Coaching beyond the rink

Coaching hockey at the university level can be a daunting task – one that requires patience, dedication and a drive to win. But perhaps the most difficult part of the job is coping with the emotional roller-coaster ride that is a hockey season.

When the lights go out and everybody goes back to their personal lives, it’s expected coaches do the same. The job doesn’t go beyond the rink, does it?

It does.

In fact, coaching can be so demanding that it takes a toll on a person’s private life.

“I was being paid to work 15 hours a week, but putting in 40. I was also putting in 40 at my other job as a probation officer. I ended up losing my marriage and having a heart attack because of it.”

Nobody knows this better than former Ryerson Rams men’s hockey head coach Ed Kirsten, who was relieved of his duties back in 2005 after the team started the year 0-12.

“My time at Ryerson was difficult,” said Kirsten. “I was being paid to work 15 hours a week, but putting in 40. I was also putting in 40 at my other job as a probation officer. I ended up losing my marriage and having a heart attack because of it.”

The stress that comes with coaching can have an effect on life outside the job. Ryerson Rams women’s hockey head coach Lisa Haley says being a coach is more than just a job.

 (Ryersonian Image Archives)

The 2010-2011 men’s hockey team overlooking the ice during a game. (Ryersonian Image Archives)

“It’s a lifestyle,” said Haley. “You live and die with your players every single game. It’s not a job where you just shut the office doors and walk away and forget about it until you show up at 8 o’clock the next morning. It’s a 24-hour mental commitment – just ask my husband.”

As with most jobs, the most mentally trying times come when things don’t go as planned. Nothing can go much worse in sports than when the team is losing.

For Kirsten, it was nearly impossible to get out of the losing rut at Ryerson. The university had no recruiting staff – meaning Kirsten did all the recruiting himself – and did not have a particularly talented roster to work with. The losses piled up and it eventually led to Kirsten’s release.

Even now, Kirsten says, when he’s coaching his Ontario Junior Hockey League team, losing still gets to him.

“We can go on a long winning streak, but even a loss here and there causes sleepless nights for me, and that’s the case even to this day,” said Kirsten.

According to a study conducted by the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, over 90 per cent of elite-level coaches experienced stress during their job, and more than half of those coaches projected that stress onto their athletes. Stress is a part of natural human responses; something that often stems from losing in the sporting world.

Kirsten says he carries those stresses with him back home, but when he hits the ice for the team’s next practice, it’s business as usual.

“It’s very stressful trying to not show frustration while keeping the players positive during a losing streak,” said Kirsten. “I guess you learn to hold that frustration in and act a certain way because the more frustrated you get, the more frustrated your athletes are going to get.”

Nothing good comes from tempers boiling over – undisciplined penalties are taken, a lack of motivation sets in and things spiral into chaos.

Haley says even though she tries not to let her emotions get the better of her, sometimes it can’t be helped.

“What eats away at me is when the players are not playing to their full potential because you question everything you’ve done to prepare the team for the game,” said Haley. “What happened? Why did it happen? What could I have done differently? It’s those moments that are the most challenging.”

But even through the wins and losses, the triumphs and frustrations, Haley says it’s the relationships she develops that make the emotional ride worthwhile.

“At the end of the day, I care a lot about my players,” said Haley. “You grow emotionally attached to them. They’re almost like daughters to me, and some of the best moments are when, 10 years down the line, I’ll be invited to their wedding or hear they named their child after me.”

It requires a certain personality to coach, and it’s definitely not the easiest job out there. But if there’s one common theme most coaches share, it’s that they’re passionate about their job.


As Ryerson Rams men’s hockey head coach Graham Wise puts it, “I would not be here if I didn’t love what I do.”


This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Jan.  28, 2015.

Comments are closed.

Read previous post:
Rams volleyball gives back to Cuban athletes

Ryerson’s men’s volleyball team was up to serve, but they were serving up objects of a different kind. During the...