Hey you. Yep, you, the one who is probably going to play about three shifts today and spend the rest of the game freezing your butt off in the middle of the bench. Hockey’s not that much fun right now, is it? Well, I know exactly how you feel. For three solid years, between the ages of 12 and 14, I spent most of my time as a competitive youth hockey player watching my teammates play while counting the lights hanging in the rink. During that span one coach told my dad to quit wasting his money and get me out of hockey because I was never going to do anything with it. I also spent a lot of time doubting myself and building an inferiority complex that would plague me the rest of my career.
Why am I telling you all of this? Well, I guess the reason is that I wish I could go back and do it all over again, knowing then what I know now. The first thing you need to do, right when you start feeling down, knowing that you’re going to be driving three hours on a bus to play three shifts, is to ask yourself the most important question there is: “Do you love playing hockey? I mean really, really love it?” If the answer is unequivocally, “yes”, then I would tell you to move forward and focus on these invaluable guiding points about persevering in youth athletics.
1) It’s a marathon, not a sprint
It’s something that I’ve mentioned in a couple of my other posts, but I can’t stress it enough to kids and parents involved in youth sports. Don’t become consumed by the imaginary clock. The clock probably took about 5 years off of my life from stress alone. There are so many different ways to reach your goals. Don’t read Sidney Crosby, Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux’s autobiographies and expect that a career is supposed to progress in the way that theirs did. More often than not, the path to success looks like a plate of spaghetti. The kids that are superstars at 10 or 11 years-old might not be superstars at 14, 15 or 16, and the superstars at 14, 15 and 16 might not be stars at 19, 20 or 21. In fact, in my experience, most of them weren’t. Relax and try to find ways to enjoy the ride.
2) Build confidence with small victories
Whether you’re playing as much as half the game or as little as three shifts, try to help prevent your confidence from going in the toilet by focusing on small victories. Small victories for a player who is rotting on the bench might occur in practice or on the outdoor rink. Use short-term goal-setting to help you accomplish small victories. If you’re about to perform a shooting drill in practice, try and score on 50% of your shots. If you accomplish your goal, take time to enjoy that small victory.
3) Practice is where true development occurs
Building off of the last point, understand that practice is where you improve the most. It’s where you get the most puck touches, the most time on the ice and where basically all of your skill development takes place. Practice is where you can try new things and expand your skill set, and where you should be able to development without fear of failure. Anyone who says you develop more in a game than practice hasn’t really thought it through. So, since there are no bench warmers in practice, take full advantage of this valuable time to grow your desire, confidence and skill set.
4) Be proactive with your coach
Most of the toxicity that exists in youth sports begins with adult interactions. More specifically, animosity between parents and coaches is what tends to sour the experience of youth sports. It makes sense, really. If a coach decides they want to play their best players to win games, the parents of the kids who don’t play are going to be rightfully upset. Often, it’s how this situation is handled between adults that can worsen the situation for the kid, either through escalated stress in their parents or scorn from their coach.
One thing I would have done differently as a youth player, as daunting as this may seem, would have been to be courageous and proactive and talk to my coach one-on-one, tell them how I felt and ask for guidance. Anyone who has coached can tell you that when a player respectfully engages you about their situation, it puts the onus on you to be a leader and be more accountable in the development of that player. If anything, it makes you feel a little bit guilty, like you’re letting them down.
Best case scenario, the coach will commit to doing a better job of giving you opportunities and focusing more on developing you as a player. Worst case scenario, you’ll get some feedback and hopefully some honesty about why they aren’t giving you the ice-time you feel you deserve. Either way, you’ve respectfully brought your feelings to the surface and let your coach know that you have a strong desire to play more.
5) Don’t worry about status
This point goes hand in hand with the point about it being a marathon, not a sprint. It’s easy to get caught up in the obsession with playing at the highest level of rep hockey. The AAA kids get the coolest gear and jackets and they dance with all the popular girls/boys at the school dance. I get it. Adam Banks was pretty cool in The Mighty Ducks and The Hawks definitely had better uniforms than District 5.
The fact is, though, kids develop at different stages and you’re not always going to get better playing against the best competition. Sometimes, you need to think about which situation represents a better way to grow as a player, both physically and mentally: playing three shifts of tense, ultra-safe hockey per game at the highest level or playing quality minutes of confident, worry-free hockey at the level below.
The turning point in my career came when I was cut from AAA, played a season of A-level hockey and had the biggest growth in development of my career. I went from three shifts a game of banging pucks off the glass to playing key minutes of confident, shackle-free hockey. By the time the next season rolled around, I was leaps and bounds ahead of more than half the players on that AAA team I was cut from.
6) Embrace the fun away from the games
Don’t ever forget the main reason anyone plays hockey: Fun! Hockey is fun! Enjoy all the great moments the game has to offer, from great plays on the ice, to funny pranks off the ice. Savour the anticipation of that first cold day when the outdoor rink opens to the mini-stick games in the hotel hallways during tournaments. There are so many moments away from the actual game itself that make hockey such a great experience for youth athletes. When times get tough, focus more on the great moments that keep that fire burning deep inside you.