Friday, February 24, 2012

Coaching Character and Performance, Hockey Edge Newsletter February 2012

Do superstar hockey players need to be characters and not brimming with character? Many coaches may think that the most talented players may also be the biggest characters. This is reinforced by images we see of Terrell Owens’ antics, for instance. But, I do not believe this is the case, especially in hockey. In my local area the Red Wings have had two exemplary captains the last two decades; Steve Yzerman and Nik Lidstrom. Both are hall of fame players with great character.

These are just two examples, but I am sure you can come up with others. Recent captains like Sakic, Messier, Niedermayer, and Brind’Amour were quality people who were great leaders and players. So, it is my opinion that character and performance can co-exist and should. As coaches we need to be teaching character not only to develop better people but also to enhance individual and team performance.

Making the Case that Character Players are More Likely to Reach Their Potential

Dr. Ryan Flett of West Virginia University, during his time at Michigan State University, conducted a study with university football coaches in Canada. What he found was that these coaches highly appreciated athletes with character. In fact they recruited young men that demonstrated character for their programs.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to university football in Canada. NHL scouts have talked about how they look for character in players when drafting. In Terry Orlick’s book In Pursuit of Excellence he reports discussions with NHL scouts and coaches where these talent evaluators look for players that are good people and can compose themselves under pressure. The same message came from Hockey News blogger and former Hawks and Jets GM Mike Smith. He made it very clear in one of his posts about Mike Richards’ solid character and why he was a first round draft pick. When NHL personnel compare two guys and the difference in talent is a wash, then the deciding factor will likely be which player has the character to reach his potential.

I agree with Mike Smith; a player with character has a much greater likelihood to reach his potential. This player will have the self-regulation skills to stay goal-focused and do the work necessary to reach the goals.

To see the relationship between character and performance look at other sports as well. Randy Moss, former NFL wide receiver, is looking to make a comeback for the 2012 season. A sure-fire hall-of-famer, the only reason teams will shy away from Moss is the fear that he will cause distractions based on his selfishness of wanting the ball thrown to him a lot. Will he quit on a team like he did the Raiders? Moss is talented but his issues in the past make it difficult to predict his impact on a team.
Maybe the most successful sport franchise in the world, New Zealand’s national rugby team the All Blacks, have a motto which they believe is part of their success. “Good people make good All Blacks”. The All Blacks understand that good people who are talented will fit well into a system and create few distractions.

As a coach, you are attempting to create character attributes and skills that transfer from hockey to life and vice versa. In this way you help the player and the person reach their potential. But, do not be confused. Just because you show up and play hockey does not mean you will learn character. In fact, research is confirming that coaches must intentionally teach character and life lessons to athletes that are open to such teachings.

How do you teach your players character and help them transfer this from hockey to life? How can you show them the value of being respectful, responsible, and perseverant? Talk to your players about how these skills and attributes are valuable in hockey and life and teach them the skills to exhibit character under pressure. Finally, reinforce those times when your players reveal character.

Next I will review some of the most common character attributes and skills coaches want their athletes to exhibit. The definitions offered are my representations and may differ from what you would teach. In the end, the most important thing is that you define what you are teaching. Then, I will demonstrate how these things might look on the ice for performance and off the ice as character.


Performance: Respect on the ice means recognizing the efforts of your opponent and bringing your best effort to provide them the best competition and opportunity to improve. It means respecting the game by preparing so you are ready to play and realizing that at any time you can be beaten. As a player you play within the rules with the best of your ability.

Character/Off the Ice: Off the ice respect is a widely used term. It can mean treating people well and recognizing their strengths. For example, players should strive to respect their teammates by being positive, encouraging, and never gossiping about them. Further, respect can mean living up to game traditions and norms such as shaking hands at the end of the game. Respect can be as simple as holding the door for someone else or saying hello even when you are busy.

The Commonalities: With respect on and off the ice it comes down to appreciating others and the game, and recognizing the good that exists in others. When players learn the values of appreciating the game and others and act accordingly, they can see the positive reactions they receive in return. I would venture that respectful people are provided more opportunities in life because decision-makers like them (of course, you still need to have skills). Show your team how doing things the right way really does make a difference on and off the ice.


Performance: Responsibility has everything to do with doing what is expected. On the ice it can mean fulfilling your role specific duties such as backchecking as a forward or controlling rebounds as a goalie. Responsibility also refers to taking credit and blame as it is fit. For instance, if you make a mistake that leads to a goal do not point at the goalie. Let the goalie know it was “your bad” and work to make up for it by being responsible to your team.

Character/Off the Ice: Responsibility off the ice also means taking care of role-related expectations, including academics. Players are responsible for staying eligible, and beyond that, studying hard and being open to learning so that they can be successful outside of hockey. Responsibility also can be related to making good decisions. A responsible player will not skip curfew to attend a party.

The Commonalities: Whether it is off- or on-ice responsibility, responsible players make good decisions based on what is best for the team and for the long term health of themselves and others. Sacrifice is also a part of responsibility. To be responsible means to sacrifice the immediate gratification of doing things that would undermine individual and team performance and character. Emphasize to your team that responsibility is a habit. Once you start being irresponsible it is easy to continue. In contrast, taking responsibility, having success and being recognized for it will fuel you to be the kind of player that every coach trusts and puts on the ice at the end of the game.


Performance: Having integrity on the ice means not cheating or playing dirty. Players with integrity can be trusted to do the right thing and stay out of the penalty box. Players with integrity also will not intentionally undermine teammates even when it would benefit them. They do what is best for the team.

