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first person

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As I finish up my fourth season head coaching my son’s under-13 youth hockey team at a well-known Toronto hockey club, one question consistently pops in my mind: “When will the men of youth hockey ever grow up?”

After a season of being taunted by other coaches on our WhatsApp group, being accused of “stacking” my lines (which means I purposely chose to put strong players with other strong players to dominate), being verbally assaulted during a game so much so that a referee had to intervene, and threatened, manipulated and harassed via e-mail, the only answer I have come up with is: Not any time soon.

I would like to clarify that the division I am coaching is house league. In ice hockey, “house league” is entry-level. Anyone can play house league for a nominal fee, even if you have never been on skates. The goal of house league is for the kids to have fun.

As a female head coach, I have encountered this kind of behaviour from male hockey coaches for a few years. This season, however, it went to a new level of craziness. These men, (my wonderful male co-coach excluded), tried desperately to coerce me to do what they wanted solely to better their teams, falsely believing that, as a woman standing 5 foot 2, a) I didn’t understand the game and how to judge a player’s strengths, and b) that I would simply bend over and let them have their way with me. They were wrong on both counts.

What is it about this mostly male-dominated sport that is able to mutate a middle-aged man into a screaming toddler, hurling insults my way because he is losing a novice youth hockey game? Why do these men believe they can treat a woman with such disrespect and lack of dignity? And why do they and many others believe this is okay? It is not okay. If you can’t respect the “no” coming out of my mouth, you should not be allowed to coach children in any capacity.

There are two major influences that shape our personality as adults and dictate how we interact with those in our world: our home environment and how much or little we are seen by our parents growing up. By seen, I mean were you as a child, allowed to express emotions in a supportive environment, or were you shamed? Did you have a voice within your family, or were you shut down? Were you given the freedom to explore what it meant to be you? Or did you have to be what others wanted you to be?

Unfortunately, many of us, me included, were somewhat traumatized by our parents not knowing any better. Add this to a home environment where a woman’s place is subordinate to the man, where a man is king, and spice it up with a bit of macho sports culture and you have men who can be easily threatened by a more-than-capable female competitor and/or a talented female co-worker.

Unbeknownst to these male coaches, they are all reacting from past unresolved childhood trauma. In essence, there is a part of them that was never allowed to grow up. It is a negative cyclical pattern that has been passed down from father to son through the generations. Generations of entitled and repressed men who were led to believe that they dominated sports such as hockey and that a woman’s place was to pack the snacks.

By the end of the season, it would have been easier to stay quiet and let this juvenile nonsense slide. I could have rationalized it in my mind, telling myself “it wasn’t that big of a deal.” But if I did that I am part of the problem. My silence would have been like a free pass to these men to continue these antics, and too many of us women have been silent for far too long.

Earlier this year I went to the president of the hockey club, was listened to and have been promised that the club will make significant changes for next season.

Though I may have been the target of some of these male coaches, I certainly wasn’t the victim: Those were the children sitting on those hockey benches. What these male coaches fail to recognize is the ramifications of their actions. If these children repetitively see a coach – this also includes the coach’s own child – yelling at a female, coach or otherwise, and there are no repercussions for such an action, they will interpret this as permissible. They are not quite old enough to know better, and so, over time, the negative cyclical patterns continue. The pattern will only stop when one of these boys matures and decides for himself to reject these “rules” that have been impressed upon him, but this takes time.

I do not know if I will volunteer to be behind the bench next season. But I am hopeful that if the youth hockey community does its best to hold those who exhibit hateful behaviour accountable, then as a community it is preserving the real reason we are all on the ice and at the rinks: to watch our kids have fun.

Samantha Reynolds lives in Toronto.

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