I was chatting with a fellow coach the other day. She coaches a pretty good Midget A team with some very motivated players. She does a great job getting them to play as a team and they are close to the top of their division standings.
In the course of the conversation, she mentioned one of her players who truly believes she has a chance to play division 1 hockey in the U.S. This player is a third line player, decent skater but not really a candidate to move up to even AA. In fact, her parents have been a little upset lately that they haven’t seen the improvement they had hoped for in their daughter and implied that it was because of the way the team was being coached and the players she was playing with.
The dilemma my coaching friend had was how to break the news to a young athlete that her dreams of playing NCAA D1 hockey are a real stretch - in fact, playing uSports hockey was going to be a real stretch for her. I find this to be a very common issue with players and parents - unrealistic expectations. And unfortunately, it often gets dumped at the coach’s feet.
Here are some points of conversation that a coach can have with a family who has unrealistic expectations with regards to a hockey career:
1) Team first! Start a conversation early in the season with all players and families about the importance of being a member of the “team”. That metaphorically, “the name on the front of the jersey is way more important than the name on the back”. Make sure your team community knows that team success, in every way, will ultimately contribute to each individual’s success. Hard work, attention to detail, being a good team player and being coachable are all things that help players get to the next level.
2) Be honest. Let a player know where they stand with respect to their skill level, where they need to be if they want to move to a higher level but, that it will take a lot of work to get there. I would never want to dash the hopes of a young player by telling them they “will never make it”. That’s absolutely not appropriate. But, the conversation can turn to what needs to be done in order to realize goals.
3) Give examples. One of the things I will tell players at the prep school level is that only the top 2 or 3 players on each team in our league will go on to play college hockey in any given year. On our league website there is a list that I can reference. Ask the question, “do you see yourself as that kind of player?” then “what needs to happen (what do you need to work on) for you to be one of those players?”
4) Show the math. I wrote a blog post a year and a half ago explaining the mathematics of making it to the NHL, NCAA D1 hockey and the women’s national team (click here). It’s a tough road and there is a steep pyramid to the top. Make sure families understand that not everyone is moving on to play at the next level. As I will say regularly, if you are a third line player, backup goalie, or sixth defenceman, your chances aren’t great to move on.
5) Go see a game. When I have a player or a family say they are looking to play at the next level I will often ask “Have you gone to see a game?” Most families haven’t seen an NCAA D1 hockey game, or a uSports game, or even an OHL game. I tell families to go sit down as close to ice level as possible. There, they can really get a sense of the speed and strength of the players. Often this is a huge eye opener - but can be a huge motivator too. When I was in my last year of high school I got a chance to skate with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues in practice one day (long story how it came about). My first reaction after the practice was that I will NEVER be able to play at that level - it was too fast, the players were too big and strong, the goalies were AWESOME and I never scored, and every pass was a rocket right on the tape. But, it was great motivation. I knew where I needed to be if I wanted to play at the college level.
The themes that resonate most with me and the teams I enjoy coaching the most are those that really have a “team first” attitude. Good things come to those that are deserving (usually!). I want players who are selfless, will play any role, will play through adversity, who always cheer on their teammates and enjoy coming to the rink everyday just because they love the game, love the team, and love to be there. And interestingly enough, those are often the players who improve and progress the most, and often move on to the next level.