Character/Off the Ice: Integrity off-the-ice comes down to being honest and genuine. A player with great integrity strives to tell the truth in all situations, avoids hidden agendas, and interacts with others in a genuine manner. People with high integrity do what is right for all, not just themselves. People with high integrity do not cheat on tests and are transparent in their actions with others. They do not manipulate friends to get what they want.

The Commonalities: Clearly integrity is equitable to honesty. You know what you will get from a person with integrity and you can trust them. In either situation the player with integrity will not attempt to deceive you and will tell you how they feel. Players that lack integrity will destroy team chemistry. Moreover, if you lack integrity off-the-ice it will most certainly change how people think of you and affect you within your team. Trust is the foundation of team success and to have trust you need people of integrity. Integrity is a habit that creates a positive reputation that each player should strive for.


Performance: Players demonstrating perseverance have goals that they strive for despite obstacles. They will battle until the end of the game and will not allow slumps to get them down and lower their effort. Perseverance allows a player to fight through injury and tough defensive play by their opponent. Obstacles are a challenge to be overcome.

Character/Off the Ice: Perseverance off-the-ice involves striving for goals despite obstacles, the same as on the ice. This may be one of the most important attributes that a young person can learn; to not “go away when the going gets tough”. All of us have received a poor test or project grade in school. The key is to not allow that to deter you from being successful. Failure is to be learned from not feared.

The Commonalities: In both situations players that exhibit perseverance are able to develop strategies for coping with the stress of not reaching their goal, are confident that with hard work they can reach their goals, and look for solutions instead of getting stuck on their lack of success and bad feelings. Learning to persevere in a game can serve as a catalyst to reveal how sticking with things can lead to good results in life, too. Again, persevering or quitting/giving less effort become a habit and affect players in both arenas of their lives.


Performance: Obviously teamwork is critical to hockey performance. Players that put team goals ahead of their own are more likely to look for the best play, instead of the play that suits their own interests (i.e., scoring goals). Team players pass the puck. They also cover for other players by blocking shots and helping on defense. They are also willing to play a third line checker role when it is the best thing for the team.

Character/Off the Ice: In today’s world many fields require people to work in groups. Thus, the ability to make the team’s goal the priority is critical to job success. If a player has learned to focus on team goals like playing defense he can transfer that to life settings as well. You do what is best for the team and you will benefit from it as well. Ultimately, knowing how to work with others will help young people have successful lives.

The Commonalities: Teamwork is crucial in both hockey and life. For this attribute I believe we often learn how to be a good team member in hockey first, so coaches should point out how working with others and putting self-interest behind team interest is something needed for the rest of your life. The skills of learning how to communicate and share the glory with teammates should transfer to life if either the coach points it out and/or the player recognizes the transfer to his school project, for example.


Performance: Players demonstrating initiative are willing to step up and do things that teammates avoid doing like picking up pucks, carrying equipment, or handing a player on the ice a new stick. In addition, they will ask questions of their coach and even suggest solutions to problems. You can give a player with initiative responsibility because he or she will take it and run with it. They will do the job, and do it well. They will look for ways to improve upon the process of achieving the task even if you do not ask them to do so.

Character/Off the Ice: Initiative is a great thing off-the-ice as well because it demonstrates a willingness to step up, be confident, and be productive. Young people with initiative are willing to take on projects that will better their resume, like volunteering, and are goal-focused. As a teacher or supervisor you do not have to micromanage them and, best of all, you have trust that the work will be done well.

The Commonalities: Coaches need to reveal to players how stepping up and getting the job done is crucial in both arenas (hockey and life). The willingness to clean up the locker room when your teammates make a mess, or in the workplace, shows commitment to excellence. Stepping up also reveals a willingness to lead instead of follow. Showing initiative creates interest and trust from authority figures and they will in return give that person more of their time and potentially more opportunities. Taking initiative is a habit, and the more you do it the more you get comfortable doing it.

Emotional Control

Performance: Emotional control in hockey is critical. The ability to control reactions to negative emotions allows players to bounce back quickly after a mistake, persevere despite losing, and avoid retaliating to an opponent’s dirty play. Players demonstrating emotional control are more relaxed under pressure and are able to focus on the task at hand which will lead to better performances.

Character/Off the Ice: The ability to control one’s emotions in crisis situations, or just in anxiety-provoking situations, will develop a resilient self-belief. The person believes that they can succeed despite the bad things that are happening. They will make good decisions under pressure like when faced with an ethical dilemma like cheating on a test or shoplifting.

The Commonalities: Demonstrating emotional control on- and off-the-ice will allow players to be their best under pressure whether it is a championship game in the third period or on a job interview. An understanding that the person does not necessarily control the emotions they feel, and is accepting of that, will allow them to cope with adverse situations. Furthermore, understanding that we have control over reactions to emotions will allow young people to choose positive responses in crucial situations. The skill of emotional control can be the difference between having a great life and reaching your goals, and well, the opposite.

Hopefully I demonstrated in this article that the character attributes and skills you would want to develop in a young person will help them perform on the ice. Character enhances performance on the ice because you are developing habits that can transfer. If, as coaches, we value character and teach it we can take advantage of the good character that can be developed in young people for enhancing hockey performance. More importantly, we can show our players how what they learn in hockey can be used in life. Ultimately, it is our job as coaches to better the lives of the players we lead.

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