How hockey coaches can cultivate self-awareness


Kyle Bergh

Kyle is a psychology student at Simon Fraser University, where he also competes on the men's hockey team.

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Players take cues more from non-verbal communication.

The coach holds a crucial role within the team dynamic, their ability to read the atmosphere in the room plays a major role in the connectedness of the team or organization.

Whether in the position of athlete or coach, the majority of us have experienced times when there was an obvious disconnect between leadership and personnel. This disconnect could be attributed to a number of things, but likely there is an underlying lack of self-awareness present among the leadership group.

Often, the staff feels they are presenting a precise message about how they want things done, when in reality this message comes across as something totally different to the players. What exactly goes wrong in this equation? And how can coaches improve their awareness of how they are behaving?

I asked these questions, among others, to Dr. Ashwin Patel, who is a Mental Performance Consultant for the Utica Comets and a professor at Humber College. Throughout our conversation, Dr. Patel shared insightful tips on how coaches can become more self-aware.

Game film

Coaches watch game tape religiously, and with good reason. It is a fantastic way to recount events in real time and reflect upon them.

If reflecting on prior performances is so important to coaches, why don’t they practice it themselves?

Dr. Patel discussed a story that perfectly illustrates the benefits of this tactic. The late-great Pat Summit, one of the United States’ most successful college basketball coaches, allowed one of her graduate students to record all her team meetings and conduct a behavioural assessment scale.

Turns out, Summit discovered that her facial expressions were not consistent with the verbal messages she was trying to get across to her players. She used this information to better align her verbal and non-verbal communication with her team. Dr Patel explains that players take cues more from one’s non-verbals than they do their verbals, and therefore these external cues end up being internalized.

Ask a coach “How do you look when you are communicating?” or “How would you look if you had the camera on you the entire game?” and this would certainly induce some discomfort and uncertainty.

While coaches spend hours perfecting the what of their message, how they look when communicating is likely just as important.

Using your staff

Just as Summit noticed, coaches are surrounded by staff members who can see things from a different perspective, so use them! It’s easy to let emotion overrule one’s ability to be objective and rational but inviting your staff to participate in this dialogue can help clear the blur emotion may bring.

Forward-thinking organizations realize this phenomenon, says Dr. Patel, and hold meetings where they go over their weekly communication with each player in the organization. Ask your staff to be aware, and take note of what they are seeing.

What are the team’s injuries like? How often have we checked in with this player? Do we need to back off and give more rest?

When this dialogue is made open to all staff, it also allows for greater consistency among leadership. Additionally, staff check-ins can aid in aligning key values between organizations, as Utica and Vancouver work to establish.

What vs why questioning

When discussing awareness, it is crucial to look at self-reflection. Self-reflection can be used as a tool to ask ourselves questions about our objectives and the ways in which we are progressing toward achieving them. The types of questions we ask ourselves can greatly influence future behaviour, determining whether we make adjustments or not.

A great example of this in practice is put forward by Dr. Tasha Eurich, who stresses the importance of asking ‘what’ vs ‘why’ questions.

‘What’ questions propel us into our future (ie. What type of impact do I want to have on our players/team? What behaviours do I model that help our players get better?)

Conversely, ‘why’ questions trap us into “rear-view mirror thinking”, and a focus on things that have happened in the past (ie. ‘Why’ questions may be things such as why did this happen? Why are the players not getting it?)

When we have the awareness to partake in ‘what’ questioning, we put energy towards enhancing future behaviour, instead of being stagnant with what isn’t working.

At the end of the day, Dr. Patel suggests that “awareness comes down to consistency, we need to continuously work to be mindful of not only the way we are acting, but in the way it is getting interpreted by the players.”

In order to be consistent, we need practices in place to fall back on. Game film for coaches, using your staff, and ‘what’ vs ‘why’ questions are just a few practices to foster consistency. This process, Dr. Patel says, “is like having a garden. Weeding needs to be done routinely or else our garden will become overgrown by weeds.”

Therefore, we must be diligent in cultivating our garden and how we intend to keep the weeds out. In order to build a beautiful garden, one must strive to be self-aware.

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