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Raising Resilient Hockey Players

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 08/11/20, 3:30PM CDT


Whether it’s personal relationships, school, sports and beyond, at some point every child is going to face a situation rife with adversity. How they learn to handle that adversity can substantially influence their growth and future.

In hockey, this may manifest itself through having a bad game or not making the team you wanted after tryouts. When off-ice challenges are thrown into the mix, it can be difficult for anyone to deal with the emotions involved – for kids, even more so. Some pout or cry. Some become hostile. Some shut down. Some want to quit.

According to internationally recognized speaker and certified mental performance consultant Dr. Colleen Hacker, Ph.D., to get better at overcoming life’s hurdles, young athletes need to practice.

“You can be taught mental toughness. It’s a skill,” said Dr. Hacker, who has served as a member of the United States coaching staff for six Olympic Games and worked with elite athletes in ice hockey, soccer, baseball, football, golf and many other sports throughout her more than 30-year career. “You want to get better at your stickhandling, practice stickhandling. You want to get more resilient or mentally tough, you practice it. It’s about looking for reasons why you should succeed and acting on it.”

Mental Toughness Moments

Building mental toughness is imperative for more than just hockey.

“Research shows that mental toughness is in fact one of two distinguishing characteristics (intrinsic motivation is the other) that are critical for career longevity, development and advancement,” said Dr. Hacker, who, in addition to her work with top teams and athletes, is currently a professor in kinesiology specializing in sport and exercise psychology in Tacoma, Wash., and a member of the National Advisory Board for the Positive Coaching Alliance. 

According to Dr. Hacker, components of mental toughness include continuing to endure and finding meaning when things are difficult, in spite of the difficulty.

“If you’re on the first line and scoring goals and everyone loves you, that’s not mental toughness,” said Dr. Hacker. “When you’re bumped from the first to the fourth line, then mental toughness or resiliency is needed. So, there has to be something to overcome. Some difficulty, adversity, a setback, being denied something that’s important.

“Losing the respect or esteem or faith of others, that’s big.” 

Showing Small Town Strength

Former Greenway High School forward Donte Lawson has faced a litany of mentally tough moments in his 19 years. On the ice, he was demoted to junior varsity as a sophomore and started his senior season losing 13 of his first 19 games. Off the ice, he and his family confronted the health issues of his brother, Dominik, living and attending school together at a Ronald McDonald House for a time.

Despite it all, Lawson persevered, and emerged a star during Greenway’s run to the 2019 Minnesota state high school championship game.

“It’s a special feeling to look back seeing the things we accomplished,” said Lawson, a Bemidji State freshman-to-be in 2020-21. “I’m honored to be where I am and thankful for the people who helped me stay positive and focused and get to this point. It’s surreal how fast it all went.”

For Lawson, overcoming adversity wasn’t easy, nor was it something he could do alone. He credits his father, Jim, for being there for him during darker days.

“He would sit down and talk to me one-on-one, or we’d go outside and hang out,” Donte said. “He’d talk about tougher times and tell me to keep my head up and get through it. It’s pretty awesome to have a dad like that.”

Jim takes pride in the relationship he’s built with Donte and in his son’s work ethic, evident from an early age. 

“When he was a Bantam and would go out for certain select teams, they’d tell me he was too small. We’d get in the car to head back north and tell him the news and he was devastated,” said Jim. “I didn’t say the coaches were right or wrong. I’d ask him, ‘what do you want to do?’

“Before we even got out of the car he was on the phone with his uncle, planning to work out on his farm. I looked at my wife and said, ‘he’s going to be fine.’ And he would have been fine if he chose not to do that. But it was his choice. Sometimes parents just need to steer the car a bit and let the kids figure some things out on their own.”

Parents Can Provide an Assist

Building resiliency isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of deal. Every kid and every situation is different. The Lawson story is unique and not everyone has the special connection of Jim and Donte or the ability to communicate and work through issues together. However, their commitment to working through hard times can be an example for parents of young kids anywhere.

Dr. Hacker offered a few tips to raising more resilient kids and improving mental toughness in general:

  • Avoid External Attributions – “Attributions are the reasons for success or failure. Any time we succeed or fail, we search for reasons why. The attributions parents use can make a huge impact on how their kids respond to the situation. Parents should focus on internal attributions, things their young athlete can control and minimize discussion or blame around things or people (like coaches, referees) that are external and uncontrollable.”
  • Welcome Mentally Tough Moments – “Parents often think the loving thing to do when their child is disappointed or fails at something is to minimize, console, blame or even lash out, as a way to protect their child. But that’s actually not helpful. The best thing parents can do is recognize mentally tough moments, and not regret or bemoan them. But instead use them as teaching and learning moments of action.”
  • Teach a Growth Mindset – “Too often parents look at a setback as if it’s a description of their child. But it’s really an event. When it’s an event, a choice comes into play. It’s ‘what are you going to do about it and how can I help you do it?’ We need to look at these events as growth opportunities. We also need to focus on what the athletes can do to get better – skills, fitness, attitude, how to respond to coaching, correcting errors, etc. Mentally tough athletes double down on these types of components.”

Dr. Hacker points to the COVID-19 pandemic as a great example of an opportunity for parents to feed a positive outlook.

“Parents mean well, but they’re misinterpreting what is helpful,” said Dr. Hacker. “Rather than patting ourselves on the back for how supportive and understanding we are as parents, let’s ask our kids, ‘I know it’s hard, but what can we do? What can we do for our team? What can we work on? And then work at it. Kids need to be creative and get out there.’”

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