A New Season Can Present New Challenges
By Scott Lowe – MYHockeyRankings.com
This is the most exciting time of year for many young hockey players, and the level of excitement can be even greater for those playing on new teams or competing at a higher level than in the past.
Whether they are younger players moving from “B” hockey to “A” hockey, more advanced players making the jump from “AA” to “AAA” or older players moving from youth hockey to juniors, many players have worked hard for an opportunity to challenge themselves against better players, older players or both
These players aspire ultimately to ascend to the highest level of hockey they can achieve, and this is the next logical and necessary step in that direction.
As often is the case when we tackle something new or different, the excitement is accompanied by a sense of nervousness, especially as the first practices and eventually the first games of the season approach. This is only natural as players prepare to share a locker room and compete with new teammates while also attempting to impress a new coaching staff.
The most important thing for players entering new situations to remember is that they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t wanted. That understanding should help temper the nerves a little bit since their new coaches obviously saw something they liked in tryouts, on video or when scouting them in person. They have earned the right to be there and as the season gets underway the coaches believe that the newcomers are going to help their teams be successful.
It just might take some time for the coaches to figure it all out.
A little bit of nervousness can be a good thing. It means that a player isn’t complacent and understands that nothing is guaranteed. Impressing the new coaches again and helping them remember why they brought a player in is of paramount importance right from the start.
Players who approach these situations in the right frame of mind and are ready to compete as hard as they can and be as coachable as possible are going to have an advantage over those who are more complacent. No matter what has happened in the past in terms of statistical accomplishments, praise from others or promises made by the new coaches, nothing in hockey is guaranteed.
Players who show up to training camp or preseason practice thinking their spot in the lineup is secure or feeling comfortable because of past conversations with the coaches or promises they feel may have been made are in for a rude awakening. No matter what players have been told or promised, when the bright lights are turned on and the coach yells “Action,” they must be good enough to contribute to the team’s success, capable of playing against the level of competition the team will be facing and willing to do whatever the coach asks without complaint or attitude.
The bottom line is that players must be good enough to assume whatever spot in the lineup they hope to fill. Period. And if they aren’t good enough, instead of complaining, demonstrating bad body language or sulking, it is imperative that they accept constructive criticism in a positive manner and with a sense of drive and determination that indicates to the coaches their top priority is to improve and do whatever they can to help the team achieve success.
Every player can’t play on the first line and the top power play. One goalie can’t – and shouldn’t – play every minute of every game. In a perfect world coaches would put together a roster of 15 to 18 comparable skaters and two strong goalies who are interchangeable and can be used in every situation without fear or hesitation.
Wouldn’t that make everyone’s lives much easier and create a fun – yet competitive – environment for everyone involved?
Of course it would. And there are strong arguments to be made for coaches of younger players to take that approach no matter who is on their roster until they reach a certain age or level of competition. That’s another topic for another day, however.
We are here to help players who are in competitive situations and moving to new teams or stepping up to new levels of play be ready for what may be awaiting them. The reality is that, in general, every step up in level and every new age group brings with it a more competitive environment and at least somewhat of a shift away from the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality.
Players who are willing to accept a new challenge should be prepared mentally and physically for what may lie ahead.
One key consideration for players moving to a new team is to be aware that unless they are joining a program that is starting from scratch, the returning players already have had a full season or more to make an impression on the coaches. Coaches are going to be comfortable using certain players in specific situations, and when the puck drops and the intensity ramps up – especially early in the season – they are likely to turn to the players they know best in tight or difficult situations.
This doesn’t mean that they think the new players are bad or not capable; it’s simply a case of choosing the known – even if the known may not be the exact right choice for a given situation – over the unknown.
Again, the argument could be made that coaches at any level should be utilizing all their players in a variety of situations early in the season to figure out which players might be capable of best filling the various roles on the team that the sport requires. Once games start and competitive juices are flowing, though, human nature dictates that most coaches will do whatever they believe gives their team the best chance of winning.
This approach becomes even more evident as the level of play increases and the players get older. The point is that this is something new players should expect and be prepared for – whether it is fair or not. As most of us know, life and sports often aren’t fair, and our level of long-term success often is determined by how we adjust and adapt to situations that turn out to be not exactly what we expected.
Nothing can turn the excitement young players feel heading into a new season to disappointment quicker than not being utilized in the role they were expecting or feeling like they aren’t considered to be as good as the others.
Unfortunately, this probably happens more often than not, and the disappointment felt by players in those situations is completely understandable. In fact, as someone who has coached various sports for more than 25 years and worked for 15 years at the NCAA Division I collegiate level, I would not want any of my role players who weren’t being used in all or most situations to be happy about that.
