For many young athletes, the pressure faced before, during and after competition can be overwhelming. From tryouts to a first practice, a first game, a tournament, or playing for a trophy, there are countless “big moments” that can cause stress and anxiety and wreak havoc on a normally composed team’s psyche. Even the best players can succumb to pressure.
“If a player already has a natural competitive drive, then that pressure to win can be a great motivator,” said Wes Bolin, boys’ varsity hockey coach at Woodbury High School. “However, if they do not have a competitive drive yet, then added pressure will probably not be a great thing for them.”
Identifying the Source
How pressure impacts individual skaters will certainly vary. So, too, will the source of the pressure to begin with. Is it something obvious, like playing in the title game of a big tournament, or is it something else? Maybe something more personal? Bolin believes, especially for the younger players, that pressure in youth hockey often comes from something external, like an expectation that might not be met and the impact that has on self-esteem.
“Pressure is not something that players put on themselves, even though every parent or coach says so,” said Bolin, who is also the Youth Player Development Director for Minnesota Hockey. “The first pressure to succeed always comes from parents. Coaches also create expectations, which may or may not conflict with the expectations the parents have. And, as players get older, social media creates expectations that are sometimes overwhelming. Therefore, there is a continual need to address how we as parents and coaches handle the expectations we have for our young players.”
Those expectations, according to Bolin, aren’t limited to on the ice.
“Pressure from parents can be around any activity in their kid’s life – school, music, art, and, of course, sports,” he says. “We all want our children to be successful, and we feel better when our children are successful. So we push them to be successful in the best way we know how. We do so because we often have an idealistic view of what our children are capable of without considering their physical, mental and emotional limitations. As a result of this, children may feel pressure to please their parents when the expectations placed upon them by their parents may be unreasonable in that situation. As a coach, I’m continually trying to find ways to improve my own approach to meeting those expectations.”
Adults Can Provide Relief
While adults are most likely to blame for unintentionally elevating certain situations and expectations, they’re also the best candidates to ease that pressure for their kids.
“If players don’t appear to respond well to pressure, then coaches and parents can change their approach to teaching about these situations,” Bolin said. “Coaches must give opportunities to all players to play in ‘big moments’ as a part of their development. Parents can help at home by creating balance in life, eliminating extrinsic rewards for good performance, and making sure their child is reassured they are loved no matter the outcome of the game or the performance of their child in that game.”
It's also important for adults to reinforce to young players that the end result is not the end all be all. Development – and fun – should be the focus. That mindset shift can help remove some of the pressure of the moment.
“As players mature and develop, they can be introduced to a big game concept, but like skill development, it must be age-appropriate and within the context of life’s lessons,” Bolin said. “For example, most youth tournaments are not remembered by the on-ice results but by the friendships that were made at the hotel and the team dinners.”
Learning to Play Under Pressure
So, while the first step to reducing pressure is to not create it in the first place, what if it already exists? Can we teach kids to play better under duress and make tense situations more enjoyable?
There are a variety of things players can do, starting with focusing on what they can control, such as their own effort and energy. Rather than worrying about hoisting a trophy, focus on the next shift and being a source of positive energy for teammates.
“Coaches can create big moments through competitive drills and small-area games in practices and give special teams and end-of-game opportunities to all players during games,” said Bolin. “They can also do full-ice, two-team drills that force players to make game-like decisions on a regular basis.”