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Being Confident vs. Cocky

By Todd Smith, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 02/07/17, 11:45AM CST


The keys to building confidence vary according to age. But there is one thing that is universal, says Gerrit van Bergen, head coach of the Delano boys’ high school hockey team.

“All hockey players thrive on good news.”

Van Bergen’s has been coaching in the Delano hockey system since 2003 and led Delano to its first high school state tournament in 2017 and again this past week.  During his coaching career, he learned that one of the major factors for successful development on and off the ice was a player’s healthy self-confidence.

In life and in sports, when a person believes in their abilities, believes in their teammates and in their role on the team, they will have the confidence to perform freely.

“We believe all sports can be a catalyst to a successful adult life in the real world,” van Bergen said.

Here are van Bergen’s keys to player confidence:

Handling Adversity

Hockey is a very hard game to play and challenges are inevitable. Every player at every level will, at some point, experience mental and physical roadblocks. Self-confidence is needed to help players battle through the adversity that will naturally come.

“This confidence comes from the growth through critical thinking and adversity,” van Bergen explains. “If a youth athlete progresses through their athletic experience without the expectation to adjust to feedback and improve by committing to the change, they will not be ready to work for their boss someday. Today, it seems as if constructive instruction is viewed as an insult instead of a challenge. Improvement is never convenient. Being challenged is good.”

Trust Breeds Confidence

Some of the most common ways a young athlete can lose their confidence in sports are by trying to do too much or feeling too much pressure. Over the years, van Bergen has seen a lot of players fall into these traps that are largely built of low self-esteem. He has a very simple remedy.

“Player confidence boils down to trust: trusting yourself, your teammates, and the team's structure,” van Bergen said. “When a player's trust level is high it can be seen in his play. Trusting yourself allows a player to make a quick play or fire the puck on net when the time is right without hesitation. He trusts his skills and hockey sense. Trusting your teammates enables a guy to chip the puck out of the gray zone or make the simple play in other hard areas because he knows his teammates will support him. Trusting the team's structure puts a player in a mindset of being one step ahead of the opposition because he knows what his job is and he does it with full effort. ”

Beyond the Stat Sheet

Youth hockey players can lose confidence if they don't achieve or see immediate results. But hockey is an extremely demanding sport both mentally and physically. At Delano, van Bergen believes the key to building a stable, long-term confidence that will withstand adversity is by looking at the small pieces.

“As a coaching staff, it's our job to identify the little things and praise the behaviors beyond the stat sheet. An overemphasis on points or save percentage is a recipe for losing confidence because stats only tell a small portion of the game, especially from the youth development perspective,” van Bergen explained.

For example, if a goalie is working on post to post movement in practice and then performs a post to post movement really well in a game but misses the puck there needs to be praise guided towards the young goalie for using the skills he or she worked on in practice.

“For a skater, a similar situation might be when the player wins a corner battle. It may not lead directly to a goal,” van Bergen explains. “But if he competed hard, used his stick and body correctly, and allowed the team to gain possession the player needs to know how valuable this was to the team.”

Confident vs. Cocky 

Van Bergen says the difference between being cocky and confident is small.

“We believe it comes down to motivation,” van Bergen said. “Cocky is driven by a personal desire for recognition. Confident play is all about the team.” 

The Playoff Pressure Cooker

Over the course of the hockey season, we all face pressure-filled situations. There are tryouts, tournaments and rivalries. When a team makes the playoffs, though, the pressure can make a player or team crack. Van Bergen believes a healthy self-confidence is the key to helping a team prepare for a long playoff run.

“Preparing for playoffs is all about confidence,” van Bergen said. “The team needs to fully believe they've been prepared for those high-stakes postseason games throughout the regular season. So, they can go out and be their best, play without hesitation and be confident to make the needed plays.”

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