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Motivation Comes from Within. So How Do We Motivate Young Athletes?

How To Motivate Young Hockey Players

Hockey is grueling. No matter how much fun a player is having in the best of times, there will be moments where giving up seems like a sensible option. Helping players get through that moment — or avoid it altogether — is among the most important duties of a successful coach or parent.

Give Them Space

Realize, first, that motivation is primarily an inside job. Your job is to create an open culture that fosters learning and growth.

“It’s not something where a coach gives a player motivation — that’s a myth,” said Dr. Dan Freigang, a USA Hockey sports psychologist. “Motivation is an internal experience." (See Minnesota Hockey).

“Coaches and parents must create an environment that allows each player to have experiences where they improve their skills, where they’re truly the boss of themselves, and where they can develop their identities within a social group (their team).”

Building That Environment

In his 2009 book, “Drive,” Daniel Pink posits workplace motivation should discard the traditional “carrot and stick” way of motivating via external rewards in favor of intrinsic motivation based on autonomy, mastery and purpose. (See article).

Translating those notions from the workplace to the ice rink isn’t as difficult as it appears;

Autonomy: This concept in hockey could be represented by players having input into their practice plan or training regimen. Another option a coach might consider is letting his players design their own power-play formations.

Mastery: This is the desire to improve. Here, the medal doesn’t motivate as much as the stopwatch (in other words, results matter more than rewards). Skill improvement with clear signposts to assess that improvement should be at the heart of every practice.

Purpose: Winning truly isn’t everything. A player who understands that he or she can have a higher purpose (competing with integrity), or even multiple purposes (becoming a better player, person and teammate), is one who is less likely to let short-term results impact long-term effort.

Of course, there are some old-school ways of motivating that still have their place.

Give ’Em a Rallying Cry

Call it a slogan, call it a mantra, call it a motto. By any name, rallying cries work. Notre Dame’s football players have been slapping a “Play Like a Champion Today” sign since Lou Holtz had it installed on the stairway to their field in 1986. Give your players words they can yell across the ice in a game or practice to shore up a teammate’s flagging spirits, or say with a smile across a dressing room to build a bond, or mutter to themselves in a weight room to power through one more set.

There are tons of options, such as:

  • You can have results or excuses. Not both.

  • There’s no traffic on the extra mile.

  • Actions speak louder than coaches.

  • Hockey is one half mental, the other half dental.

  • There will be many obstacles in your path. Don’t be one of them.

Have Some Fun

If you’ve noticed your practices lacking pep, change things. Play some games. Ask a figure skating coach in the facility to put your players through some drills, or maybe just go ice skating somewhere outside your normal practice space. Play a different sport entirely — perhaps basketball, softball or volleyball.

Recognize the Limits

At some point, players will let you know if they’re looking for a push or the door. The older children get, the more evident self-motivation should be. If they’re enjoying the sport, you shouldn’t have to control their environment. Remind them they need the right food and rest, sure, but if kids really want to play, there shouldn’t be a mad scramble to find all the gear five minutes before leaving for practice. If they’re taking it seriously, it’s likely because they’re having fun.

AJ Lee is Marketing Coordinator for Pro Stock Hockey, an online resource for pro stock hockey equipment. He was born and raised in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, and has been a huge Blackhawks fan his entire life. AJ picked up his first hockey stick at age 3, and hasn’t put it down yet.

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