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Disciplining Youth Sports Coaches: Lots of Factors To Consider

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My March "Youth Sports Hero of the Month" column honored 12-year-old Matthew Marotta for his sportsmanship at the end of a hard-fought pee wee hockey tournament game in Winnipeg, Manitoba on February 16.

For readers who might not have read that blog entry yet, the Nanaimo Clippers edged Matthew's Prince George Cougars, 3-2, on a hotly disputed goal in the final moments of double overtime.Youth hockey player watching action from bench

With fourteen seconds remaining in the second overtime period, the clock malfunctioned on a faceoff in the Clippers' end and stalled for about seven seconds. The Clippers took the puck up ice and scored before the buzzer, and the referee allowed the goal.

Cougars coach Ryan Arnold and his staff ordered the team to the locker room without receiving their plaques, and without going through the traditional handshake line to congratulate the winners. Players smacked their sticks on the ice in disgust along the way. Only one Cougar, Matthew Marotta, remained on the ice to shake hands with the winners before rejoining his team in the locker room.

My heroes blog column discussed Matthew's extraordinary gesture of sportsmanship.  In this post, I want to focus on the factors sports leagues should weigh in considering disciplinary measures against a coach, using the Arnold incident as a jumping off point.

"Only Positive Things"

Within a few days after the incident, the Prince George Minor Hockey Association suspended Arnold for 30 days, pending further investigation. The Prince George Citizen reported that after the walk-off reached the newspapers and hit social media, the coach received "a flood of hate mail loaded with accusations that his players are unsportsmanlike bullies and comments that demonize[d] [him] and his staff as unworthy of ever being allowed to coach hockey again."

Some in the Prince George community took a different perspective. The Citizen reported that Arnold was the minor hockey association's "pee wee coach of the year last season . . . and he's gained a reputation [for] giving each of his players equal playing time."  In eight seasons behind the bench, the newspaper said, he had received only one penalty for arguing a referee's call and one brief suspension for turning in game score sheets late. In a letter to the editor published in the Citizen, Matthew Marotta's parents said that, "yes, the coaches made a bad decision . . . but it does not attest to their true character." Their son, they said, "has only said positive things about his coaches all year."

After interviewing parents and coaches, the hockey association then reduced Arnold's suspension to one game. An assistant coach received a two game suspension.

Lessons learned

I do not know Ryan Arnold. I have never seen him coach, I did not attend the Cougars' game against the Clippers, and I did not participate in the disciplinary hearing. Because disciplinary hearings proceed best without influence from news outlets or social media, I have waited to write this column until after the minor hockey association reached its final decision. The fallout from this pee wee tournament game, however, offers a lesson quite apart from the final score.

The lesson is that volunteer coaches, like parents, sometimes make mistakes in their dealings with children. Adults sometimes do or say things that they later regret or would do differently if they could wipe the slate clean. Fortunately most of these mistakes do not cause the children serious physical or emotional injury, and everyone moves on without lasting consequences, preferably after acknowledgement and apologies.

"I Will Wear It"

I thought initially that the Cougars coaches deserved suspensions, and I still do. So did the Cougars coaches themselves. A few days after the game, Arnold explained his conduct and acknowledged that pulling his team off the ice was a "decision I made and I will wear it. I made a mistake. All I can do is own what happened, learn from it and move forward, and that's what I'm prepared to do."

I also think, however, that volunteer coaches with otherwise untarnished records deserve some slack for the sort of heat-of-the-moment mistakes that all adults make at one time or another with children, including their own. Self-control remains essential to leadership, but perfection cannot be the test for coaches (or parents) because the reflection in 20-20 hindsight provides no clear lens.

At one extreme, some coaching misconduct calls for removal or other stern response because, for example, the coach refuses to correct a pattern of serious shortcomings. Other misconduct remains especially serious because the coach refuses to acknowledge the error, take responsibility, or pledge correction. Still other coaching misconduct inflicts serious physical or emotional hurt on one or more players.

At the other extreme, however, are one-time coaching mistakes from isolated lapses in judgment. Leagues should distinguish between the two extremes, and among behaviors that fall somewhere in the middle. After all, jaywalking and felony assault are both crimes, but most of us can tell one from the other.

In the wake of the pee wee Cougars walk-off, the Prince George Minor Hockey Association had a balancing act to perform. From what the media reported, an evidently dedicated volunteer coach made a one-time mistake that tarnished an otherwise nearly unblemished eight-year record. The mistake sent players the wrong sportsmanship message (no small matter, to be sure), encouraged stick-smacking tantrums, and embarrassed the association and the city when the incident hit the headlines. Youth coaching resembles follow-the-leader, and the Cougars coaches utterly failed to lead.

Arnold, however, took personal responsibility for his decision, acknowledged that it was wrong, and offered an apology. Nobody suffered physical or lasting emotional injury. From what local newspapers reported, the team's parents voiced no dissatisfaction with the disciplinary proceeding's outcome. Players and parents seemed to learn worthwhile lessons because in appropriate cases, a relatively brief coaching suspension can send a message as unmistakable as a longer one.

To err is human

When I was coaching youth hockey, I would remind the parents at the pre-season meeting each autumn that we adults are human and thus fallible. I promised that I would try to keep my coaching mistakes to a minimum, a promise that I believe I always kept. But I also advised the parents that, for Doug Abrams coaching youth hockeycoaches and players alike, mistakes are part of sports. "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything,"said legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. "[A] doer makes mistakes."

I promised players equal ice time if they came to practice and worked hard, for example, but in one game a few years ago, I simply forgot about two players for most of the third period. Their parents understood afterwards when I explained my lapse, which probably looked initially like a benching. It happens.

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek at some autumn parents meetings, I would offer the floor to anyone who thought they remained mistake-free as they raised their own children. No parent ever accepted the invitation to enlighten the rest of us about the secrets of perfection.

A special thanks, once again, to Steve Stenersen, President and CEO of US Lacrosse, for bringing this story to my attention.


Charlotte Helston, "A Hockey Moment This Crowd Won't Soon Forget," http://infotel.ca/newsitem/A-hockey-moment-this-crowd-wont-soon-forget/I... (Feb. 21, 2014)

Pee Wees Win, Sportsmanship Reigns, Nanaimo News Bulletin, Feb. 25, 2014,

"Incident at Minor Hockey Tournament Leads to Coaching Suspension for Mountie Involved in Fatal Shooting," The Province, Feb. 25, 2014;

Ted Clarke. "Pee Wee Coach Admits Mistake Was Made." Prince George Citizen, Feb. 21, 2014;

Ted Clarke. "Minor Hockey Reduces Coaches' Suspensions." Prince George Citizen, Feb. 28, 2014;

"Coaches Better Than Clippers Incident" Prince George Citizen, Feb. 26, 2014.