In the State of Hockey, there are more than 140 community-based associations and nearly 60,000 registered players. It’s not plausible for all of them to lead their teams in scoring, win MVP awards or hoist state tournament trophies at the end of the year. And, even if in some fantasy world that could happen, would that really be the best way to measure success for young skaters who are still in the early stages of development?
Wes Bolin, boys’ hockey coach at Woodbury High School, believes that when talking about “accomplishment” in youth sports, there needs to be a healthy balance that encompasses both competitiveness and education.
“Hockey is just the vehicle to teach children of all ages how to work to improve their individual skills, how to follow societal rules, how to work together, how to sacrifice for others, and yes, how to compete in a competitive world,” said Bolin, who also serves as Minnesota Hockey’s Player Development Coordinator. “If someone's philosophy is entirely competitive, then that is the only way they will measure success, which sets many up for disappointment. However, a healthier approach is to understand the educational balance that exists in youth sports and embrace these elements as well.”
Bolin took the time to discuss the types of things teams, coaches, players and parents should be celebrating, and the best way to create opportunities for small successes along the way.
Minnesota Hockey: What can players celebrate if they aren't pumping in 30 goals a season or hoisting trophies?
Wes Bolin: Parents and players can celebrate so much more than on-ice victories. In this difficult season, so many players miss the time in the locker room, the team dinners, the long rides to tournaments and the times in the arena with friends as much as they miss the actual game. It is obvious that these are the real elements of the game that make youth hockey (and all youth sports) so much fun and create those lasting memories. So, let's remember what makes the game fun – it's the relationships with friends, teammates and coaches.
Minnesota Hockey: What are examples of areas on which we should be more focused?
Bolin: Celebrating “small” successes are often times larger than what we think are the big successes. As a coach, we celebrate when a player has the on-ice success, but we are always looking for those off-ice successes as well. We appreciate personal sacrifices players make for their teammates, and try to acknowledge small successes like improving attitude, improving skill, doing something for someone else and showing a sense of humility. We also love to see coaches acknowledge players who do those little things in the game like back-check, cover a player in front of the net and block shots, along with unselfish passing plays.
Minnesota Hockey: What are things we shouldn't be celebrating? Why?
Bolin: With the changing culture in the game regarding physical contact, we should not be celebrating the big open-ice hit that can be dangerous for all involved. We have to remember the purpose for checking is to separate the opponent from the puck, not to punish or intimidate.
Minnesota Hockey: How important are statistics?
Bolin: We live in a data-driven world and certainly statistics can be important, but in youth hockey they are only important within the context of an educational philosophy. Individual statistics in youth hockey are relatively insignificant. While "goals scored" are generally an accurate measure of overall offensive ability (assuming players have equal opportunities to play with/against players of like abilities), “assists” are not always a great indicator of play-making ability at the youth level due to the large number of missed opportunities by potential goal scorers and the general inaccuracies of statistical gathering in youth hockey.
Statistics are best used by coaches to analyze the strengths or weaknesses of their team, and sometimes they can be used to evaluate how effective a coach is at providing opportunity for his/her players. Team statistics are more beneficial for developing incentives for teaching processes. Examples of team statistics to measure include how often are we offsides, or do we ice the puck, face-off percentage (team, not individual), shots for and against, odd-man rushes for and against and shots or goals off of each; number of times we change-on-the-fly, etc. By focusing on team statistics, all players feel a part of the statistical process and it places less emphasis on the obvious statistics of goals and assists.
Minnesota Hockey: What are the best ways to ensure a positive outcome in key areas of development?
Bolin: Smaller successes are important to focus on because it helps create a sense of team buy-in and takes the focus away from the more obvious, sometimes pressure-packed parts of the game. This has been evident at the high school level when emphasizing shots blocked and denied. We have also broken the game down into mini games when we have been a little outmatched. Each period, we play three mini games and try to win or tie each mini game. This has been very successful at keeping our teams in games where we might normally have been outplayed significantly.
Minnesota Hockey: What can parents do to influence a positive outcome?
Bolin: Parents are always the key to a successful hockey season. If parents are trusting, supportive and encouraging of the coach there is a very good chance their child will have a “great” season, regardless of the number of wins the team has. If parents have that similar philosophy of balance between hockey as a competitive game and an educational tool, they will most likely feel a lot better about the experiences of their child, regardless of any individual statistical measurement that is traditionally used.