Nearly every parent who signs a child up to play sports hopes, or even expects, their child to learn lessons that can be applied to everyday situations later in life.
Perhaps one of the greatest life lessons hockey can teach players of all ages is grit.
“Every team in every game and every period has ups and downs. If you can stay relatively even keel, it gives you a better chance to overcome any type of adversity you face, whether it’s in a shift or a game,” said Thomas Johnson, who leads the CCM High Performance programs for District 5 and is a coach at Buffalo High School. “If you can work through those setbacks, that’s what grit is to me. It’s a tough mindset. Being physically tough is nice too, but if you have the mindset, that if you do the work you’ll be just fine, that’s what I look for. That’s what I try to instill in my own children as well as the kids I work with.”
“Kids that can do that are better leaders and better players.”
Hockey players must cope with adversity from the moment they first step on the ice to learn how to skate explains Johnson, who also serves as the Director of Mite Hockey for Armstrong Cooper Youth Hockey Association. Then, as players mature, the speed, physicality and complexity of the game ensures mistakes abound, providing numerous opportunities to the type of grit that can lead to success in any endeavor.
Fuel the Passion
While most people think more of resiliency or perseverance than passion when the topic of grit arises, caring about the sport or endeavor at hand is the first and arguably the most important step in displaying grit.
“It’s really well known that kids who are engaged and having fun will stick with things longer,” said Johnson. “Sticking to things longer is basically the definition of grit. If you enjoy doing those things, you enjoy getting better 1% at a time or however you want to measure it and make it fun along the way, you will stick with it.”
“You develop passion in kids by having fun. That’s why the ADM model of involving so much fun in your practice is working for so many kids. You instill fun. Then, they want to stick with it. Then, they want to get better. It just builds on itself. Once you enjoy something, you’re going to stick with it. That creates perseverance.”
Understanding True Toughness
For many kids, toughness can be an elusive concept.
“Sometimes kids get stuck in that fixed mindset of you’re either tough or you’re not,” said Johnson. “They think that because something hurts now, either physically or emotionally, that it makes them weak. That’s not the case at all.”
On the contrary, many of the greatest displays of toughness by athletes and in all walks of life are not the absence of weakness but a persistent determination to overcome adversity, failures and disappointments.
“Kids and parents really need to embrace the idea that, yes, it may hurt now, but I can work my way through, either physically, emotionally or mentally. You just have to get the right help or support. There’s no weakness in something hurting right now. Grit is finding ways to persevere through that stuff.”
And while some people may display higher levels of grit than others, everyone can improve on it.
“It can absolutely be fostered and developed,” said Johnson.
On the ice, Johnson points to any drill or game that forces players to experience and battle through failure in a fun way.
“You can teach them that grit comes with fun. You can have them spin around a cone and skate to the next one. Yeah, they might fall down, but if they get to that cone, you celebrate that victory of getting up and getting to the cone. That helps. It helps kids realize there’s value in it right from an early age.”
Parents can also build resiliency and grit at home by finding situations that apply an appropriate level of challenge and encourage kids to gradually push beyond their comfort zone, whether it’s learning new skills, taking on responsibility for various chores or setting academic goals at school.
The key for parents and coaches is to provide the right type of support and at the right time.
“When you see your kids accomplish things, even small things, you have to celebrate them,” said Johnson. “You recognize them and say, ‘Yeah, I saw you working hard on that. It didn’t come easy for you, but I saw you accomplish what you wanted to accomplish.’
Johnson cautioned that this doesn’t mean kids should be praised for everything. Rather, it’s about acknowledging when they display the characteristics and qualities you want them to acquire.
“You don’t tell them the best or that they always do a good job, but you do have to tell them when you see them accomplish something that was hard. Recognize that and keep instilling that value of being diligent about your work and taking care of yourself.”
Over time, players will learn that the accomplishments they take the most pride in were often the ones that were the most challenging to achieve, and that the combination of passion and perseverance can help them overcome any obstacle on or off the ice.