If you play in a truly recreational league, it’s likely that you play in that league because you value good sportsmanship above ruthless competitiveness. Unfortunately, in all the many non-professional leagues with which I’ve been involved, the sportsmanship generally declines proportionally as the skill level or competitive nature of the division or league increases.
Two of the leagues in which I currently play promote sportsmanship above all else. One of those leagues doesn’t even keep standings or have playoffs, and the other has strict rules about limiting the number of goals a player can score in a game, etc. In both leagues, I’ve been some unforgettable acts of good sportsmanship. But I’ve also seen some instances where, in their attempts to demonstrate good sportsmanship, what the team or player actually ends up doing only demoralizes their opponents (and sometimes even their own teammates) further.
Telling a Player How Much She’s Improved.
During a game, you notice that one of your opponents is handling and carrying the puck with more skill and speed than you’ve seen her do before. Or maybe she’s suddenly lifting the puck on shots when she previously seemed unable. Or maybe her backwards skating, which before seemed non-existent is now speedy and smooth.
What you think you’re doing: After the post-game handshake, you stop her on the ice to tell her that you are really impressed with how much she’s improved. You’ve gone out of your way to give her a compliment!
What you’re really doing: Well, for one thing, you don’t ever know whether or not, in the times you’d seen her play in the past, if she was battling an injury, had a bad skate sharpening, or was just really tired. And maybe if you don’t know her well, you might not be aware that she has been playing for 18 years and by you telling her how much she’s improved, you’re basically saying, “You used to be not-so-good for a long time, so congratulations on finally advancing your skills!” Even if someone is a relative beginner, telling her she has improved can sometimes imply that you actually used to notice how weak her skills were before.
Other alternatives: If you have a compliment to give someone, just give her that compliment. Be very specific. Unless the player is someone whose playing history is very familiar to you or unless the player is someone you used to mentor or coach, keep away from the “improving” type feedback. Instead, just say, “Wow, you played great along the boards tonight—you didn’t back down!” or “I can’t believe what a hard and accurate shot you have from the point!” or “That was some excellent backwards skating out there!” Just give the feedback for what it is and not as a comparison to anything. If the player has been working hard on her skills, she’ll be happy for these compliments without the reference to her weaker previous self. It will be up to her to interpret your feedback as a gauge of her improving skills.
Giving a Compliment You Wouldn’t Give a to a Player of the Opposite Gender
This actually is very similar to the situation above. Mainly I come across this issue, though, in co-ed hockey. It really struck me in one co-ed game recently when I was playing center. I lined up for the faceoff against my male opponent and won the faceoff cleanly. He, being a good-spirited and friendly sort of player, immediately started saying to me, “Wow, that was really good. Great job on winning that faceoff! You took that well!”
What you think you’re doing: He was being genuine and not sarcastic. Even after the next stop in play, he was still praising me. I know in his mind, he was being a really good sport by complimenting and encouraging his opponent who’d just beat him on a faceoff.
What you’re really doing: Well guess what? As much as I would put myself more on the beginner end of the rec hockey player spectrum, I probably win more than half of the faceoffs I take. It’s one of my few strengths. So I was left to wonder about the reason for all these sudden accolades. (My mind went back to a time, a couple of seasons before, in the same co-ed league where female centers are quite an anomaly. I skated up to take my first faceoff of the game and the male ref looked at me and said with sincere concern, “Are you sure you’re ok to do this?”)
I observed my new number one fan and faceoff adversary for the rest of the game and noted that he was NOT saying similar things to my male teammates who won faceoffs against him. Although I realized his intentions were noble, what his comments said to me was that he was pleasantly surprised by my skill—I was able to win faceoffs despite the inherent impediments presented by my gender.
