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Hockey's Back: Five Tips for a Successful Season

New York Times Photo


By Scott Lowe –

It’s an exciting time of the year for youth hockey families as ice rinks around North America spring to life with the sounds of pucks smacking against sticks, skates carving into the ice, whistles blowing and fans cheering.

The beginning of any new season often brings a touch of nervousness with it as well. 

Some young players may be trying the sport for the first time, while others may be playing on their first organized teams. There are players who will be stepping up to a new, more challenging level of play or moving to a new organization and others who will be playing for a new coach. And some older players might be heading to a training camp during which they will find out what their role might be on the team or if they will even be on the team at all. 

When we are excited to participate in something, that’s usually because we view that activity as a worthwhile endeavor that will be enjoyable and rewarding on many levels. It’s something we perceive as being fun.

Nervousness brings with it a connotation of pressure or fear. Sometimes that pressure can be self-imposed and doesn’t really exist other than in our own minds, while feelings of fear may be chalked up to the unknowns that may lie ahead.

Will I be good enough to play on an organized team? Will my teammates like me? Will the new coach be nice and think I’m good? Will I be able to compete successfully against better players? Will our team do well this season?

These are all thoughts that can contribute to feelings of nervousness in young athletes. While being nervous is a part of sports participation – and many elite athletes will tell you that if you don’t feel butterflies in your stomach every time you are preparing to compete you may have lost your edge – it’s important that young players aren’t nervous because they feel stressed out, uptight or afraid to let someone else down.

Even at the youngest ages, the desire to play hockey should come from within the athlete and not from external sources. That’s the only way to ensure that the experience will be enjoyable and provide the positive outcomes we all hope our children will derive from participation in organized sports.

If a child shows an affinity for hockey whenever he or she sees it being played on television, on a computer screen or by other kids in the neighborhood, of course it’s fine for parents to take that as a sign of interest and run with it.

Visit a local sporting-goods store and walk through the hockey section. Observe the child’s reaction. See if he or she shows an interest in the sticks or the equipment or wants to play with a stick or try on some gear. If the interest is there, purchase an inexpensive stick and a street-hockey ball – or a set of mini-sticks to play with in the house – and see what happens after that.

If hockey is an activity the child seems to gravitate to on a regular basis, you can foster that interest by offering to play with him or her, watch a game on TV together, play a hockey video game against each other or even attend a game at a local rink. If those activities seem to spur even more interest, it may be time to see what types of local programs are available.

Letting a child discover an interest in something rather than forcing him or her to participate because it’s an activity that one or both parents enjoy is the best way to ensure that the interest is a result of curiosity or potential enjoyment instead of the fear of letting a parent down. 

If on your trip to the sporting goods store the child strolls right past the hockey section to the basketball, baseball or soccer equipment and shows an interest in one or more of those sports, that’s okay. As parents we want our kids to discover activities that interest them and for them to enjoy all the benefits that come with being active, competing and being part of a team or sharing a common interest with a group of people.

Whatever activity or activities our kids end up participating in should be encouraged as long as they are happy and staying active. Forcing a child to participate in a sport because of our own personal interests is the quickest way to turn a kid against a particular sport and possibly other sports as well. Give the kids their space, let them socialize and play with their peers, observe their interest level and guide them toward organized activities for which they seem to have an affinity.

Maintaining this type of approach throughout their athletic careers also is recommended. Of course, parents must be involved as their children begin to play organized sports. We pay the bills pretty much until they are adults and provide the transportation until they are at least 16, so there’s no way around us being involved at some level.

The key is to strike a balance between being a part of the experience by providing encouragement and support and being overly involved to the point that we detract from the overall enjoyment and benefits that participation should provide. We need to be there to guide our children and provide advice, but not to overly scrutinize or criticize their play, openly question their coaches’ decisions or embarrass them to the point that they dread going to practices or games. 

These days, sports get serious enough quickly enough. Most of us who participated in athletics as kids were playing something all the time, whether we were part of a local neighborhood youth team or playing pick-up games in our backyards, at recess or at the playground. It seemed like we were always playing some kind of sport.

