We can all agree that having more scorers on your team would be great, right? What if every time one of your players got the puck in the slot, you knew it would be a dangerous shot? Rather than hanging your head when your sixth defenseman somehow gets a breakaway then pumps it into the goalie’s chest.
I played most of my minor hockey with a recent Art Ross trophy winner. (You can do a tiny bit of digging to figure out who that might be.) I want to share with you a story about him. I have recently been sharing it with many the young players I work with. Here it is:
We were at AA Provincials (yes, AA) in Bantam. This player had always been dominant, even though he was small at the time. I loved watching him play and playing with him. But one play stands out above all the others. I will tell you why…
This play was originally a mystery to me. But I’ve come to see how this play defined his mindset. And I believe that his mindset led him to where he is today: on top of the NHL.
If you’re a coach, then you’re probably interested in this particular mindset because you want to know how to replicate it with your players. So let me tell you the story now.
Back to the Bantam Provincials, in a semi-final game, he got the puck in the corner and then walked up the half wall. He then tried an ambitious move around a defender. He lost the puck. On the same shift, shortly after losing the puck, he recovered the puck in the corner and then walked up the half wall in the exact same way. The defender defended him in the exact same way. I could hear myself mouthing the words “don’t make the same mistake twice – dump it!”…BUT, lo and behold, this player tried the exact same move in the exact same scenario. This time he BEAT that defender. Then walked in and scored the game tying goal. We went on to win the game.
How interesting is that? This player did what no coach would ever tell him to do – TRY IT AGAIN.
He made a mistake, but he had such a strong belief in himself that he could make the play, that he did it again. It worked. And he scored. Note that he didn’t shy away from the situation by choosing a lower risk play.
Isn’t that fascinating?
Let’s just say that those two attempts had occurred on different shifts. What would most coaches have said to this player? Probably “Don’t turn the puck over there – just chip it deep next time”. Imagine this happening to a player on your team. Wouldn’t you probably say this?
And what would have happened if that player (Art Ross) listened? Wouldn’t he have stopped trusting himself and his skill? Wouldn’t he have stopped believing in his instinct? And wouldn’t that be a tragedy?
We all know that I deal with dozens of players every day. Helping them with skill development, off-ice training, or mental preparation. Usually their biggest issue is that they are AFRAID of making mistakes. They will straight up say, “I’m afraid of making a mistake”. When I hear that, I tell them this story and they are blown away. It is hard for them to believe the mindset my former teammate displayed back in Bantam. It is a foreign mindset to them!
So let’s go through what normally happens in a game or practice:
1) Player makes a mistake
2) Coach tells the player not to make that mistake again
3) Player chooses a lower risk, but less challenging play so that they don’t make that mistake again
4) Player executes lower risk, lower challenge play
5) Coach doesn’t yell at their player anymore
The result of this cycle is that the player gets better at doing SAFE things, but not things that are EFFECTIVE.
Let’s go through the NHL Top Scorer mindset:
1) Player makes a mistake
2) Coach tells the player not to make that mistake again
3) Player interprets the message from the coach to mean, “well I’d better friggin do the SAME THING, but SUCCEED”
4) Player believes in his ability to execute
5) Player executes
6) Coach shuts up
Now here is the dilemma:
As a coach, wouldn’t it be nice to inherit 20 players who all have this mindset? Of course it would be nice! It would be amazing! However, you are NOT inheriting 20 players with this mindset. You might inherit 1 or 2 per team with this mindset. The rest of them will have a mindset that will be shaped and moulded by your reaction to their mistakes.
If that scares you a bit, it should.
How you respond to their mistakes will determine what type of mindset they will adopt. Like I already said, 90% of the players I work with have chosen the fearful mindset of responding to mistakes. Often, their coaches and parents shaped them to have this mindset. Not on purpose, but it happens nonetheless.
I stop here to say that this next part of this article will invoke cognitive dissonance in a large proportion of my readers. I’m estimating that 90% of the readers will experience some form of cognitive dissonance with this issue, and 10% may actually have a truly enlightening moment. If you don’t mind those odds, then please continue.
I’m going to tell you another story. This is a story about a time I was coaching a spring team. That year, I encouraged my team to exit the zone through the middle of the ice, and enter the zone through the middle of the ice. Why? Because I thought it would win us games? Maybe. But mostly because it was a challenging thing for the players to do and I knew it would serve them down the line at higher levels. This also meant I would have to tolerate higher levels of mistakes and frustration.