Other alternatives: Along the same lines, last month, I watched a streamed Hockey Canada broadcast where the seemingly clueless older male interviewer was chatting with Olympian Meghan Agosta and Canadian WNT member Sophie Shirley between periods of the women’s US v Canada game in Sarnia, ON. He starts the segment with, “Both of these ladies can skate faster than me, they can shoot the puck faster than me, and they could probably take me into the boards and hurt me.” He thought he was being funny and bragging about their skills, but the fact is, he would have never said the same thing had he been interviewing players from the Canadian Men’s National Team. (You can find that interview here at about the 1 hour, 17 minute mark)
If you have a compliment that you want to share with a player, be sure you’d give the same compliment to any other player regardless of gender. Otherwise, that observation comes across as the sort of condescending wow-that-was-pretty-good-for-a-girl backhanded compliment.
Moving Your Scoring Machine to Defense After She’s Scored Multiple Goals
So your team is ahead 5-0 partway through the second period of a game against a much weaker team, and your best player and star winger has scored four out of those five goals.
What you think you’re doing: Good sportsmanship dictates that you should now move her to defense so that she isn’t a threat to racking up the score even more, right?
What you’re really doing: By moving your best player to defense, your team is most likely, at least during the shifts where she’s on the ice, preventing your opponents from even getting the puck. Sure, unless she’s oblivious to the situation or an egomaniac, she probably won’t rush up to score more goals. But at the same time, now that she’s defense, if any of her opponents enter her zone, she’ll deftly take the puck off them, or intercept any passes in your end, and move the puck back into her own attacking end—over and over and over.
Other alternatives: If your team wants to stop running up the score, there are ways to do this without looking like you’re not trying (see also—the next section below). First, leave your superstar at wing and tell her to work on passing to her teammates rather than taking shots or deking everyone out as she skates through the opposing players like a slalom challenge. Or, if she’s a very accurate shot, tell her to practice her accuracy by shooting at the goalie’s pads or blocker or glove.
While putting her on defense would appear to show consideration for the team you are beating, it will actually just frustrate them even more because now that she’s tallied a bunch of goals for your team, she be there to ensure they don’t even have a chance to score.
Giving a Less-Skilled Player Time with the Puck (and Being Very Obvious About It)
Most of us in rec hockey have been there—we’re playing defense and a player from the other team who is obviously very new and beginner level comes skating at us, head down, fumbling the puck but still controlling it.
What you think you’re doing: We decide that it’s good sportsmanship for us to give her time with the puck because that’s needed for any player to build confidence and improve. Some experienced players will half-heartedly skate backwards and gently swat their stick in the direction of the player or even stop altogether. Now your opponent will have the chance of a lifetime to get close to the goalie and take a shot! Maybe she’ll even score thanks to your generosity.
What you’re really doing: Unless it’s her first game ever, this player has been in the current game and season long enough to know what the speed of play is on the ice. She’s had the puck taken off her by more skilled players enough times to know that she’s not as the same level of experience. She knows how the game flows. And even though she may not yet be confident enough to look up while skating with the puck, she’ll sense that you have basically stopped trying. To be fair, some beginners appreciate this treatment on the ice. However, many others feel that it is disrespectful and bordering on embarrassing. It’s as if the opponent is saying, “Ok, so I’m so skilled but also so gracious that I can just stop and smile at how cute it is when this rookie toddles by me with the puck, and if she scores, she can owe it all to ME!” You’ve not only made it about you and your magnanimity, but you’ve demonstrated that this player is so weak that the only way she can get by you is if you barely make a move.
Other alternatives: If you’ve been on the other end of this dynamic and had a player stop trying when you approach, you may know how it makes you feel. You are apparently such a poorly-skilled player that your opponents feel sorry for you and just have to stop making an effort so that you can feel like you’ve accomplished something in the game. As my friend Kola so eloquently stated, “When people only play against me half-*ssed, it doesn’t really give me confidence.” It draws attention to how weak the weaker player is by slowing down the game. A truly skilled player can find a way to give the beginner time with the puck while still looking like she is actually trying or even challenge the beginner somewhat. Make a concerted but inaccurate lunge at the beginner. Lose your balance. Then as you recover your balance, let her skate past you and then follow her down the ice. There is a fine line between giving someone space and looking like you’re trying, and giving someone space and looking like you’ve stopped trying completely, and a truly skilled player can skate this line.
