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Prioritizing Character in Young Hockey Players

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 10/25/21, 3:45PM CDT


When it comes to young athlete development, there’s no doubt that improving basic skills and learning key concepts are incredibly important. But development can and should be about more than just scoring and winning.

In fact, what these young people become off the ice is far more important over the long term. It’s not just about hockey. Their character – the mental and moral qualities distinctive to each individual – is something parents and coaches need to prioritize.

“Hockey is not a purpose, it’s just a goal to get you somewhere,” said Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player who is on the national advisory board of the Positive Coaching Alliance and co-founded the InsideOut Initiative, the first systems-level intervention to prioritize the social-emotional and character development of student-athletes in high school athletics. “Hockey has to be about human growth and development if it’s going to have any social value at all.”

Just like there will be wins and losses, there will be ups and downs on their character development journey. The important part is that parents and coaches work together to consistently challenge players to improve their character like players would practice any other skill.

Why Character Matters, On and Off the Ice

There are two types of character, according to Ehrmann. Performance character, which governs our relationship with ourselves, are things like grit, self-determination and overcoming obstacles. These are built into a game like hockey. Moral character governs our relationship toward others, and includes things like empathy, trust and respect.

How a player behaves and treats others on the ice is certainly important. Good sportsmanship, respect for teammates, coaches, opponents and officials, handling success with class and failure with maturity should all be part of the development picture.

But off-ice character has a much wider impact. Over their lifetimes, players will spend far more time away from the rink than at the rink. Additionally, more and more, off-ice character is being measured by coaches and recruiters. It’s something they look for when building the future of their programs. So, beyond the obvious benefits of becoming better humans, kids thinking about continuing to play at the next level need to know that how they behave and treat others is also vital to how they’ll be evaluated.

“There’s always a cautionary tale,” said Ehrmann. “Certainly, high school and college coaches should [look at player character] because they have to build a team culture and that culture is what will sustain and enhance performance. I wasn’t a hockey coach, but I took great pride and value in how my team represented each other, the school and their families. That needs to be taught at that developmental age.”

Off-ice character, or lack thereof, can also significantly impact team performance.

“A team is a set of relationships rallying around a common pursuit. It’s about trust and depends on the integrity of each teammate,” said Ehrmann. “So, when you get someone who is ego-centric or performance centric, that’s always at the expense of team culture.”

Watch Out for “Character Barriers”

“At the end of the day,” Ehrmann said, “every one of us has a challenge to grow and become the best version of ourselves.”

But sometimes things get in the way of an otherwise valiant effort. According to Ehrmann, common “character barriers” include the professionalization of youth sports (overcoaching, training, specializing), the adulteration of youth sports (programs designed to meet the needs of the adults, at the expense of the young people), and societal barriers such as toxic masculinity and social media.

“Character is learned. It can be taught, but it can’t be learned if it’s not modeled,” Ehrmann said. “Coaches and parents have a huge responsibility to be good role models.”

So, what should parents and coaches focus on? Ehrmann suggests there are several things that must be developed:

  • Self-awareness - These kids learn and understand who they are, what drives them, and the strengths and areas they need to develop.
  • Self-management – They’ve learned how to identify, manage and control their emotions. This is critical in a competitive sport like hockey.
  • Relational development – Young people need to learn team concepts and build reciprocal relationships.
  • Social awareness – Understanding that not everyone is like you and accept that everyone has value.
  • Code of conduct – Have an ethical decision-making process and learn to make the right choices.

“Parents need to think through, when they have kids playing, what are the sacrifices they’ll need to make and what’s the outcome of that. Looking 10 years down the road, can they justify those sacrifices if their son or daughter isn’t becoming a better person?” Ehrmann said. “For coaches, it’s not an either-or. You can still coach skill development, but do it in the context of moral development and teaching the kids those kinds of skills because then you’ll have something that will transfer from the ice to all parts of life – vocationally, academically, socially. It all pays off.”

Ehrmann recommends the following focus areas for parents and coaches when it comes to building character in young athletes:

  • Create a purpose statement – I think every coach ought to have some sort of transformational purpose statement. What is the difference you’re trying to make? If the purpose is just about performance or selling a dream about the next level without morally developing young people, we’re doing them a disservice.
  • Incorporate leadership development – A big component of leadership is moral courage. Kids can play through injury but can’t speak up or stand up for their morals and values. It’s morally courageous because there’s a risk of rejection. Leadership development should be a core part of development.
  • Have balanced expectations – Coaches have to control the locker room and have the same expectations for every player, when it comes to what’s being said and done. You can’t have two standards, one for the top players and one for the bottom players.
  • Understand your goals from the start – When parents enroll their child, they need to have an idea of what they want their kid to learn during the season. What’s the takeaway? Is it better skating habits or becoming better young men/women?
  • Avoid the adulteration of hockey – When parents are more invested in their child’s hockey career than the kid is, that’s problematic. We add things like trophies, awards, scholarships and that’s why you have such a high dropout rate.  
  • Stay positive – Kids need positive peer pressure, a positive parent community and a coach focused on making the entire team successful. It can’t be my kid versus your kid.
  • Practice partnership – Parents ought to be partners with their kid’s coaches. There’s often dysfunction between parents and coaches. Parents are driving, paying fees, volunteering. Coaches need to respect that. And parents need to have their own code of conduct and enforce it. They need to agree about how we talk about each other’s children and support each other. There will be ups and downs, but we need to create a community of adults with an agreed upon purpose and definition of success.

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