In a half-century of coaching, I’ve heard that competitive grit is the most important factor in success – or rink sense – or stick skills – or skating. And I can’t disagree with any of those viewpoints.
However, there is no improvement – no FUN – in any sport if there is no confidence. And it is the hardest thing to coach, because it requires a certain level of success. So, why do we coaches work so darn hard to destroy confidence?
Why do we get angry? Does a math teacher get angry when a student makes a mistake? Is it necessary to correct each mistake more often than to reward small successes? Is patience the most important coaching skill in our profession?
And how about lack of effort – or the perception that effort is always the problem? Somehow, we feel totally justified to berate poor effort with the sharpest of insults. Stop. Think before acting. Is there a reason for a poor outcome, just as there might be in the classroom? Insults are not a constructive tool for a teacher, but tradition allows – actually expects – a coach to address poor results with the nastiest rant possible.
In a recent TV game in which one team gave up three goals in a period, the announcer declared the coach should go in the locker room and ream the team out for poor effort. Was it effort? The goaltender gave up three, none were his fault. The refs contributed; the coaches made some poor line changes; team defense didn’t match the offensive plays that were all NHL highlights of the week. There were incredible, deceptive passes – shots that squeaked in the corner where the crossbar meets the post – once-in-a-career plays.
Nonetheless, the coach was expected to throw a fit between periods. It just had to be a lack of effort, because … well … because, “I’m mad.”
But what if we coached confidence with the same passion we bring to the rink for skating mechanics, or power play or D-zone coverage? We watch NHL coaches pull the notebook out of their jacket pocket, and I wonder if any of them are making notes of a subtle good play that doesn’t get noticed. Did a defenseman finish a check or make a good breakout pass, but didn’t get an assist? Did a forecheck create a turnover that doesn’t lead to a goal, but could in the future?
Building confidence is a full-time coaching project. Every little step toward winning behavior is a gift, because those successes build confidence. Elite players have success automatically; this increases poise with the puck, and leads to more success.
But weaker players need to be rewarded when they do little things right, because they aren’t capable – yet – of the automatic reward from scoring a highlight goal. This is where the truly great youth coaches earn their stripes – not winning championships.