If there's a silly season in youth hockey, it's spring, when every youth hockey organization under the sun -- non-profit and for-profit -- holds tryouts. I'm often asked to help do evaluations during these sessions, to help avoid any suspicion of favoritism among members. And that makes sense.
But what I often think about while sitting in the bleachers, trying to keep warm and jotting down notes, is "What's most important to this organization?" Is it winning? Is it player development? Is it providing a fun environment for everyone? It's obviously a complex question, with many potential answers. To find out what's most important to a particular program, start by figuring out what the organization's goals are. Then you can apply those to the goaltenders in the program. Here are some guidelines that I'd recommend.
Thanks for reading. As always, let me know what you think.
GUIDELINES FOR AGE-BASED GOALS
One of the most difficult aspects of coaching is applying the right approach to each goaltender, at varying age levels. The reality is that not all goalies are created equal. As a result, goalie coaches have to adjust their methods based on a number of factors, including the age of the goalie, their experience, their commitment level, and their talent level.
Good coaches know there's no "one size fits all" approach to coaching. There are so many physical and mental challenges to the position that you need to assess each child (or young man, young woman, or adult) individually.
Of course, that's easier said than done. Even as an experienced coach, I sometimes need to reassess, remind myself to keep the individual in mind, and reboot.
TrueSport (truesport.org) recently ran an excellent article on just this topic, featuring sports psychologist Roberta Kraus. A former competitive collegiate tennis and basketball player who works with athletes ranging from novices to Olympians, Kraus has an impressive resume. She holds a pair of master’s degrees, one in higher education from the University of Northern Colorado and another in sports psychology from the University of Arizona. Her doctorate from the University of Denver is in communications, specializing in its application to individual and team effectiveness.
The following are the highlights from that article, tailored to young goaltenders.
Foremost, parents and coaches need to be on the same page in terms of the overall objectives. According to Kraus, parents and coaches typically agree on the "right" answer in terms of the reasons sports are beneficial for kids: building character, reinforcing a work ethic, developing integrity, teamwork, etc. But knowing the right answer doesn't always stop parents and/or coaches from applying too much pressure on kids to win, be a star player, or live up to the investment that parents have spent on private training and travel teams. Essentially, we all need to remind ourselves that the fundamental goal is (or should be) to keep young athletes engaged in sport. Staying engaged reinforces the values parents and coaches say they want. Sports help foster and fortify exercise and nutrition habits that lead to improved health throughout adulthood. The question Kraus asks is, how can we help kids set and achieve goals in a way that keeps them engaged?
Focus on "competitive maturity," not actual age
This is such a critical element for coaches in the youth ranks. Kraus encourages parents and coaches to consider an athlete's competitive/training maturity over chronological age. For example, your team might have two 12-year-old goaltenders. One has been playing competitive hockey for four years, the other just picked up the game (or position) this season. They might be the same chronological age, but could be vastly different in terms of competitive maturity, based on playing experience. From a goals perspective, the athlete with more experience is more likely to thrive despite greater challenges compared to the more novice athlete. Coaches need to adjust accordingly.
Goal setting versus goal getting
The traits of control, self-determination, and accountability can change dramatically as an athlete progresses from elementary school through high school. For goals to be effective, a young goaltender needs to have adequate control over the factors necessary to achieve them. This is why Kraus encourages players, parents, and coaches to focus on "goal getting" instead of "goal setting." This is more than semantics. Goal getting is based on what a young athlete can achieve through effort. Goal setting is based on win/loss types of outcomes, and can depend heavily on teammates. These are real and measurable goals that children can achieve (or fail to achieve, as the case may be). But the achievement or failure is based on the only thing they can really control: their effort. Here are some examples:
# Win more than half our games this season
# Win the league championship
# Make the varsity squad
# Develop more confidence in handling dump-ins and making passes (skill acquisition)
# Faster recovery from the butterfly, or stronger lateral push (power development)
# Encourage teammates at every practice and game (leadership)
Employ words deliberately
Likewise, the words that parents and coaches use can have a dramatic impact on a young athlete. Kraus believes adults tend to be specific with criticism and vague with praise. Think about the post-game car ride home. Do you point out specific instances where your young goaltender didn't cover a loose puck quick enough, or a specific time when he (or she) was off his angles? Do you follow that up with nebulous praise for "battling" or "working hard"? Kraus said very specific criticism paints mental pictures of what went wrong, but vague praise doesn't help players to similarly visualize success. It's important for coaches and parents to be as specific with praise as with criticism. Instead of "you were aggressive," recall a specific example: "It was great to see you challenge the shooter during that breakaway late in the first period, and take away the net." You still have every right to point out areas that need improving. But consider how quickly and specifically we can identify and describe failures, and how critical it is to identify and accurately describe achievements.
Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation
According to Kraus, parents and coaches need to understand the source of an athlete's motivation when it comes to establishing appropriate goals. Athletes motivated by internal, personal achievement have high "intrinsic" motivation (the fire within). Athletes motivated by external validation, like social status or prizes, have high "extrinsic" motivation. Both are valuable, but intrinsic motivation is crucial for long-term participation and achievement. If an athlete exhibits high intrinsic motivation early on by prioritizing personal achievement and what success feels like – rather than what it looks like – then coaches and parents can help the athlete progress by encouraging the pursuit of extrinsic goals (winning). Conversely, if an athlete exhibits high extrinsic motivation early on by prioritizing winning and elevated status that results from success, then coaches and parents should help nurture that player's intrinsic motivation before reinforcing his (or her) extrinsic motivation.
Consequences and rewards
Young athletes are more likely to tougher on themselves for failures (both perceived and real) compared to the criticisms they might get from parents and coaches, said Kraus. On the other end of the spectrum, neither young athletes nor their parents and coaches tend to praise effort or achievement to the same extent. In essence, young athletes, parents, and coaches are all biased toward criticism and negative consequences. To counter that, coaches and parents should encourage young athletes to establish concrete consequences and rewards related to effort, and not outcomes.
Goaltenders should ask themselves this question: How do I help my team by giving my best effort? This is the basis for the athlete's reward. If giving your best effort means you are constantly engaged, battling through screens, encouraging your teammates, that behavior should get rewarded (like taking them out to their favorite restaurant).
Then ask this question: How do I hurt my team when I don't give my best effort? This is the basis for the athlete's consequence. Giving up early rather than competing to the final whistle, or ripping a teammate for a penalty or defensive breakdown, are examples of you not giving your best effort. That's what you pay a consequence for (like losing Xbox or PlayStation for a couple of days).
The athlete, peers, and teammates should be the initial judges of whether an athlete earned a reward or should suffer a consequence (ensuring age-appropriate decisions). Team captains should provide input next, with coaches and parents as the last people to weigh in. That builds accountability, which is a hallmark of all great goaltenders.