids to have fun. In fact, there was a recent study that found that the No.1 reason why kids chose join sport was simply that, they wanted to have fun. And one of the major reasons why they dropout: it stopped being fun for them.
The rapid commercialization and politicization of hockey in recent years has created this incredibly stressful environment for parents and kids. In 21st century Canadian minor hockey culture, families often feel the pressure to buy into this new marketplace of year-round hockey, skills camps to “fix” their kids’ weaknesses and to “invest” in top-of-the-line equipment to give their eight-year-old a competitive edge. I particularly remember this sentiment when I was coaching at a hockey school a few years back and struck up a conversation with one of the young female “regulars” of the program. Naturally, I asked her how her hockey season was going and she replied with a disinterested shrug. After pushing her for a bit more detail, I learned that she had been on the ice at least twice a day for the last several months. She was exhausted and anxious for the season to end. There, at eleven years of age, she’d already been turned off of the sport. And she probably wasn’t the only child like this.
So not only do we have these young players feeling the pressure to perform, we also have these parents who feel the pressure to produce the next Wayne Gretzky or Hayley Wickenheiser. In my PhD supervisor Dr. Dawn Trussell’s, dissertation work on parenting in youth sport, she found that there is a creation of a set of criteria around which parents are judged by others on their child-rearing practices as they are shown through the youth sports, such as hockey. Parents judge other parents on their abilities to provide supportive sporting and enrichment opportunities for their children. Hockey parents, then, believe that to be viewed as a good parent with high “moral worth”, they need to be heavily involved and that this is tied to their child success within the sport.
Youth hockey, then, becomes an arena (please pardon my pun) for parents to judge other parents’ behaviours and reflect on how their own actions are contributing to their child’s success on the ice. Being so emotionally and financially involved, hockey parents often highly-identify as fans of their child’s team and playing pursuits. With this fanship, parents often provide much more vocal encouragement from the stands and tend to challenge the calls of officials at the interest of their child’s team and not necessarily for the rules of the game. For many of these parents, their fan behaviours simply turn into pesky sore throats; however, sometimes these behaviours turn violent towards other parents, coaches, ice officials and even players. While it’s pretty rare to witness or hear about extreme acts of “rink rage” from parents, we have seen parents kill for their kid’s hockey (i.e. There was a rather despicable incident in the early 2000’s, where a Massachusetts hockey father was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after killing another parent at his son’s hockey game). As Walter Gretzky put it:
“…parents often seem to lose sight of the more important things like the health of their hockey-playing kids. They don’t realize how lucky they are, they just don’t, that’s why that [rink rage] happens…Wayne left home when he was 14 years old. Why? Not the kids, the parents [were the problem].” (Gretzky qtd. in Luba A3)
I’ve defined parental “rink rage” as any verbal harassment and/or physical violence directed at another person (e.g. coach, player, spectator, referee) conducted by a parent at a hockey event. Since this is a very culturally and personally relevant topic, I decided to examine if trends appearred in the occurrence of these rink rage incidences as they were reported by Canadian media. Here’s what I found:
- over half of the media reported parental rink rage occurred during playoff and tournament games
- a third of the reported rink rage occurred during Peewee hockey games, with this age group and older divisions making up three-quarters of all incidents
- most of the rink rage occurs towards other adults at the rink (referees, coaches, other parents)
- 81% of incidents were carried out by fathers at both boys’ and girls’ games
So what does all mean? Well, after finding these trends, I looked at recent effort by many community, regional and provincial youth hockey organizations. Created by Hockey Calgary in 2010, the Respect in Sport program was developed to helped educate parents about how to behave properly at the arena. Since its creation, many other organizations have adopted the program into their policies, with some making it mandatory for parents to get “certified” in before their child can play (side note: last I checked Hockey Canada has not mandated this program nationally). While I not wanting to advertise this program by any means, I think it is a step in the right direction. The big question though: is it effective? I’m anxiously waiting on an official report from Mount Royal University that has being studying the implementation of this program; however, they do have some preliminary results on it. Generally, they found that parents think it’s a great idea, but that it needs to be integrated into the culture more.
My suggestions? While I don’t have a long-term solution to this problem yet, I urge parents and hockey organizations to start taking further steps that will begin to change the Canadian hockey parent culture. Reflecting back to my findings here’s some of my ideas with regards to the application of the Respect in Sport program.
- Organizations should make both parents take educational courses, such as the Respect in Sport Program. Research in family leisure and youth sport, has shown that mothers tend to be doing most of the behind the scenes work, such as organizing rides, telephone chains, snack and, I speculate, possibly completing such courses. The vast majority of incidents of rink rage that I found involved fathers and perhaps we are not targeting the correct parent.
- Secondly, these programs are all applied at the beginning of seasons, which is where the least amount of rink rage is occurring from parents. I suggest we create more programs that are specific to and applied during playoffs and tournaments, where most of the rink rage is tending to occur.
- Finally, for many of the minor hockey organizations across Canada, parents are only having to take the course if they are new to organization as a family and/or have children participating in the novice and younger playing levels. Again, these programs seem to missing the target, seeing as most of the violence occurs during Peewee age groups. All parents, regardless of their child’s age, should have to take the program every year.
Despite these potential suggestions, we need to work towards finding a long term solution. Like the parents suggested in the Mount Royal study, we need to begin to change the culture of Canadian youth hockey parenting and we need to start understanding the roots of this issue. In the meantime, stay vigilant to your own and the behaviours of others, and let’s keep our kids in the game.