Dear Hockey Coaches: Thank You

Dear Hockey Coach,

You’ve been under fire lately. Your actions and words have never been more scrutinized. And you’re expected to know everything there is about gender, race, sexuality, and every other social justice topic on Earth.

First, before saying anything else, it’s important to say, thank you.

Thank you for the hours and hours each week you donate and volunteer to youth and to your community. So many people, including some who criticize you don’t do what you do…they don’t physically give their time to kids. They talk about it, but they don’t do it.

You’ve stepped up to the proverbial plate, you’re working to help youth, and give them a sporting experience they’ll remember forever.

Thank you.

Almost all coaches believe in the power of sport to build character, and teach valuable life skills.

Which is likely why many coaches feel threatened, offended, and angered by messages about, and the push to further confront racism, homophobia, toxic masculinity, abuse, substance use, gender inequality.

It feels like everyone is trying to educate you, and shame you. And attack your character. I get it. I’ve been there.

Your contributions to your community are valued, and your role is so important. Thank you for showing up, for giving your time, and dedicating yourself to kids and sport. Thank you.

Gratitude is important. There are so many people, including me, who are grateful for what you do. Without you stepping behind the bench, or onto the field or court, there are no local sports to cover and celebrate.

And that raises the question, which many of you have raised. Why are some sports media outlets (including this one) criticizing issues in sport? Why are we continuously highlighting racism, sexism, toxic culture, gender inequality, xenophobia, and homophobia if we love sports?

Well, that’s just it, it’s because we love sports.

Sports aren’t racist or sexist. Sports are wonderful. Sports are an opportunity. The magic of hearing skates cut through a fresh sheet of ice, or a basketball hitting nothing but net is incredible. For many, it’s life changing.

Sports aren’t any of these awful things, but many people are… and many policies and rules are, including those that govern sport… and Canada and the USA have a history of giving certain people more, and oppressing others.

To relate this to another topic in the world, sport is like the environment. And in the environment, we have environmental racism, which is defined as the disproportionate impact to BIPOC communities from systemic policy and practices that destroy our environment. Environmental racism isn’t individual beliefs or actions, it’s a system of rules and policies, which yes were put in place by racist people. But the environment itself isn’t racist. A tree or river is not racist, neither is a ball or a puck.

In other words, you as a coach might believe in your heart sports are for everyone, and you might feel you’re working to create that safe environment…and you might very well be, but it doesn’t change the systems that have been in place, and the impact they’ve had on many. That’s why these topics need to be talked about over and over again, until they are things of the past. And that’s why sometimes, we have to root out people who refuse to change or learn.

If you are a coach who wants the best for your players, and works to create a safe space….thank you!

And that brings us back to sport for character development.

How Does Character Development Occur

It doesn’t just happen because someone plays sport.

“Sports evangelists” believe that sport is an “effective activity for solving problems and improving quality of life for individuals and society alike.”

Two main claims by sport evangelists relate to positive character development and reformation of “at risk” populations. They believe sport does this naturally, but it doesn’t. Because pucks and balls aren’t racist, they also aren’t anti-racist. The game itself doesn’t make the change, it’s the coaches, organizations, policies, and systems.

Informally, research shows that character development in sport can happen through the environment, utilization of ‘teachable moments’, and role modelling.

Being in the sport environment, it’s shown that when individuals “enter the world of sport, they tend to be heavily influenced by what their peers value and practice.”

In other words, if the environment uses homophobic, racist, or sexist language regularly, character development won’t occur. If an athletes introduction to a team is a rookie party where they are forced to drink and demean themselves, character development cannot exist, because the environment will not let it. To foster environmental character development in sport, coaches and organizations need to put programs in place that “shape the groups that influence the athlete’s thinking and behavior to encourage the athlete’s moral actions so they are more respectful to others.”

A code of ethics, team rules, and guidelines for acceptable language, which are strictly adhered to, are first steps for this environment.

When an issue occurs, and a player, fan, or coach acts outside of this, we move to the teachable moment. Just like when an on ice issue arises, coaches immediately act to correct the action for the benefit the team. For either of these steps to have value, “education about the organization’s values and code must occur.”

This goes beyond the environment, and also foster the environment. It can’t be enough to just have the rule, we must practice it and teach it in these moments. Coaches know this. Coaches volunteer so many hours to physical practice, so this next step is simply an extension. Identify and recognize behaviour we want to eliminate, and provide teaching. When players see this done, or experience it themselves, they learn from the environment.

For the coaches who spend hours developing on-ice practices, and try to teach ethics and character at the rink, thank you! You’re already taking the first steps, and you can absolutely continue taking steps toward creating inclusive, safe, equitable, diverse spaces.

This is where coaches get to be role models, which “holds that leaders take
responsibility for their actions and demonstrate good character.”

As adults, we still make mistakes, and we must own these, sit with them, express our remorse and demonstrate learning. When we do that, our athletes see it, and strive to be it.

There is a difference between building rapport by trying to relate to current struggles of athletes, and building rapport by conforming to stereotypes and glorifying past mistakes. Being a good role model involves owning up for the mistakes of your own past, telling these stories, and presenting an alternative to players.

Beyond these informal character development opportunities, where athletes can benefit from being in a situation, participating, and observing alone, we’ve also moved on to the time where formal education is needed.

But, before we move on, thank you, coach.

This next step of formal education equates to the prospect of adding another task, another night to your week, more hours to your day, and that is tough. Thank you for the time you already give. As sports media, we see how much you do and care, thank you for the next steps, which we know despite all of the commitment you already make, you’ll always be willing to give more to your athletes.