Kids today have more opportunities than ever to play anything and everything 12 months out of the year. The difference is that they play many more organized games than we ever did, and these are games in which winning and losing matters with officials keeping order, coaches yelling from the benches and parents watching and shouting from the bleachers. 

The games we played might have had fewer players than a regulation contest and featured different crazy rules we made up to make them more fun or exciting. They were played in seclusion with no referees or other adults watching our every move and shouting at us. We could try things and fail without worrying about letting the coach, the team or our parents down. If we couldn’t get along and cooperate, the game might end with everyone running home angry or upset, so we usually figured out how to compromise and keep playing.

It was fun and stress-free, which allowed us to try new things and experiment without fear or nervousness. We improved and didn’t even know it. All we knew was that it was fun, so we kept coming back for more. The more we played, the better we got, and as far as our parents were concerned, if we came home tired and In one piece everything was great.

Today kids have fewer opportunities to play just for fun and compete without feeling some sort of stress or pressure. Everything is organized and structured, so finding the right types of organizations and coaches who provide an enjoyable and safe environment that allows the children to grow as athletes and people is extremely important.

Even at the youngest ages, sports have become expensive with an emphasis placed on playing a lot of games and winning as often as possible. Technology has turned young athletes into internet celebrities because everyone can see their feats and accomplishments.

Fear of missing out or being left out or left behind is rampant among parents, and that trickles down to the kids. More and more parents are throwing their kids into programs or organizations that they think will win the most games, help their children get maximum exposure and ultimately lead to a college scholarship or professional opportunity. 

Whether it’s hockey or any other sport, there are no shortcuts to long-term success. Trying to speed up the process by forcing young athletes into situations they may not be physically or mentally prepared for can hinder the developmental process as sports participation becomes stressful and results-oriented instead of enjoyable and growth-oriented.

Being thrown into this type of environment can cause even the most talented athlete to burn out and lose interest. If young athletes lose their love for a sport, they are either going to quit and look to do something else or just go through the motions and not be willing to put in the work necessary to reach the level that either they or their parents had hoped they might attain.

Kids who fall in love with a sport at a young age and continue to enjoy it – even if they advance up the developmental ladder at a slower pace than some of their peers – are the ones who often end up wanting to play as long as they can and will put in the work necessary to reach the highest level they can achieve. To them, the hard work doesn’t seem like work at all because they are eager to improve and it’s the only way they will be able to continue doing what they love beyond their youth and high-school years.

With that in mind, we are excited to present a few tips to help ensure that this hockey season is a success for anyone who reads this article. The tips are great for parents of younger players, but those parents who read it should share the ideas and concepts with their kids and use this article to guide them along their path to a successful season.

Try to find that balance between guiding and being too involved. Give the kids some space to socialize and grow as people and players while providing the structure they still need to be successful.

For older players, these tips can serve as pillars for their success this season as well as in future years and should help them build the type of relationships with teammates, current coaches and future coaches that will allow them to develop as players and people and continue playing as long as they want. 

Parents of older players can benefit from this information as well.

Ask your child to read over the information and schedule a time to sit down and discuss the concepts and the process. Feel free to check on their progress occasionally but leave it to them to follow through on everything and ensure they have the best season possible. If you must do everything for them, that sends up a red flag as to how much they really enjoy the sport and want to keep playing.

Too many parents stay way too involved in every detail of their kids’ hockey careers as they get older, and this can hinder their development on and off the ice.

Notice as you read the tips below that there are no references to wins or losses, to goals or assists, to saves or goals-against average. Every player can have a successful season and grow as a player and a person regardless of what the statistics and numbers say.


Tip 1: Get to Know Your Coach

More times than not, the coach is going to get the credit for a team’s success or receive the blame for a team’s failures. The coach also is a key component in determining whether an individual player’s season is successful, so it’s extremely important for players to build a relationship with their coach and to take advantage of his or her willingness to make the players better as a group and individually.

A coach also can help a player he or she likes who hopes to progress to higher levels in the future achieve that goal through networking and by providing a strong recommendation. Players who don’t build a relationship with their coaches are not doing everything in their power to improve and ensure a successful, productive season.

