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Gold Medal Coach on Teamwork & Trust

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 10/19/20, 2:30PM CDT


Photo Credit: Brad Rempel

Hockey is the ultimate team sport.

One critical component of teamwork is trust. On a hockey team, that can mean associations trusting their coaches, coaches trusting their players, players trusting coaches and their parents and so on.

That trust, or lack thereof, can make a big impact.

“Teams that are the most successful are the ones that are able to find trust in each other both on and off the ice,” said Joel Johnson, University of Minnesota women’s hockey associate head coach. “It’s only when we put our own interests aside and ask ‘what is best for our group going forward,’ then we can trust in our process and become a team together.”

As a 16-year member of a Golden Gopher program that has won six NCAA championships during his tenure, and as a coach of several gold medal-winning U.S. national teams, Johnson knows more than most about what it takes for a team to form a cohesive unit, working together as one.

The Power of Trust

When you talk about the concept of trust, says Johnson, “You’re talking about a group of people that have agreed to the same values and ideas and behaviors that will shape how they treat one another. It’s like a family. You can agree or disagree but because we already decided we love each other and that relationship is based on a preset of values, we can trust each other because we know we all have the best interests of the family in mind.”

According to Johnson, while trust can certainly lead to improved on-ice performance, its benefits go far beyond tape-to-tape passing.

“There have been times when I’ve been a part of teams that had a great level of trust and culture but didn’t have the skill set to win on the scoreboard. But they still found a tremendous amount of accomplishment and value at the end of the season,” said Johnson, a White Bear Lake native and hockey dad. “Conversely, I’ve been part of teams with a ridiculous level of skill that won a lot but didn’t have a strong culture and their experience was diminished. Teams that don’t trust each other don’t have as much enjoyment on a day-to-day basis. Win or lose, it changes the experience. And it shows in individual interactions among players and coaches.”

Developing “Trust Culture”

Every team wants to be successful. But, according to Johnson, what separates teams is a unique culture based on trust. “It’s about agreeing to what we want to be about,” he said.

So how can a team build a “trust culture?” Johnson says it starts at the top and takes leadership. It’s about living up to the integrity of your word.

“If, as a coach, you say we’re going to measure success not on wins and losses but that it’s about whole person development, you have to back that up with decisions you make,” said Johnson. “For example, in crunch time, do you shorten the bench? Do you focus on mistakes? Do you celebrate stats over good behaviors? Coaches should focus more on the accomplishment of living out the team’s values. Sometimes that’s tied to the scoreboard, but it has to have the best interest of the kids in mind.”

“I always tell my teams the most powerful and respect-gaining words you can offer someone are ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I’m sorry,’” said Johnson. “As a coach, you will earn trust quickly saying things like ‘I’m sorry I said that on the bench,’ or ‘I was hoping for this result out of a drill and it didn’t work out.’ If you can be accountable and admit that you had the right intentions, you will gain trust. The more you model that behavior, the more it will carry over to your team.”

“What Gets Celebrated, Gets Repeated”

While the start of the season is the ideal time for coaches – and parents – to clearly articulate values and expectations, Johnson advises adults to reinforce messages with their kids, to ensure the culture can thrive as the intensity of the season picks up.

“Coaches should find ways to revisit examples both on the ice and in the locker room to encourage positive behavior,” said Johnson. “Get to know your players early and show interest in them. Then when you ask them to stickhandle around a cone later, they’re more likely to listen because you valued them as a person first and a hockey player second. Continue to model trust-building behavior and focus on team-building activities and fun. 

“But you have to continue to send important messages about trust and culture. Mix it up and express those messages in different ways. Like any specific hockey skill, if you don’t continue to practice it, it diminishes.”

Johnson also believes strongly that ‘what gets celebrated, gets repeated,’ and that a simple recognition like a hardest worker hard hat of the game can go a long way.

“If we celebrate a behavior, attitude, action or comment, it will get repeated,” he said. “The idea is to recognize behavior you want to see again and again. You can write thank you notes to parents or notes of encouragement to players. Recognize a player for blocking a shot. There are countless stories from corporate America all the way down to Little League that when you encourage behaviors or the right way to do things, it will get noticed. Just like when the wrong things get celebrated, that also gets noticed.”

One thing Johnson noticed himself was a team that put a garbage can at the front door of its locker room, a visual representation that has stuck with him over the years.

“It was a reminder to throw away ego at the door,” he said. “A reminder to trust in one another, and that it’s not about me, it’s about we.”

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