John Russo

Hockey coaching should really be called hockey motivating

By John Russo
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Each year (for 25 years), I have had a guest writer for the “Coaches Corner” – to provide a new and fresh view from an outstanding young coach.

A Wayzata native, Judd Stevens starred at Wayzata High School where he earned All-Conference, All-Metro and All-State honors and was a 2001 Mr. Hockey finalist in his senior year. He went on to be a part of two national championships for the University of Minnesota, and was captain in 2004-05. He was Academic All-Big Ten and Academic All-WCHA in 2003-05, then went on to play pro hockey in Sweden.

Upon returning to Minnesota, Judd started his coaching career with the Wayzata Bantam A’s, including a state championship in 2009. He now is a coach in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League and earns his keep with Triple Tree Investment Bank.

Hockey coaching should really be called hockey motivating

By Judd Stevens

I will never forget when I realized just how little coaching had to do with X’s and O’s and how much it had to do with motivating kids.

We had just wrapped up a hard-fought game against a crosstown rival and our coaching staff entered the locker room to share our thoughts on what had just transpired on the ice. As we talked to the team, one of our players was visibly discontent and failed to make eye contact during the entire post-game speech.

We wrapped up our talk and called this individual into an adjacent locker room to figure out what was going on. This individual had not played his best game and seemed somewhat rattled from the time we had first seen him that day. We sat him down and tried to figure out what was going on. After some light questioning and him failing to say a word, he spoke “Coaches, I’m sorry for my performance today, but ... but ... but,  I just got a terrible haircut today and I couldn’t focus …”

Wow, we were all left speechless. A bad haircut was the distraction that took this particular kid off his game – I had now heard it all.

This was an extreme, but truthful, example of just how important a player’s mental approach can be to their success on the ice. Kids have a lot going on in their lives. They show up to the rink with a lot on their mind and coaches are responsible for getting them to focus and give as much effort as they possibly can for that game or practice.

Great coaches are not successful because they have exotic X’s and O’s, but because they are great at motivating a group of hockey players to all pull in the same direction. Being a great motivator is one of, if not the most important attribute of, a great coach and one that is often overlooked by parents.

Today, youth coaches find themselves playing a six-month game of “Bop the Mole.” Our “mole” this particular day was a bad haircut. The day before, the “mole” was a kid who was upset about his current linemates, and the day before, the “mole” was a kid who was frustrated that he wasn’t scoring at a pace that his parents expected, and the day before, the “mole” was a kid who felt like he wasn’t getting enough time on the power play, and on and on.

This “Bop the Mole” analogy simply implies that as a coach you can “bop” or resolve one issue, but as soon as you do, it seems as though another one “pops up.” Coaches are left to not only focus on the overall psyche of the team, but balance the evergoing game of “Bop the Mole” ... not so easy.

Another dynamic in the ever-going challenge of managing players’ mental approach is that every kid is SO different and comes from a different family/background. This dramatically impacts the way they respond to coaching.

Some kids are best suited for the “carrot” while others respond from the “stick.” Do you coddle them or teach them hard lessons? There is no right answer other than what fits each kid’s personality and what they will best respond to.

To throw another curveball in managing kids’ mental approach is the influence of what they may be hearing from mom and dad. When kids hear mixed messages and a parent is telling them that they should be doing something which contradicts the coaches messaging, there can be all kinds of confusion.

While it’s a broken record, it’s so incredibly important for parents to support coaches and especially not vocalize to their kids a frustration with a coach. Kids will respond the best to a coach when they know their parents are supportive of that coach.

Another example of just how important motivating is comes from hockey coaches at the highest level. With the Winter Classic, HBO aired their series 24/7 – a behind the scenes look at the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers building up to their outdoor game.

The show gives fans access to the lockerrooms of both teams and an opportunity to hear the messaging toward their teams from two of the great NHL coaches in John Tortorella and Peter Laviolette.

What is so interesting is that both coaches consistently are preaching effort and attitude to their teams during team meetings, pre-game speeches and intermission. There is very little X’s and O’s and much more motivating and challenging their teams to give the best effort possible each night.

Speaking of Laviolette, how is it that a coach can win a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and then be fired two and half seasons later? Did he forget how to coach? No. This speaks to just how important communicating, connecting and motivating a hockey team is.

Laviolette is, and always has been, a great coach, but for a number of reasons, sometimes even the great coaches can lose their ability to connect with their team.

While this is most magnified at the highest levels of sports in the form of a firing, it can be true for all levels. Once a coach loses a team’s respect, their ability to motivate is basically gone. It doesn’t matter how great of a coach one may have been, different people respond to different motivating tactics.

This is why the great and long tenured coaches at all levels have a unique ability to change their approach and adjust to any given team. Some teams need more coddling while others need a more high intensity approach – the most successful coaches can adjust to either.

Throwing a wrinkle on the overall approach to motivating a team is that it changes throughout the season. I have often found it best to use a high intensity, high demand approach earlier in the season. Then, later in the season, it’s best to transition to a more upbeat, looser approach which seems to keep the team fresh and full of energy.

If you were to use a looser approach earlier in the year, there is a risk that bad habits are created and a team can struggle with discipline. Overall, there is no “one size fits all” approach to managing a team’s psyche and motivating.

In summary, for the coaches out there, I would challenge you to find new ways to motivate your players. Sometimes the unconventional means are the best as it keeps kids on their toes.

For the parents, I would encourage you to be aware of the challenges coaches are faced with in trying to get the most out of a group of very different kids. Always stay supportive of the coach.

For players, motivation ultimately comes from within. Coaches are there to push you in the right direction, but no one, except yourself, can control your effort and attitude.

John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin, and his Coaches’ Corner columns have appeared in LPH since 1986.