Most youth hockey coaches are volunteers, and those who are paid often do not earn enough money to make a living coaching. Many of them coach because they love the game and want to give back to the sport by providing a positive experience that helps players learn to love the game and improve. 

Usually, they are willing to do whatever they can to help a young player achieve his or her goals and advance in the sport, but they can’t do that if they don’t know their players’ aspirations and don’t really get to know the players as people. While just about any coach is willing to recommend a player to another team at a higher level, the recommendation can go a lot farther if a coach really gets to know and appreciate someone as both a player and a person.

This can be beneficial for more than just hockey as many young people find it difficult to approach adults they don’t know well and engage in conversations about important and sometimes difficult topics. The more often a young athlete can interact with adults and become comfortable conversing in those settings, the better off he or she will be later on in school, sports and life.

Parents of younger players might want to go with their child the first time he or she wants to talk to a coach or set up a meeting, but as the comfort level increases it’s best to let those conversations be just between the player and the coach.

Players should not be afraid to find out the role that the coach has in mind for them in that initial meeting, what the coach thinks they are good at and the areas the coach thinks need improvement. Once they know where they stand, it’s important to share their individual goals for the season and the future with their coach.

Short-term goals might include working toward an opportunity to play on a top line or defensive pairing or to get some time on the power play or penalty kill. Longer-term goals might include advancing to play at a higher level of youth hockey and eventually moving on to play at the junior and college levels. Communicating this information will allow the coach to develop a plan that can help a player succeed in accomplishing his or her goals. 

Learning to listen also is a key component of building a relationship with a coach. Players shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions, but also shouldn’t question a coach’s decisions about the team, game strategy or knowledge of the game. And they shouldn’t come to a meeting with a predetermined answer to everything the coach might say. Listen to what the coach says, absorb what that information and then formulate a thoughtful response.

Approaching meetings like this also will help the player in almost every future endeavor on or off the ice. Players also should consider asking the coach about the possibility of meeting once a month to go over their progress, watch film or talk about future opportunities. Not only will this help a player improve, but also it will show the coach a commitment to improving and doing whatever is necessary to advance in the sport.


Tip 2: Be the Best YOU That YOU Can Be

A few years back we posted an article that advised players to control what they control. That’s really what we are talking about here. Too many players are way too concerned about what the other kids on the team are doing, the opportunities they are getting and how they are performing instead of focusing on making the most of their situation, doing whatever they are asked and developing into the best players they can be.

Every player is on a team for a reason, and no other sport has coaches that work harder to assemble puzzle pieces that perfectly complement one another than hockey. Teams can’t win with 12 forwards who are solely skilled players just like they can’t win with 12 grinders or six offensive defensemen. As Herb Brooks once said, “I don’t want the best players. I want the RIGHT players.” 

Once a player has met with the coach, he or she should have a good understanding of the role the coach has in mind and how the coach thinks the player can best help the team be successful. That is why the coach has chosen the player to be on the team, so in turn the player owes it to the coach and the team to do everything he or she can to excel in that role.

Be the best YOU that YOU can be while at the same time working hard in practice to improve the areas of your game that the coach said need to get better. By accepting the role that has been assigned and taking pride in doing that job at the highest possible level, a player will demonstrate to the coach that he or she cares about the team first over individual opportunities and accolades. That can build a level of trust that will make a coach more likely to move a player into a larger role if the opportunity arises and to provide a glowing recommendation to higher-level coaches in the future.


Tip 3: Don’t Get Outworked

It’s easy to tell a player to always be the hardest-working person on the team in practices, games, off-ice training sessions and anything else the team does as a group. While it’s easy to say, the reality is that it’s nearly impossible to always be the absolute hardest worker, especially if the player is a member of a team with an established winning and hard-working culture. 

But it is fair to advise players to make sure they never get outworked.

Someone else may work as hard as you, but no one ever should outwork you. That goes for every game, every shift, every puck battle, every practice and every gym workout. If I’m a coach, I’ll take 20 players who may be a little lacking in skill but possess that grind-it-out, win-every-battle mentality every single time over a team of highly skilled players.