Healthy internal competition is essential to creating the type of culture within a team or organization that leads to sustained success, whether that success is determined by wins and losses or by how many players are developed and successfully moved to higher levels.
Sometimes when players end up in roles they weren’t expecting or aren’t being given opportunities others are receiving, its simply because the coach hasn’t seen them enough or doesn’t know them well enough to feel comfortable playing them in certain roles or situations. In other cases, a coach may be testing some of the new players to see how they respond.
It may be impossible for players to determine into which of those categories they fall, but it doesn’t matter. How they respond will determine whether the coach provides them with the opportunities they seek. Too many players who feel this disappointment early in their seasons feel sorry for themselves instead of accepting the challenge and fighting for what they think should be theirs.
They may exhibit bad body language when they are removed from games, are on the bench or are corrected during practice. They may try to do things on the ice they think will help them stand out instead of just executing the simple plays the coach is asking of them. They may look around at other players who they feel are inferior to them and start to openly question why they are playing in certain roles. They may talk back or snap at coaches who are trying to help them improve and work their way up the lineup. And they may just stop competing when the puck doesn’t bounce their way, or they aren’t used in a manner that meets their approval.
None of those responses is acceptable, nor will they help the players earn the trust and respect of the coach that is necessary for them to assume a role that will be satisfactory. Youth and junior seasons are long and winding roads. The hockey season is a marathon full of twists and turns that every player and team must overcome.
There are injuries, illnesses, disciplinary actions and other circumstances that present opportunities for players to step in, iimpress the coaches and earn a larger role. A player who checks out mentally and physically at the first sign of adversity is going to drop to the bottom of the list when the coach decides who will get the first shot at filling in for a missing player. And if players in that frame of mind do happen to get one of those coveted opportunities, they will be less likely to perform up to the coach’s expectations than players who have bought in and done everything the coaches have asked to improve up to that point.
Players who don’t point fingers and compare themselves to others, who focus on improving their own game and who do everything in their power to satisfy a coach’s expectations and help the team succeed – even when things aren’t going their way – likely will get the first chance to fill in or move up the lineup when an opportunity arises. In addition, because of their team-first attitude and approach, they will put pressure on the coach every day to find more ways to get them the opportunities they desire.
Players who endear themselves to the coaching staff through a team-first mentality, high character and a strong work ethic become harder to keep out of the lineup and easier to move up when there are almost certainly other kids on the team who are difficult to deal with. This simple fact makes building a building a relationship with the coach essential for all young players – especially those moving to new situations and higher levels of play.
If a player is likable and a great teammate – and the coach thinks that player truly is good enough to be a contributing member of the team and to compete at that level – it becomes much harder to hold that player back as the season progresses.
Building a strong relationship and earning trust from a coach can be accomplished in many ways:
- Get to the rink early and warm up properly so that you are always ready to perform at a high level as soon as practice starts.
- Ask good questions when drills or systems are confusing and help teammates who are struggling with drills or team concepts to better understand them. This includes during team video sessions. Don’t ask questions just to ask questions or to act like you care. Ask about things that will help you or your team.
- Be positive and communicate on the bench and on the ice. Encourage other players and engage teammates and coaches in conversations that are pertinent to what is happening in the game or practice. Be positive. Be a teacher. Don’t criticize or question.
- Don’t be afraid to make the coach aware if other teammates are struggling with something or are depressed for one reason or another. Everyone’s mental health is important.
- Ask the coach what you can do to improve as a player and to make the team better, not only how you can get more ice time. See if the coach will watch video with you. Don’t just ask why you aren’t playing on the first line, and don’t compare yourself to others. Focus on being the best you that you can. Control what you can control.
- Be the first one on and the last one off the ice. Carry and clean up pucks. Offer to grab and carry water bottles. Collect extra sticks and other items that are left on the bench and bring them back to the locker room.
- Make sure no one ever outworks you on or off the ice. You may not be the best player or the hardest worker, but no one should ever outwork you.
- Try to make your teammates better at every practice. Skate hard. Fight to win every battle. Block shots. Be a ferocious penalty killer.
- Make every drill and every repetition your best. Always compete. Focus on perfect execution when passing and shooting. Win every drill. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
- Avoid putting your team in difficult situations by taking bad penalties or talking back to the officials.
- Maintain positive body language on the ice and on the bench.
- Occasionally just say hi to your coach; don’t make every conversation about yourself or hockey.
- Always be respectful when talking to coaches, teammates, parents and officials.
This doesn’t always happen overnight.
Building a relationship and earning a coach’s trust can take some time. Players aren’t always going to play for coaches they agree with or whose systems are a good fit for them.
