Monday, December 15, 2014

The Player's Psyche, Part 2

Today's Blog is part 2 on the Player’s Psyche. We learned in part 1 that this has to be worked on at a early age. I am very fortunate to know a gentlemen who runs a hockey school for midgets through high school age. You can follow Dennis Chighisola on twitter @CoachChic.

Randy: Thanks, Dennis, for the opportunity for the interview.

Dennis: And thank you, Randy, for the opportunity to help your audience in any way I can.

Then, before we get going, perhaps I can apologize to you and your followers about not being up on the NHL as much as most hockey folks are. Of course I try to keep tabs on all levels of our wonderful game, but I tend to study individual players more as part of my work, as well as trying to keep an eye on trends that might affect the younger players I'm trying to help.

Randy: Thanks, Coach. As you know, I recently did a blog on the player’s psyche. So this interview is part 2 of that blog, as I hope to explore that topic further, starting when they are young.

Dennis: The timing of this is pretty interesting, Randy, because I've just recently posted several podcasts discussing the mental side of our game. 

Actually, your audience might be interested to know that I've been calling that "the last frontier in sport" for at least two decades. What I'm getting at is that everyone has known for quite a long time how to improve their physical skills -- like biomechanics, speed, explosive strength, stamina and a lot of others. I can't blame them, either, if they want to be able to fly on the ice, or be able to fire frightening slapshots. At the same time, few players, coaches or hockey parents seem to appreciate that probably half of the battle in playing at a high level will ultimately depend on mental makeup, or on a player's ability to perform under some pretty stressful conditions.

With that, I believe we need to stress this area of preparation beginning with the youngest levels. Or, said another way, it's quite possible a player is headed for trouble if he or she isn't guided in this area from an early age.

Oh, and one last thing here before I get further into this topic... Like a lot of other things, I believe we have to separate what the parents and coaches know from what the kids are troubled with until the time is right.

Randy: How do you go about getting to know a new student?

Dennis: Very subtly, I guess... I mean, a player who is aware you're studying him or her isn't going to act naturally. Anyway, while I don't know how other coaches might handle this, I don't think there's a formula or chart one can run down in order to evaluate a young player. Instead -- or at least from my perspective, I'm taking "gut readings" -- on how a youngster responds to different things.

As an aside here, let me suggest to parents that they always let a coach (or teacher) know about anything that might affect their youngster's ability to learn.

I actually stumbled across this while teaching a hockey skills clinic sometime back in the late-1970s... What happened was that a fairly talented student froze in his tracks several times when I called on him to demonstrate a skill. It wasn't until I chased down his mom that she informed me that he was legally deaf. Ugh. Maybe she was trying to protect her son for some reason, but she was really doing the wrong thing, for her son and for me.

From that point on, I've always included an area in my clinic or hockey school signup forms asking if the applicant has any special learning needs that we coaches should be made aware of.

Returning to your question, though, Randy, I'll have to suggest that it's a long, slow process in getting to know a new player. A lot of kids aren't what they appear to be in the earliest sessions. More importantly, however, I'm not the type who makes rash evaluations -- on anyone.

Randy: How do you learn how a given player learns?

Dennis: I think I may have answered some of that already, but let me add to the above that the process is ongoing. I mean, some seemingly slow learners can show up one day and suddenly kick things into a new gear. And, I guess it's just as possible that one of my better students can as suddenly seem to lose interest or intensity.

As another aside here, I might point out to parents and new coaches that we all have learning preferences. Members of your audience probably know this about themselves, but we all tend to prefer either seeing new information, listening to it, or getting involved in the exchange of that information. 

That in mind, can you imagine how a single approach to teaching might satisfy about a third of the players, and leave the majority a little less so? That's why I'll try to employ a number of different methods and teaching tools when it's at all possible. The first thing I do to deal with this problem includes mixing in some demonstrations (as visuals), quick explanations (for the audio), and even a brief discussion (for those who need to be involved in the process). I take things a little further, though, and rotate through different tools -- like a greaseboard at rinkside, a model rink on the lockerroom floor, and videos the kids and parents can view at home online. My ways aren't perfect, but my hope is to satisfy more of my kids' learning needs.