Slowing Down Your Team’s Scoring Against a Weaker Opponent by Not Taking Real Shots
Your team is winning 9-0 in the beginning of the third period, but you are so overmatched with your opponent that you are not sure what else to do to stop scoring. And, as mentioned above, you don’t want to look like you’re not trying and embarrass your opponent further. So, you continue your drives towards the net but you’ve decided that it would look silly to take actual shots on net.
What you think you’re doing: You and your teammates are now like the bumpers on a pinball table and together move the puck slowly towards the net until you set up a little one-two-three and deke that just nudges the puck past the goalie and over the goal line. You can’t be accused of running up the score if you haven’t actually taken a hard shot, right?
What you’re really doing: If you ask most goalies, they will tell you that the shots that the skaters think are the hardest to stop are actually the easiest, and vice versa. If someone takes a hard slapshot at my blocker, most of the time I’ll be able to deflect it away from the net if I haven’t been screened. If someone takes a hard wrist shot towards the top of the net on my glove side, I should be able to catch it, and if I miss it and it goes in the net, it’s my fault. But when players are pinballing the puck back and forth on the ice through the crease and my visibility for the puck on the ice in close proximity to my pads is almost zero, I probably will get scored on more often than not, especially if my defensive teammates aren’t in the right position or playing aggressively.
Other alternatives: If you’re ahead by a lot of goals and you don’t want to continue running up the score, half-heartedly diddling around with the puck by the crease will probably unintentionally get you a goal by going off a defender’s skate or stick. Or a gently played puck on the ice that you think a goalie should be able to stop easily is one that the goalie can’t even see and will go in for a goal. Also, you’re probably not helping the goalie to improve. Take shots at her pads. Shoot the puck in the air. Don’t screen her, and take clean shots at her when she isn’t being inadvertently screened by her own teammates. Yeah, you don’t want to look like an idiot by taking screaming slapshots or rushing in to execute a bar-down wrister, but if you think you’re doing the other team, and particularly the goalie, a favor by using fancy stickhandling techniques in the crease but keeping the puck on the ice, you are not.
Over-Celebrating a Win or a Goal and Then Telling the Other Team Why
So your team, who hasn’t won a game in three seasons somehow manages to edge out a win against a team, perhaps in your league or in a tournament. After the final buzzer you go crazy and scream and pile on the goalie and celebrate a regular win as if you’d just won a championship. Then as you line up for the post-game handshake and see the expressions on your opponents’ faces, you realize that your sportsmanship might be called into question because you’ve over-celebrated.
What you think you’re doing: After the handshake, you rush up to various players on the other team to let them know that you’re sorry if you over celebrated, but that your team is AWFUL, and you NEVER win games, and this is your FIRST WIN in three seasons!!! Now they will forgive your excessive celebration, right?
What you’re really doing: What you’ve basically just told the other team is that your team is so horrible that you never win, but hey, you just beat them!
The same thing goes for a player who over-celebrates a goal when her team is already winning by a good spread. She (or a more conscious teammate of hers) goes to the goalie right after and says, “Oh, you have to understand! That is her first goal ever! She’s been playing for a millennium and has never scored before!” So you’re saying to the goalie, in essence, “Every other goalie in the world has been able to stop her shots except you!!”
Other alternatives: Don’t over-celebrate. Ever. For any reason. I’m not saying don’t celebrate goals or wins. I’m saying don’t OVER-celebrate. Celebrate your goals and wins as are appropriate to the occasion. Then you’ll never have to worry about being accused of poor sportsmanship or coming up with demeaning explanations to try to explain your behavior.
Or better yet, be humble and act like you’ve been there before.