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Coach psychology issues

02/18/2019, 12:15pm CST
By John Russo, Let's Play Hockey Columnist

Psychology in coaching can be just as important as the physical part of the game

Photo: Christine Wisch

I haven’t included psychology topics as much as I did a decade ago – even though psychology in coaching can be just as important as the physical part of the game. It is actually easier to coach the physical part of the game for most coaches. It tends to be the mental part that is difficult. The coach that can put both of these together is rare indeed. It is also important to get psychological items set before the season starts and to begin implementation right away. In many instances, coaches have their own hang-ups, or let’s call it lack of understanding to overcome to be able to effectively coach youngsters – or even older players, for that matter. 

Some of these coach hang-ups include: 

• Coaching their own youngsters
It is difficult for any coach to properly be objective when coaching a son or daughter. There are two extremes to avoid. The first, and most obvious, is being biased for their own. Parents cannot reasonably look at their own child and not have great empathy, as well as desire, to see them do well. In some cases, the parent/coach is really there to “protect” their own – a bad situation. 

The second extreme is the coach that overcompensates in trying to be fair. This is more difficult for the child, since it is their parent coaching – and they are not used to being treated as just one of the group by their parent. Parent coaches need to have a good discussion with their son or daughter before the season – and to touch base during the season.

• Taking success too personally
Some coaches use their team as a means of gratification for themselves because they lack it in other areas of their lives. I’m not saying that coaches shouldn’t feel a sense of satisfaction as well as enjoy coaching, but the extreme is nearly always bad. The coaching of youngsters has its rewards, as does coaching a successful team. Too often, however, it is the power or the winning that coaches lack in other aspects of their lives that they are after. They often don’t get good overall development from players because only a portion of the team plays regular shifts. 

• Coaches can’t assess themselves very well
If coaches could stand back and objectively watch themselves in practice and games, they would have a better understanding of what other people see. Coaches want to look proper and “reasonable.” Most feel that they are. They want others to see them that way as well. They often can’t objectively see themselves, however. They need someone else to take a look for them and give an honest assessment. 

• Coaches can’t relate 
Most coaches are 10, 20, or 30 years older than the players they coach. It takes work and study to know, at least somewhat, how a 10-year-old or a 16-year-old thinks and feels. Sometimes, bad experiences at age 10 or 12 also slant the coach’s approach. A bad experience with a coach or in a sport 20 or 30 years ago has very little to do with coaching a team of 15 or 20 youngsters today. 

I always recognize some of these traits in myself. Having coached for many years, I’ve likely had a bit of all of the problems somewhere along the way. I always ask myself every year why I want to coach this next season. I coached for decades after coaching my own youngsters and had other successful business and family endeavors, so my reasons were narrowed down. I enjoyed working with youngsters, and I loved hockey!

If a coach can be objective, overcome hang-ups and decide to coach for mostly the right reasons (including “I like it”), then he or she is ready to deal with the psychological aspects for the best benefit of team players. Notice I didn’t say coaches should use psychology to win. Actually, I did mean win, but winning in that the players gain personal and team skills and experiences that will help them down the line – maybe even next week or in the latter part of the season, or later in life. 

The key to this whole process, I believe, is a reasonably positive approach – and building of players’ self-confidence. Self-confidence includes many other things, such as self-esteem and self-worth. It is very difficult to coach in a perfectly positive mode. I believe that positive feedback has to be in the majority, however. There will be teaching, correcting and disciplining moments for all players that will be on the other side of the ledger, but in the end, the ledger must be heavy on the positive side. 

I also believe that having a primarily positive approach to some degree comes from the coach truly liking the players. Each player has things to like and the coach must find those things. At the high school level, I always had players that were truly nice young men – intelligent, talented in other things, fun to be around. Sometimes they were not very good hockey players. I wanted to like them for all that they were and be as positive as possible (and honest) with them. 

Self-confidence is the most important thing for a coach to strive for with players. We have all seen teams that seem to play right up to and beyond their potential or talent level. We have also seen teams that seem to struggle to achieve their potential. They are what we normally call underachievers. They likely suffer from low self-confidence. Passes are just off, they look tired and they don’t seem to be able to get it done. 

The positive approach, good skill development and good game experience are the keys to self-confidence. We are not going to get into skill development in this column, but I will say that there are right ways and wrong ways to build skills – and have players confident they can express them in games.

It is my belief that no matter what else happens or improves, from the beginning to the end of a season, a team will get measurably better if self-confidence goes up measurably during that time – and coaches have good “personal psychology.”


John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and now mentor to the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin and recipient of prestigious hockey awards at the state (Peterson award) and national levels (Snooks Kelly). His Coaches Corner columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey each year since 1986.

Order John Russo’s new chapterized book, “The Best of 26 Years of John Russo’s Coaches Corner.” It has been described as a “must read” for all youth coaches. Go to for information and ordering.

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