Then, it just struck me that coaches work with kids under varying conditions. Personally, I don't like to do private lessons with young players, this owing to the cost to their parents, and the fact that a little one's attention span and some related key motor learning principles suggest otherwise. That leaves most of us coaches to deal with young players in a group setting, be it either in a clinic or on a team.

Working with kids within a group doesn't mean that we can't be keeping an eye on each individual's needs. What it does mean, though, is that we probably have to address those needs more broadly. 

In reference to the latter, let me suggest something else to new coaches and parents... If a few kids need the instruction slowed a bit for a few sessions, that isn't likely to hurt the rest of the group all that much. Nor does it usually hurt others if extra drills -- or a few remedial ones -- are inserted.

Randy: How do you go about correcting a player's bad habits?

Dennis: Well, all that said about dealing with a group, I think one of the best things a coach can do is communicate with the parents of young players. And, if the coach doesn't initiate such a conversation, the parents should.

To be honest, there's only so much a coach can do to help a young player's psyche. In a clinic, the coach might see a kid for an hour, while the coach of a young team probably only gets to influence him or her for two or three hours per week. Oh, while we might be able to help with things in those short spans, our efforts probably go for naught if what we're trying to accomplish is being undone over all the other hours.

By the way, while I said I didn't have a checklist of things to observe in a young player, the guest speaker in my mental training podcasts, John Haime, did address nine specific areas for listeners...

Of these, I think maybe only a few would be evident in real beginners. As young ones move into competitive levels -- like Mites and Squirts/Atoms, however, I think the bulk of John's ideas come into play.

For sure, any kid's drive to achieve is important, otherwise he or she isn't going to improve -- a lick. 

Focus is obviously important with older players, although I'm not sure how much we can hold little ones' feet to the fire in this area. Goal setting fits in this category, as well.

John addresses fear and nervousness in his presentation, and I'll suggest that those things can be noticed in the youngest kids. I've had a bit of success helping young ones with these, although that was usually dictated by just how deeply engrained their fears were.

Then, your followers might be interested to know that I've head coached at a US high school, in Juniors, and at a small college. And I'll tell them that guys at those levels had better be pretty focused, they'd better be competitive, and they'd better have some self-control. Their chances of ice-time would also be helped with a degree of optimism.

That said, I wonder if readers might appreciate how those things have to be slowly but surely creeping into a young player's personality as he or she matures. In other words, a player isn't going to be able to just turn on things -- like dedication, focus, a competitive nature or personal discipline -- when he or she arrives at a higher level. So it should make sense that young ones need to be gradually steered towards the right mental traits.

Randy: How do you know when to be hard on a kid and when to encourage him to do better?

Dennis: Well, Randy, I was wondering when you'd finally get around to a question I don't look forward to answering. Anyway...

I do know that I'm never hard on a young one, UNLESS it has to do with general behavior. Let's face it, it's important for the adults in charge of any group to ensure things are safe for all the kids. I don't think that's any different from the way they'd be handled in school or at home. 

I think I might be able to put all of my suggestions into a rough formula, though, this to cover the current question, as well as just about all I've mentioned today...

To begin, I think we could all agree on what the final hockey player should look and act like, and that would include the nine traits John covered in his podcasts. At the other end of the spectrum, we have to know that we can't force such things on beginners or real young ones.

And that suggests to me that the hockey player's mental training should be incrementally introduced over a lot of years -- or not unlike the way we gradually increase their skill and game play education. In other words, I think we should increase our expectations of developing players with each passing year -- from beginners through Juniors, when it comes to both the physical and the mental sides of their game.

Lastly, Randy, let me share a couple of links that may be helpful to your readers...

- The podcasts I referenced are episodes number 11, 12, 13 and 14 (

- I have an "Ask The Coach" area on my website where I offer to answer questions posed by players, coaches and parents (

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