Hockey is a great game to play at all ages, and many players develop a love for playing that continues throughout their lives. An observer of kids playing unstructured games and of adults playing pick-up games mostly after 10:30 p.m., recognizes many of the things to be valued in the game. Specifically, one notices cooperation, respect for each other and the game, and a real sense that the score does not really matter.
In fact, normally in these sessions, the players will balance the teams well enough so everybody has fun competing and playing the game. At the end of the sessions, the youth players all return to the same locker rooms or warming hut before heading home, and the adult players head for the nearest watering hole to cap off a fun evening of play.
What is it about the game that captivates these players old and young and keeps them coming back to the rink time and again? And why do so few youth players here in Minnesota participate in open hockey outdoors or indoors?
The answer lies in the over-competitive “win at all costs” environment that persists in our culture and the expectations they have learned from the adults in their lives. The simple answer is that many kids do not really have fun playing hockey due to the pressures placed on them and the expectations they feel.
It is quite likely that in most of our youth programs we have squeezed the fun out of playing the game. Kids would rather spend free time having fun without the pressure of winning and participating in stress filled situations day after day.
Oftentimes, kids playing on teams that are not in the top of their league feel a sense of frustration and disappointment that they get from the adults around them. Video games offer an escape from their overscheduled and over-structured lives, so instead of heading to the rink for pick-up hockey, they seek refuge in other activities.
Coaches and parents can help in addressing this issue by following some of these simple ideas.
Filling the emotional tank: We all need emotional fuel to be successful in all of life’s endeavors. Most adults know the horror of working for an unreasonable or verbally abusive boss. On the other hand, working together with people who are supportive, cooperative and share a similar vision is very much rewarding emotionally and financially.
Youth sports are the same. Players need to keep their emotional tanks filled as much as possible in order for them to perform their best and willingly return to the rink day after day. The term “emotional tank” comes from Ross Campbell’s book, “How to Really Love Your Child.”
According to Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, the term “emotional tanks” is a psychological construct for thinking about things that help people do their best at whatever challenge they are facing. Such things as energy levels, willingness to try new things, whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about being successful at a task are all affected by the level in your emotional tank.
Parents can use a method of finding three things to compliment their child about for the conversation in the car on the way home from games or practices. If you can only think of one thing, find three ways to say it. Simply make sure that they are positive.
Understanding the big picture: Young people take all of their cues about their abilities and relative standing in the world from their parents and adults in their immediate lives. The messages they hear everyday from their parents and coaches helps to frame their view of the world during their early years of development.
It is during this time in their lives that helping kids to understand the big picture of sports is important. Game outcomes are less important to kids than participating and having fun. Understanding that losing is part of the game is an important lesson for players to learn.
Coaches need to help their players to recognize that winning every night is unrealistic and that effort and wanting to win are what matters. Parents need to similarly recognize that winning and losing are all part of the experience of playing hockey and to ensure their kids understand that it is OK not to win every game.
As with all things in life, the destination is not the prize to be won, rather the journey to the destination is the treasure. Parents and coaches should recognize and understand the big picture in order to help their players achieve their potential and to have fun.
Positive recognition: Hockey is a team game. Rarely is a goal scored for or against that was a solo effort. Goal scorers get plenty of recognition, but rarely do the playmakers or defensemen that started the play in the defensive zone get recognition. Goaltenders are the last defender and the first ones to take the blame when a goal was scored.
It is important to team success that individual players are regularly recognized for effort and contribution to the team. Good plays need to be acknowledged, and in any game there are many positive things that occur regardless of the final outcome.
By filling player “emotional tanks” with positives, a coach may then also offer constructive criticism without emotionally draining the players. The optimum ratio of positive comments to negative comments is 5:1. Higher than that is the same as “everybody gets a trophy everyday” and less than that drains emotional tanks. Coaches and parents need to be careful about finding the right balance.
Communication: Two-way communication between coaches/parents and players is essential for mutual understanding and maximum development of players and teams. As adults, we all want input in our jobs and in our families. Giving players on the team a safe and regular process of input gives them more ownership in the team and a more cohesive group. Coaches that solicit ideas from players and ask questions rather than give answers will find that their teams will be easier to coach, have more fun and the players will develop faster.
The journey: Because we start kids in hockey at such an early age, we need to ensure that they continue to play hockey because they enjoy the game and have fun. Parents and coaches are responsible for ensuring that they keep a long-term view of the process and help kids develop skills and a passion for the game. People with passion can do amazing things. Kids without a passion simply go through the motions and quit playing.
Have fun, develop passion and enjoy the journey.
For more from longtime coach Hal Tearse, go to mminnesotahockey.blogspot.com.