John Russo

Training “keys” to attaining the competitive edge

In each of the past 23 years, I have selected a guest writer for my Coaches’ Corner column whom I consider to be exceptional in providing fresh insights to help coaches better prepare their teams in achieving personal bests.

This year’s Each year for the past 23 years, I have selected a guest writer for the Coaches’ Corner column. This provides a fresh view from an exceptional individual that may give coaches some tools to better coach their team.

This year’s guest writer is Greg Cylkowski, M.A., a well-known sports analyst who is based locally in the Twin Cities. For the past 25 years, Greg’s background in Sports Psychology and Motor Development has led Olympic, professional and amateur athletes alike to call upon his performance enhancement coaching. His unique concepts have also been published in many sports and hockey publications.  To learn more about Greg’s services, he may be contacted at (651) 484-8299. 

 This is the second week (of three) that I turn my column over to Greg Cylkowski.


By Greg Cylkowski


Each year hockey enthusiasts devote an increasing amount of personal time and financial investment in the form of training instruction, technologically advanced equipment and state-of-the-art facilities in the hope of improving individual skills. In spite of the emphasis placed upon them to improve and attain a level of peak performance, many times goals go unfulfilled, without definite answers. For many, the frustration is the direct result of critical issues in the enhancement of athletic abilities being unnoticed.

Successful performance in any sport is determined by a culmination of variables which not only include the development of muscular skills, but also an understanding of the mental behavioral skills.

Tough sport, by definition, is physical. The mental side that complements the sweat and strain is now being acknowledged by amateur associations and most NHL clubs as the critical link to maximizing over-all performance. 

Unfortunately, sports psychology has not always been viewed in its proper context as a training component to enhance the hockey experience. A general consensus envisions its function as merely a method of treating the stereotyped “problem players.”

Even though application of sports psychology concepts undoubtedly identify such concerns as coping with the stress and anxiety of competition, and dealing with parental pressure, its usage can be even more beneficial in developing the “complete” performance and assisting coaches to become more effective mentors.

To assist players, coaches, and parents in their pursuit of attaining hockey excellence, the focus of this article will be to address two vital issues in acquiring the competitive edge – one from a coach and one from a player.


Question: I currently coach my son’s traveling hockey team. Unfortunately, I never realized how uncomfortable I would be since I’m not sure if I’m handling him individually in a proper way. How do other coaches handle this?

Answer: The majority of coaches in today’s youth hockey program are parent-coaches. Though the intent of these individuals is to be commended, their efforts are many times clouded by their concern for their individual son or daughter. Like a doctor attempting to treat his own child, a parent-coach may also be too close to the situation to be effective, much less objective.

The following hints are questions that you may ask yourself if you are concerned about making your situation more productive and enjoyable for the team as a whole.

 • “Do I enjoy working with kids or do I simple enjoy coaching my child?” 

Unfortunately, many parents are forced into coaching because the team is on the verge of folding if a coach (or babysitter) is not found. If this is the case, have another experienced coach or another parent assist you in this learning process for not only the team, but in your coaching effectiveness as well. 

If, however, you are coaching because you feel it is necessary for your child to receive proper individual training, then it is better for you and the team to choose a sport where you and your child can work one-on-one (i.e. golf).

• “Would I coach a team if my child was not on it but for the sake of helping kids?” 

If your answer is no, then you better seriously consider not coaching or have an assistant or staff that will keep your actions in perspective. Remember that this is a team experience, not a father-son outing.

• “Am I too hard or too easy on my child and how do I know if I am being objective? 

Ask your child if he/she would prefer to be on another team. Keep in mind that is isn’t always healthy to coach your son/daughter all the way through high school since invariably you could be holding back his/her development. As far as keeping team decisions in perspective, a system of checks and balances by another coach or parent whom you trust may provide you with the necessary data. Have them deal with decisions involving your youngster.

• “Should I even be coaching the age group of level of play my son or daughter competes in?” 

For many coaches, the difference between a positive experience or a near disaster depends on the kids he/she is comfortable with. Some coaches prefer working with girls, others are unable to deal with 7 and 8 year-olds, while still others do not enjoy coaching in a recreational setting. 

There is nothing wrong with being a competitive or winning coach as long as it is kept in perspective and compatible with why the kids are there. The program is for the kids, and if you are unsure where your niche in coaching lies, you could take a coaching assessment test.  Also, try to implement coaching self-report forms to assist in your analysis.


Question: I’m a goalie and due to the fact that my team is so dominant, I often find myself becoming bored and losing my edge. What invariably happens is that the opponent scores relatively easy goals on only a few rushes. How can I keep myself mentally ready?    

Answer: What you have described is not at all uncommon. In fact, this same scenario is a concern for the player who plays infrequently or must enter a contest without much notice. The key here is to know how to create the state of mind when you are playing at your optimal level. 

For some players, they peak or play best when they have certain body sensations such as a degree of sweat or exhaustion. For others, they have found they perform effortlessly when their heart rate (i.e. 120 heart beats per minute) is maintained at a desired range. 

To discover the idiosyncrasies that make you “tick” be aware of all the happenings around you when you are at your best. Practice and visualize these details both on and off the ice so that at any given time you may be able to benefit from this effect. 

In regards to goalie play during a game, when you feel you are losing your intensity and focus, get yourself back into the game by playing the role of the opposing goaltender. Act as though your team is attacking you and respond accordingly. Even if you are moving around up and down in your crease with no one skating near you, this simulated play will keep you loose and sharp. Keep in mind it is easier to stop a high percentage of shots when you are constantly being shot at because you are more in the “flow” of the game.