Formal education asks your athletes and organization to challenge and reflect upon “moral issues, values, and principles in relationship to others and society, translating those reflections into good moral action.”

This is not in the moment learning like we saw in the environmental opportunities, this is planned and deliberate learning.

If this isn’t in your skill set or knowledge base, perhaps this is where you bring in someone else to help with this education. It can take the form of discussions, telling stories, identifying language and situations, examining case studies, and coming up with actions to remove these things. It could involve team goal setting, giving ownership of an issue to your group.

Let’s be honest, hockey players aren’t in the game to find a space they can freely be racist or sexist or abusive. They’re in the game to play a sport they love, and unfortunately the culture permits negative behaviour, and often upholds and even promotes it.

And we know most coaches don’t want this. For that intrinsic desire to be good and promote good, thank you, coach.

We also acknowledge that not every person has the toolkit or comfort level to discuss these issues.

Then again, most hockey coaches can’t teach goaltending, so we find goalie coaches. At higher levels, we now bring in analytics gurus. So it’s easy, find someone, and bring them in. Even if it’s once a month, you’ll actually be doing something to actively continue the education and character development of your players related to social issues.

If you don’t know who to bring in, please email us at We’ll make it happen.

Unfortunately, research often shows, that the mere participation in sport does little to nothing, or can actually stunt psychosocial development of athletes without this formal education. It also tells that the benefits of sport are often reserved for people who already have privilege. In other words, in hockey, some kids do benefit just from being there, but not all, and it’s likely that those who won’t naturally get these benefits, either don’t take up the sport at all, or soon drop out.

If you’re willing to take this step as a coach and arrange formal education for your athletes related to social issues and character development…thank you!

And that brings us to a final “first step.”

Our community, and communities across North America are filled with spectacular coaches. Coaches who can pinpoint and develop skill and strategy with the best of them. Thank you for teaching physical literacy and promoting active lifestyles. If you’re a coach who works to keep athletes physically safe, thank you, again.

And if you are one of those coaches, you probably want the best for your athletes as people and citizens too.

And still, as one of those good coaches, you’re being told that the sports community still isn’t doing enough to combat racism, gender inequality, homophobia, sexism, and abuse.

So what is the next “first step?”

Try identifying words and phrases your team will not accept, and that you know are hurtful, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or exclusionary. As a coaching staff, ask for insight, research, and brainstorm a list of non-inclusive language, identify it, and work to eliminate it. Speak to your team about these specific terms, that are not to be used. Set consequences, and plan for education after an infraction.

Truthfully, this will likely take less time than planning one on-ice practice.

Set the standard with your team, and regardless of the in game or in locker room situation, even if it’s in the final minute of a championship game, stop, address the language, and follow your plan, no matter what. As coaches, we know that sending good people into the world is more important than anything else.

And of course, always show your athletes they are loved and welcomed, even if they are starting from a point of racism or homophobia as their baseline. These kids are products of a larger system, larger world, and impacts outside your coaching control. But use your crucial role, which we thank you for, to be that educator and role model. Help to move them along a path from racist and homophobic, to being anti-racist and an ally.

After the identification of language, try looking at one, just one, other aspect to start. Perhaps look at initiation or hazing rituals. Discuss alcohol, discuss differing expectations or custodial roles for any athlete (particularly rookies and newcomers), and make it clear your team isn’t that team. Your team is not the team of horrifying stories, or of upholding toxic stereotypes. Your team does not treat the 16-year-old any different than the 21-year-old, even when it comes to filling water bottles, carrying bags, and picking up pucks. This is not your team. Show your athletes that your team is beyond these things. Create an opening, create an opportunity for social success. You can be a tough but respectful team to play against on the ice, and a loving and supportive team off the ice.

As coaches, that’s what we do, we create opportunities for success.

And finally, find someone to provide regular education. Not a one off, not a preseason online training module, not reading a league provided pamphlet, but regular practice.

Coach, you know that’s how athletes improve – regular practice, regular feedback, regular work.

So let’s do the work.

I know it’s asking for more, but through a decade of providing promotion and support for our local sports community, athletes, organizations and you as coaches, we know you care. Thank you.

When you read our future articles, or an article from another outlet criticizing issues in sport, don’t take it personally. We know you work hard. Don’t think we’re looking to take away the games you love. We aren’t, we love them too. I love them too. If what you read bothers you, great, it bothers us too.

And trust me, there is nothing more we’d love to be doing than reporting on scores and successes, and that will absolutely happen. We just want it to be possible for everyone to be a part of that celebration.

I believe the future of sport, and the success of our organizations will depend on diversity and inclusion. As coaches, you want your athletes to feel like they are part of something bigger, and like they are part of a caring, and supportive environment. So let’s take one of these first steps together. Let’s be open to listening and learning. It’s what we do in sports. It’s how we compete, how we improve our skills, and how we master strategy and tactics.

We know our local coaches are capable of taking this next step, and I’m thankful for what every coach in our community is already doing. You’re giving your time, and your effort to make someone elses experience in this world better.

Thank you, coach.

By Ian Kennedy

Line Change is an article series produced by through the contributions and consultation of various authors and academics, looking at social issues in sport. The series, which aims to open discussion with sports fans, will focus on issues of inequality, and serve as a portion of our anti-oppression education and reporting. Line Change will look at issues related to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, gender inequality, socioeconomic divides, and much more, as they relate to sport and athletics.

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