My son was a high draft pick in two Tier 2 tuition-free junior leagues. He chose a team that really wanted him and seemed committed to developing him over a two-year period. His first year of juniors coming from 18U AAA, where he led his league in scoring, was a huge adjustment. He started the year in the lineup, was scratched for several games, worked his way up to the top of the lineup and later bounced around. He ended up playing many roles during the season and earned consistent playing time after Christmas and into the playoffs.
As a parent there were many moments of frustration for me, but he handled the situation and did everything the coach asked. Players were shuttled in and out, and some of his close friends were traded or released. But the team kept him, and there was reason for that.
The coach said he was a great teammate and great in the locker room, continued to work hard and was willing to play in any role without complaining. He had the skill to play in the top six but would happily play the way he was asked if placed on the third or fourth line.
At one point my son told me that he knew he could be a productive player in the league and that he was getting better every day practicing against the best players he had ever played with and against. He would go on to prove that point in his second year of juniors.
Killing penalties in practice against the team’s best players every day allowed him to develop an understanding of the game and a mindset that would eventually mold him into a player who played in every key situation for a team in the same league the following season. That helped him get an offer to play NCAA Division III hockey and got him into the lineup at that level every single day. This year, as a senior, he will be team captain.
The situation for my daughter, who plays college lacrosse for a top-10 NCAA D3 program, wasn’t much different. Recruited by Division I and II programs, she found a school that she loved, had a top program that would challenge for championships and would offer her a chance to compete for playing time right away.
She was lucky enough to get an offer from that school and was excited to accept. Her freshman year was cut short by COVID, and the team played only four games. She appeared as a reserve in three of those games – getting key minutes in a win vs. a nationally ranked opponent – but also didn’t play at all one game despite warming up several times to go in.
The following year her team played an eight-game COVID-impacted season. She averaged about 15-20 minutes a game and played about 25 minutes in an NCAA Tournament game but didn’t get it an all in the conference-championship game.
Although my daughter was the all-time leading scorer at her high school and played every important minute in every big game, she never complained and just continued to work. She crushed her fitness tests in the fall and worked tirelessly on improving her left hand. The coach didn’t say much to us other than to let us know that her hard work was noticeable and had allowed her to be in the mix to play.
She also built a reputation for being a great teammate by helping the freshmen and younger players who weren’t playing or were having trouble adjusting to college work through their situations.
Finally, she got her chance to start in an exhibition game against a Division I team last fall and scored an impressive goal. When the season started in February, she was the first attacker off the bench, playing about half the game, before finally moving into the starting lineup for most of the season. She scored 40 points for very strong team that advanced to the Division III Elite 8 and was just named a team captain for her senior year.
As parents these were not easy situations for us. At times it was frustrating to say the least, but we let the kids handle it and supported them any way we could. We never discussed playing time or anything other than the team with their coaches. They persevered and fought threw all the adversity to become better players and people.
And we couldn’t be prouder.
Parents also play a key role in helping their kids handle these situations. They listen to us and hear what we have to say, often taking our lead and following our example. If we speak ill of the coach or criticize other players, those sentiments can shape how they react and respond to the adversity.
Our natural instincts are to defend our children fight for them. And considering how much it costs to play hockey – and since we are the ones writing the checks – we have every right to question the coaches and find out what’s going on when their experience isn’t living up to expectations. But that’s not usually the best plan of attack.
While there certainly are situations in which politics, favoritism and other factors result in an unfair and disappointing experience, it is best the vast majority of the time for parents to guide and advise their kids in hopes of helping them turn something that could be negative into a positive learning experience that helps them in the future.
If one season doesn’t go exactly the way players want it to, it isn’t the end of the world or the end of their careers. In fact, those types of seasons can help them learn valuable lessons that they can draw on later in life. How they handle that adversity can earn the respect of their coaches, who in turn may go to bat for them and open doors that lead to future opportunities.
Hockey is a small world, and even if a player isn’t perfect fit for a coach’s style of play or systems, that coach will know other coaches and programs that might be a better fit and ultimately can help the player achieve his or her hockey goals with a recommendation.
What makes hockey such a great game is that it is built on mutual respect among those who play and coach and a spirit of teamwork and togetherness that no other sport provides – especially at the youngest levels as one of the only sports that requires players to spend time together in locker rooms. Players who carry themselves on and off the ice in a manner that demands the respect of their peers and coaches while always putting the team first will almost always find a good home where they can continue progressing toward reaching their personal hockey goals.
It won’t always be easy, and there’s no doubt that patience, perseverance and dedication will be required by everyone involved. But those who embrace and accept the process without giving up at the first sign of adversity will be better prepared on and off the ice no matter where life takes them.