One particular centreman was having difficulty receiving the puck in the middle of the ice and then distributing it. He kept turning the puck over.
Most coaches in this player’s career told him to make the safe and simple play. I know this because I watched him grow up and develop. I watched coaches tell him this. As a result, this player had close to no confidence in his ability to make challenging plays, and always looked to make the low risk play that would give up possession (the chip and dump).
I did the opposite. And it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a coach.
I kept putting him out there, and I kept telling his teammates to hit him in the middle, and I kept telling him that I trusted his ability to make plays from the middle of the ice.
After 3, 4, 5 tries…guess what? He did it. Was it painful? Oh ya. Was it frustrating? Definitely. Did I want to rip him off the ice and tell him to make the safe play? Absolutely – 100%.
But right then, after his 4th failure, I knew that if I ripped on him and told him to make the safe play, every single thing I would have done up until that point would have reinforced his belief that he could not make plays in the middle. But because I handled the frustration one more time, he felt that he could do it. Right then, an entire paradigm shift occurred for that player. Now he could make plays! Now he could use the middle! His mindset changed. He began playing with more confidence in all areas of his game.
Now I’m not saying this because I think I’m so great. Because I’ve also created scenarios where a player on my team tried something that I judged to be stupid, so I screamed him not to do it again. But now that I’m more aware of my actions, I’m also more aware of the consequences. I’m aware of how my behaviour can influence whether my players adopt the mindset of an NHL Top Scorer – or if they will forever fear mistakes.
The question for you is: can you act in a way that nurtures the Mindset of an NHL Top Scorer? Of course you can! To do that you must set a challenging but realistic goal, and allow the players to make mistakes until they achieve that goal. You will have to handle frustration better than ever before, but you might find it to be more rewarding than ever before.
Here are a couple of thoughts for you…
Bonus Thought #1: Belfry’s Approach
Darryl Belfry has an approach called “Two to Give”. This means that he expects players to operate at an 80% success rate. If they make a play 8 times out of 10, he’s happy. If they make a play 10 times out of 10, it means the challenge level for that play is too low and the player isn’t growing. The player isn’t challenging themselves. If the player makes a play 4/10 times, it means that they are choosing a play that is too far out of their skill range. They are overly ambitious.
8/10 means that the player is going to make 2 mistakes. So the coach should recognize this and encourage the player to KEEP GOING because that mistake that just occurred was part of that player’s “Two to Give”.
Again, don’t you notice how this approach more closely reflects the NHL Top Scorer Mindset than a fearful mindset? If you don’t, you should go back and reread this article.
Bonus Thought #2: Natural Learning Approach
When you think of the learning process, one of the most prominent examples is of a baby learning to walk.
No one is standing over the baby telling the baby that they better not fall or they won’t get another chance at it. No one is yelling at the baby to “put your right foot there, then your left foot!!! [Falls over] ARGHH!!”
There is instead an allowance for the baby to make mistakes and fall. It is obvious that the baby wants to learn to walk and it is not punished for falling. Instead, you encourage the baby and get excited when it succeeds.
How is this the same as your coaching? Isn’t it true that encouraging your players and getting excited when they succeed, while being clear on what you want to see, and allowing for mistakes to occur is the optimal environment for your players to develop? Of course it is! You know that! The research supports it! And so does your experience! (Oh, and my articles).
Bonus Thought #3: Top players versus sucky players
Isn’t it true that your top players are given more allowance to make mistakes than your sucky ones? Can’t you see now how giving this allowance to your top players support the NHL Top Scorer Mindset? I’m sure that you can also see that taking this allowance away from your sucky (ok, I’ll be nicer – weaker) players encourages the Fearful Mindset. In this case, don’t the rich get richer? And the poor get poorer? You bet they do.
Coaches, we all know that if we could coach in a way that gave us the most wins AND helped players feel good about themselves, we would do it. So, begin implementing a coaching style with your team that supports an NHL Top Scorer Mindset, and not a fearful mindset.
I know it might feel weird to be ok with mistakes. But isn’t being fearful of mistakes is just another iteration of the Fearful Mindset?
Encourage your players, let them express themselves, and you might be surprised at what they can accomplish.
If you thought this article was ridiculous, then you might like the rest of my blog.
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