On Youth Athletes, Pressure, & Using Your Voice

On Youth Athletes, Pressure, & Using Your Voice Ice Hockey Coach Matt Clune

Do you use your voice?

I’m writing this article in direct response to a submission in The Athletic written by Matt Clune, younger brother of former National Hockey Leaguer Rich Clune.

Read Recovery: The Rise, Fall, & Redemption of the Clune Brothers.

But as Matt describes, the fact that his older brother played in the NHL hardly matters at all.

Even as it mattered more than anything.

It’s a long read, and a difficult one, but what I’m about to write here might make more sense if you read Matt’s moving piece first.

Done?

Matt’s article is both a tribute to his brother even as its a painfully detailed account of Rich’s struggles with alcohol and substance abuse. In one scene described so delicately that I can clearly see it in my mind, Matt describes his older brother, his hero, but still a teenager at the time, sitting in a bathtub while promising him and their younger brother Ben that he would deliver a slice of glory for which they could all be proud. Not a Stanley Cup, but a puck. One simple official puck used in a National Hockey League Game.

“When I left, my foot caught a tiny puddle of water splashed on the floor. I felt its temperature. His bath water was ice cold.”

Where does pressure come from?

A young hockey player told me a story the other day about one of the first practices I ever ran for a team on which he played. He talked about a simple stickhandling drill where I ask the players to perform a fairly complex puckhandling move while skating up the ice. It’s a fun, dynamic skill that’s not about success, but the attempt. 

The process. Not the results.

The player told me he was terrified. The drill was supposed to be fun. I’ve done it a hundred times. If you’ve ever seen me run a practice then you’ve probably seen me run this exercise.

And this young hockey player, this human being, was terrified that he’d screw up a silly movement that, in truth, was basically impossible to perform and would never ever ever be used in a game.

Pressure isn’t an exclusive weapon wielded by hockey parents, though that’s where we automatically place the blame when we hear of players complaining, burning out, quitting, or worse.

In Rich Clune’s case, that pressure, combined with his addiction, was more than enough to push him and his family over the edge. And the most difficult thing for a lot of people to understand is that Rich’s pressure was mostly self-inflicted.

“Time, money and emotion were all invested in copious amounts to help us pursue what we thought would make us happy.”

We’re obsessed. Hockey does make us happy. Tennis makes us happy. Succeeding in school makes us happy because the future depends on it. Writing makes (some of) us happy.

But are we paying attention to our children and the pressure they’re facing? Like, truly paying attention?

I’ve written in the past about Terry Trafford, a four-year veteran of the Saginaw Spirit at the time of his suicide, a player who crumbled under his own expectations and his own internal pressure. Combined with substance use (which is not the same as substance abuse), this young man, this boy, in Matt Clune’s words, would rather leave the world behind than deal with the suffocating consequences of a dream slowly fading away into nothing. Dreams don’t always come true, but the dreamer shouldn’t be fading away with them.

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Rich Clune is a name I instantly recognized when I came across his brother’s article. He played for the Nashville Predators. He’s another in a long name of hockey players with whom I have a varying level of recognition. But I had no idea about his personal life and the nature of his struggles. I didn’t know that long before Rich Clune fought the battle for his life, he fought his first battle with alcohol. It was the first night he ever tried a sip of beer.

He was 14.

Now, by no means am I saying drinking a beer is an automatic slippery slope into substance abuse. But it could be. I have friends with children entering the age where the pressure to fit in and conform and it’s terrifying for them. I know nothing of the science associated with addiction. What I do know is the pressure to drink and use drugs affects more young players than any of us are comfortable talking about.

So what do we do? Well, at the risk of climbing on a soapbox and trying to solve an issue that’s much larger than 1000 words, we need to actively listen. As Matt Clune tells it, the one thing we can do as coaches, parents, brothers, and sisters, is to reverse the trend of treating young athletes like commodities. We all do it from time to time despite our best efforts. Empathy can be hard to learn if you’re not wired to sense the ebb and flow of the dressing room, but that doesn’t mean it’s a skill out of reach.

Pay attention. Ask questions. Dig deeper. It’s better to investigate too far than suffer the unthinkable consequences, as is now the case for young Terry Trafford’s family.

Pressure, addiction, and depression are a scourge. An undeserved punishment. But just because it’s undeserved doesn’t mean it shows mercy.

Pressure doesn’t care how famous you are or if you’re projected to be a first round pick. It doesn’t care how talented you are. It doesn’t care how hard you work. It doesn’t care if you play in the NHL. It doesn’t care how much money you have.

This might be the most important post I’ve ever written, and by no means am I an expert. But I do have a voice. So do you.

From Matt Clune:

“Are we trying to make it to The Show at all costs? Or are we trying to teach kids that the real purpose of the endeavour is to be a human first and a hockey player second? Unfortunately, we failed to consider those questions. Not maliciously. Hockey is just what you’re supposed to do in Canada. It’s who you’re supposed to be. It became us.”

 

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Kelvin is an assistant coach with the UBC Thunderbirds Men's Varsity hockey team and a freelance hockey writer.