Perhaps the best thing about this approach is that it is a quality found in highly successful people and leaders on and off the ice. Players looking to improve and move up the lineup or advance to a higher level should commit to putting this level of hard work into aspects of their game that that need improvement, not just in the areas at which they excel. 

For players on teams that haven’t developed a winning and hard-working culture, that type of work ethic can be contagious and spread throughout the team as players compete every single day to earn their spot in the lineup and improve.

Coaches will see this and appreciate it possibly more than anything else a player can do.


Tip 4: Do the Little Things

Cal Ripken Sr. wasn’t a hockey coach, but he was one of the most respected coaches in professional baseball for many years. He must have known a thing or two as two of this three sons ended up playing at least 12 years in Major League Baseball with one of them ending up in the Hall of Fame. Mr. Ripken used to say, “If you take care of the little things, you won’t have a big thing to worry about.” 

For a hockey player those little things include finishing checks, playing 200 feet on every shift, taking no shifts off, being a team player with or without the puck and performing the role that is expected without hesitation or complaint.

Hockey’s little things extend to situations off the ice and include not having negative body language or showing frustration toward coaches, officials or teammates; being a great teammate; arriving early to practice, games, workouts and other team activities; staying positive on the bench and in the locker room; never missing a practice or workout; communicating with teammates and talking hockey with the other players and coaches on the bench and in the locker room on game days; picking up pucks after practices or warm-up sessions; and carrying sticks to the locker room from the bench after games.

 A team full of players with a “be the best YOU that YOU can be” mentality and the work ethic described above that also takes care of all the little things will be very tough to beat. More important, it will be a group that the coach will fall in love with and one that will pretty much ensure that every player has a successful season.


Tip 5: Take Ownership

This tip probably is directed more at older players than younger players, but for parents of younger players the seeds can be planted.

Parents of younger players should try to refrain from carrying their kids’ bags into the rink from the car. Have them be responsible for managing their equipment and making sure they pack everything they need for practices and games and bring everything home with them from the rink afterwards. Parents should go out of their way to not make excuses for their child, to not blame the coach for losses or criticize the coach in any way in front of their child or other players and to not talk disparagingly about other players on the team in front of their child. 

It also would be beneficial if these parents took a similar approach when speaking publicly in front of other players and parents and made a point not to allow their kids to make excuses for themselves or talk negatively about the coach or other teammates. There is no need to snap at a child for making these types of comments; instead parents can use those situations as an opportunities to teach a lesson about taking accountability, being a good teammate and not passing responsibility for things that happen on to others.

For older players, taking ownership simply means adopting a mentality in which there are no excuses and accountability is accepted for all actions and results. It also means that if continuing to advance and play at higher levels is the goal, it's up to the the player to demonstrate that through his or her actions on and off the ice. If parents have to push a player to do the things necessary to play at higher levels it's possible that the player doesn't really want it badly enough. 

Understanding the importance of not making excuses and taking accountability is essential for players who want to continue to play beyond the youth and high-school levels. Figuring out exactly what that means during the current season will help the team and player be successful and set the player up for continued success in the future. 

Not making excuses means that players accept the “be the best YOU that YOU can be” approach and focus on executing the role that the coach has assigned to the best of their ability every time out, whether it’s a practice or game. Taking accountability means that when they don’t perform their role successfully, instead of making excuses or pointing fingers they accept responsibility and use any constructive criticism and coaching to learn and get better without taking it personally.

Players who take ownership worry about themselves and their responsibilities while supporting their teammates. They don’t complain about not getting to play on certain line or getting an opportunity to play with different players or in specific situations. There is an understanding that the best way for them to help the team is by doing their job and earning the trust of their teammates and coaches. Their energy goes toward helping the team win instead of complaining or worrying about what could be, and there is an understanding that the everything else will take care of itself if the approach is correct and the results are good.

If one player takes the approach outlined in this article, he or she will have a successful season and build a foundation for future advancement with support from the coach. If an entire team takes this approach, the sky is the limit for the entire group.

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