“The best plays I made were really close to being the worst plays”.
Interesting quote by Brian Leetch, New York Rangers Hall of Fame defensemen and arguably the top American dman to ever play the game. Brian was explaining how players must be willing to fail if they are to have success. How exposing yourself to failure was necessary in order to have the opportunity to be the hero. Now I’m not sure being the hero should be the goal of youth hockey players (although it is a fun and memorable role to play if the situation presents itself!) but I do think, however, the same philosophy can be applied to getting better as a player. Moving outside of your current comfort zone is essential to expanding that comfort zone. And so is accepting the inevitable mistakes which come with it. Nothing too revolutionary there. Kids try new things on their own all the time from new apps to Swagways or new stick tricks in the driveway – so why would it be necessary to write about the value of making mistakes on the path to becoming a better player? It’s because often coaches, parents and spectators don’t embrace mistakes as opportunities to improve but too commonly fear them as being what will keep them from victory. And in the very short term they may be right. When two relatively evenly matched hockey teams face off it is often the team who makes the fewest mistakes who wins the game.
“Dump the puck!”
“Ice the puck!”
“Just get it on net!”
Heaven forbid a player tries to control the puck and play keep away instead of instantly slapping it down the ice when shorthanded. We’ve all heard it yelled both from the bench and from the stands. Now, as someone spending his time running a Hockey iQ training website, I have a keen appreciation for situational awareness and believe there is a time when the aforementioned commands are the correct plays. I also think those times are few and far between, especially at the youth levels, and when in doubt the tie should always go to allowing the player to be creative. In the long and medium term the fear of mistakes is short changing our players of the opportunity to expand their comfort zone and improve their game. If a coach sees their primary role as teacher, and not as aspiring NHL coach, they’ll use these opportunities to help guide their players to learn from the mistakes instead of criticizing the players for making them. Maybe they’ll even connect the relevance of the drills in practice to mastery of the move they just fell short on. Fans and parents will urge them to have the courage to make more mistakes in the future.
Dr. Jack Blatherwick consistently laments the structured play and consistent dumping of the puck which he’s increasingly observed at all levels. Jack is a very respected hockey guy who I met while being recruited to play college hockey. He’s since worked with U.S. Olympic teams, NHL teams, done lots of great work in sports physiology and hockey conditioning but at his core I’ve always seen him as simply and keenly a student of the game. One of the points he makes in his writings on the topic, which can be found at www.LetsPlayHockey.com, is that the game is more fun for the players when they are able to play freely and creatively. No one spends time on the pond practicing dumping the puck or day dreams of icing the puck during the big game. Nurturing a love of the game is essential for young players. Hockey is a game which needs to be played with passion and passion comes, in large part, from loving what you are doing.
One last quote. This one’s from Bobby Orr, the consensus best dman to ever play. Orr had this advice regarding a young defenseman he’d been watching play,
“He’ll get caught. I got caught. The players understand how he plays. They accept it. He’s fast enough to get back a lot of times. You have (young) kids coming along where (many coaches say) shoot the puck up the glass and shoot it in. This coach is letting him do it and since they’ve allowed him to do it, this kid has been unbelievable. But, let him do it. That’s how he is most effective. Is he gonna make mistakes? Yup. Is he gonna get caught? Yup. But the pluses are going to outweigh the minuses.”
Orr was talking about a young Erik Karlsson. Karlsson was an immensely talented but often messy and mistake prone offensively focused defenseman. Since this quote, Karlsson has gone on to win the Norris trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman 2 times and is poised to win a 3rd this year after finishing as the top scoring defenseman again. Allowing him to make mistakes seem to have created more plusses than minuses.
So next time we see a youth player try something outside of their comfort zone, and inevitably failing, instead of grumbling about how they affected the team lets remember the advice of Bobby Orr and Brian Leetch and celebrate their mistakes…that same player just might be the hero some day.