Saturday, April 20, 2024

Aggression in hockey: Why teens playing adult matches must be managed properly

Playing alongside one team-mate as a teenager had a long-lasting psychological effect on one Hockey Paper reader, who wants clubs and players to consider how they can prevent it, without relying on junior players to report instances. 

While the abhorrent abuse of umpires during hockey fixtures across the UK is relatively well documented, less attention is given to unacceptable levels of abuse directed at players by teammates and coaches.

The impact of aggressive behaviour, especially on young players, is particularly relevant to hockey. Comparatively civilised cricket is the only other mainstream team sport where, en-masse, under 18s play alongside adults. Competitiveness and frustration are normal parts of sport, so while certainly not advocating a sterile playing environment, are we overlooking an issue which is prevalent in hockey?

What does a reasonable level of aggression look like? And how they can help make competitive hockey a better experience for everyone, while retaining critical competitive spirit.

I look forward to hearing the experiences and opinions of readers.

It is certainly not easy playing in a team with a wide age range. For established adult players, a teenage intrusion into their team dynamic can be unsettling, while naïve, inexperienced adolescents can quickly become a frustrating deadweight in tight clashes.

In my playing experience, though, this was dealt with brilliantly. Almost all interactions with team-mates and coaches were positive, offering praise, encouragement and mentorship alongside tactical and game management coaching, with criticism largely constructive, even if delivery was sometimes influenced by frustration and competitiveness.

On pitch provoking can hamper teen progression

One player changed things.

Although popular and a dedicated club man off the pitch, serious aggression emerged on it. As a result, games simmered with an underlying level of seismicity, an unspoken yet collective knowledge that this player could, at any moment, lose any semblance of self-control, descending into a cesspit of foul language, verbal abuse, shoving, stick wielding and throwing.

Teens can experience a tricky environment PIC: England Hockey

Although generally triggered by, and directed towards, opposition players, it created a tense and unfriendly atmosphere, compounded by “coaching”, disproportionately directed at teenage team-mates following mis-traps, overcarrying or not making the exact pass he’d hoped. This type of experience is, unfortunately, not unique for teenagers playing adult hockey.

Understanding the different circumstances of young players is critical: Teenagers are not adults, often lacking emotional maturity, self-confidence and mental toughness, so deserve different treatment. As an emotionally immature teen, I failed to link this player’s behaviour to the emotions I was feeling, let alone vocalise this to my parents or club officials.

While all teams have individuals or coaches who might not be everyone’s cup of tea, adults can transfer to a new club or drop a team, less straightforward for a teenager reliant on others for subscriptions, match fees and transport. Legitimate and necessary safeguarding concerns limit the off-pitch socialising youngsters can have with adult team-mates.

Given the gravity (and subsequent paperwork) of a red card, umpires rarely stepped in, while abusing your own team-mates is not a cardable offence. Scapegoating teenagers can be an easy outlet for frustration at personal mistakes or skillset, especially when volunteer club umpires play at a higher level themselves.

As an adult, I would be too timid and unsure how to step in to calm a volatile situation down, selfishly glad that it wasn’t me on the end of the vitriol, keeping my head down and steering well clear. Similar attitudes allow this to pervade throughout (mostly lower-level) hockey. Since behaviour that makes younger players feel uncomfortable almost always makes some of the adults present feel similarly, adult team-mates should not rely on teenagers or less confident team-mates to stick up for themselves or report aggressive behaviour.

An important distinction must be made between outright abuse and constructive feedback, even when delivered in a frustrated manner. Regardless of tone or language used, there is a marked difference between coaching-style input (“don’t lose your man like that”) and abuse. Profanities following team-mates mistakes or direct abuse (“you’re s**t”) don’t improve performance. In fact, young players are most effective when confident and willing to get stuck in, rather than petrified to get on the ball, descending into panic ahead of the impending torrent of abuse when they do.

The opposition should bear a small amount of responsibility, too. The combustible reputations of certain players are often widely known and opposing players use this to their advantage. Some level of chat is an element the game would be lesser without but intentionally winding a player up to provoke an extreme reaction is poor form. Likewise, attempting to intimidate opposition players, especially youngsters, is equally unacceptable.

Positive team environment is critical

No doubt, the line where frustration and “heated coaching” become unacceptable is exceptionally fuzzy and varies significantly from player to player, making managing this a daunting task.

A positive team environment, where inappropriate behaviour is called out, combined with clearly signposted, anonymous and transparent internal club processes to flag and deal with this are critical.

Less overtly, making some effort to chat with younger players and contributing to a positive team culture by setting a good example on the pitch, while, away from matchdays, trying to help team-mates understand the impact of their actions on other players, especially youngsters, are crucial steps in the right direction.

Finally, it is important to note that since extreme anger could be a symptom of underlying mental health troubles, looking out for team-mates is imperative, as is normalising seeking professional help where needed.

Email us or have your say below…

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2 COMMENTS

  1. “while abusing your own team-mates is not a cardable offence”

    Rules Umpiring 2.3 c c it is not acceptable for players to abuse opponents, umpires or other technical officials verbally or through body language and attitude. Umpires must deal firmly with abuse of this sort and in appropriate circumstances issue a caution, warning (green card), or a temporary (yellow card) or permanent (red card) suspension.

    I see absolutely no reason why this cannot be applied to players abusing their own team mates. Otherwise apply ” 3.4 Captains are responsible for the behaviour of all players on their team and for ensuring that substitutions of players on their team are carried out correctly. A personal penalty is awarded if a captain does not exercise these responsibilities.” I find when a Captain gets “reminded” of this responsibility they very quickly tell players to zip it in all circumstances, especially when applied to umpire abuse and the reminder the team will go down 2 players at a time if it continues.

  2. My question would be in response to that- Have you ever seen an umpire actually dish out cards to a player abusing their own team mates? And I would also question how effectively 2.3 cc is actually enforced at lower levels of hockey. In my experience, it is very very hit and miss

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