Hockey parents, players, and fans: think on this for a moment.  What does a confident hockey player look like?  What do you observe as they’re playing in the game?  How do they respond to pressure or feedback from their coaches?  How do they respond to situations both on and off the ice?

Besides skill, talent, and experience, it can be difficult to know what sets a player apart from others.  While it’s not as tangible, confidence can be what sets players apart.  A player can do hundreds of drills to perfection, but without confidence, they might not have the courage to take a risk out on the ice when it counts.  But how do we build confidence in young players and students?  Well, I’m going to share some points that have had an impact on the youth I work with. Here they are!

Always Believe in your young players (even when they don’t)

I see the benefits of this on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis.  I have multiple students who continually face new challenges as they go through middle school and high school.  When dealing with so many negative influences, some of my students tend to lack confidence in themselves.  As a result, they may also doubt their abilities and be afraid to take risks.

To alleviate this, I’ll use different approaches depending on the situation.  Here are a few things I’ve done. 

1) Always make sure they know you believe in them. Either say it or show it through actions. 

2) Lessen the burden on them by allowing them to try a new skill or challenge in a lower risk situation.  This gives them the opportunity for some success before those skills are put to the test in real life.

3) Lastly, if your player doesn’t know something is difficult, don’t spoil it and tell them it’s hard.  Especially with younger players, sometimes they really don’t know a new task is difficult. Because no one ever told them so. This doesn’t happen often, but the beauty is this allows the player to face obstacles without fear getting in the way.

Take time not just to listen, but also understand what your player needs

Whether it’s in a game or at another school function, I’ve seen adults not respond in a helpful way as a young player is trying to respectfully voice a concern or ask a question. Before the player has even finished a sentence, the adult is already talking over them.  The adult either gives an answer that they already wanted to share ahead of time or dismisses the player outright.  That response can crush the confidence of a young boy or girl who is already stepping out of their comfort zone to talk with the parent or coach. When this happens, I almost immediately see a shift in the player’s demeanor.  Most likely that player won’t attempt this again and may also be hindered from speaking out in other situations.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”   ~Bryan H. McGill

On the positive side, I love when I see parents and/or coaches actively listening to the their players.  I’m forever amazed by the subtle confidence that builds up in a young person when what they share is validated.  Notice that I said, “Validated,” not “Right.”  The key difference here lies in the response of the adult.  Instead of just listening to respond, these adults are listening to understand what the player needs.  This gives the young person opportunity to communicate successfully both on and off the ice, which leads to more confidence.

Be Honest, but balance your words with kindness

This one can be really tough.  How do we offer constructive comments or criticism without crossing the line into being too harsh?  

A few months ago I had a student who (for a couple of training sessions in a row) didn’t work on anything I asked him to complete.  When I asked why, he said, “I just didn’t have any time.”  When he said that, I responded by asking a couple of leading questions.  After all, sometimes young students haven’t grasped how to effectively manage their time, so I wanted to help him figure it out and find a solution.  However, it soon become clear that he didn’t ever bother to try.  He was just making excuses.  I turned to him and said, “Here’s the deal.  You’re talented.  You have a great head on your shoulders.  However, if you’re not going to put in the work, then you’re wasting my time and you’re wasting your parents’ money.”  In that moment, I know what I said sounded a bit harsh.  However, I knew in my gut that’s what this kid needed to hear.  It was still a risk though. 

Fortunately, what I said lit a fire under that kid. He did a complete 180 degree turn and stepped up.  I understand completely that what I did in that situation won’t work for all of your players.  I just knew what that kid needed to hear. In these moments, I think we have to discern what will be best for the player.  Before speaking to them, ask yourself: Will this tear them down or will it be what is needed to move them forward.

Let them own their experience and support them always

There’s no one set way to find the balance here, but I will share some observations I’ve made with younger players (brand new to the sport) versus ones who have been playing for a while.  With much younger players who are new to the sport, I will say that it helps for the parent to provide a bit more structure in the beginning.  Mind you that doesn’t mean you completely take the reins and steamroll over anything the kid’s coach says.  Just remember, your son or daughter is just learning to play hockey.  They’re trying to find their stride and figure out how they work best.  Chances are that your new young player also doesn’t necessarily know what to practice, for how long, or when. 

In this case, perhaps the parent could do a short check-in with the coach after practice and see what they’re working on.  Then ask about some practical things you can do at home that will benefit the player but also make sure they’re having a good time.  Being there with your son or daughter can be a great morale builder here.  They are improving their skills while spending time with you, knowing that you’re completely supportive of what they’re doing.

As your players get older, the focus will shift toward them taking ownership while you remain a supportive.  This can be tougher, because that means starting to let go.  It means they’re stepping out and taking more risks on their own.  You, of course, will still be there for them. However, you’ll find that they may thrive more when you let them hold the reins instead of you trying to pull the cart the direction you think it should go.  As the saying goes, you can show them the door, but they’re the ones who must walk through it.

I hope these tips are helpful for you as parents and coaches working with your hockey players.  While i think there’s some good advice here, it’s always easier said than done.  In the long run, just make sure your players know you’re there for them and that they can count on you.  Them knowing you support them no matter what will do wonders for their confidence and what they believe they can achieve.

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