Since USA Hockey adopted a new locker room policy this week, I have had several conversations about it. Most people that I have talked to feel the same way that I do. I am not in favor of the policy USA Hockey has put forth, at least in the age groups I have coached in the past few years, but I do understand their reasoning.
Hockey is unique to most other sports because of the locker room component. Players spend a significant amount of time in that room, both before and after practices and games. Frankly, I think that experience is one of the best parts of our sport. It is where lifelong friendships are formed, where kids learn how to interact with teammates, and where they learn how to deal with issues on their own. Other team sports do this as well, but I think hockey takes it to an even greater extent.
Proponents of USA Hockey’s policy believe that the kids need constant supervision to prevent issues such as locker boxing, bullying, and sexual misconduct. While I believe that each of those issues should be taken very seriously, I don’t think putting an adult in direct supervision at all times is the absolute correct thing to do. Each of these potential issues can be addressed in other ways, and still maintain the locker room environment that I think is desirable to have.
Before going any further, I want to clarify what my definition of direct supervision is, and I also want to make a distinction of the ages I am talking about here. As far as ages go, I would think that mite and below will always have approved adults either in the locker room or in the direct vicinity at all times. This is for the most part out of necessity. At those ages, kids still need skates tied, they need help with equipment, and some are still too young and immature to know what proper behavior is in that environment. At squirt, the transition starts to happen. Players are old enough to get dressed on their own (I had a rule that at Squirt A, every player had to tie their own skates), and they are gaining a maturity level that allows them to make proper decisions. My disagreement with USA Hockey on this policy comes at the Peewee level and above. When defining direct supervision, I am talking about directly in the locker room with the players. On my teams, we always have a coach or manager in the general vicinity of the room. That way, if there is an emergency, they are right there to handle it. If they hear a commotion coming from the room, they can poke their head in and see what is going on. And, by poking their head in on occasion, the adult knows who is in the room and who is not, and there is no way for an unauthorized person to be in contact with the players. They do not need to be directly in the room to handle these situations.
Issues such as locker boxing, bullying, and other non-desirable behavior can be handled more effectively in other ways. As a coach, it is our responsibility to create the proper expectations for our teams, and to have mechanisms in place when those expectations are not met. I’m not a believer in creating a bunch of rules. Rather, I am a big believer in creating the environment and culture for my teams. At peewee and above, they know right from wrong, and know that on our team, we do things the right way all of the time, or else there will not be a place on our team for players who are not willing to do that. Each player knows that he must respect his coaches, his teammates, the arena, his opponents, and everyone else that he comes in contact with playing this game. Potential behavioral issues are addressed before they even happen, and the consequences of not doing the right thing are communicated clearly to all. I have found that the great majority of problems are handled long before they start.
Sports are a microcosm of society, and like society, it seems that today more than ever, parents are overly involved in their kids’ lives. My coaching counterparts refer to many of these parents as “helicopters”, because they are constantly hovering around. Kids need to learn to make decisions for themselves, and know that those decisions have consequences, both good and bad. By giving them that responsibility, mistakes will get made. That is how they learn. Hockey is a perfect environment for those lessons to take place. We shouldn’t take that away from them by constantly making decisions for them and not letting them try to handle their own problems.
As far as any type of sexual misconduct issues, I think there are already mechanisms in place to handle this. First, all coaches and team personnel have a yearly background check. MAHA and USA Hockey should be roundly applauded for this. Secondly, it is our organization’s policy that no coach should ever be alone with a player. In my opinion, this might be more for the coach’s protection than the player. By following this simple protocol, the player is obviously kept out of a potential bad situation, and a coach is never in a position where he could be wrongly accused of misdeeds and have to defend himself.
Furthermore, all of the potential issues mentioned above have already been addressed through the Code of Conduct form, which every participant signs, and the STAR form, which is signed by every adult. While some may view these as worth no more than the paper they are written on, I think that each coach has the responsibility to uphold these agreements on his team. If he refuses to do so, then he should not be coaching.
Finally, how is this policy going to be enforced? What are the penalties for a coach not following the policy? Who is going to monitor it? I don’t think this was fully thought out by USA Hockey, and has the potential to cause some significant problems in trying to implement it.
Make no mistake, each issue this new policy is meant to address is a serious one, and should be treated as such. However, I think mandating that an adult be in the locker room at all times is too extreme, and equates to society having a cop on every corner. It is both impractical and unnecessary. Address the root causes of problems, create the right environment and structure, and most of the problems will be non-existent.
What do you think? Leave me a comment below.