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Building Confidence with Colleen Coyne

By Jamie MacDonald, 02/02/23, 3:00PM EST


1998 Olympic Gold Medalist and Falmouth native Colleen Coyne shares advice for young hockey players

Confidence can be a tricky teammate. Sometimes a friend and sometimes kind of out to lunch, confidence isn’t always there when you need it.

Colleen Coyne, who grew up in Falmouth, starred at the University of New Hampshire, then won a history-making Olympic gold medal for Team USA and is now President of the Boston Pride of the Premier Hockey Federation, has seen confidence – her own, her teammates, her players and now her own children – come and go in all kinds of forms over the years.

“My goodness, how tricky it is,” says Coyne, who closed out a successful January of hockey with the Pride 12-2-1 and after serving as coach for Team USA at the PHF All-Star Game. “Especially in a game like hockey, where so much is unpredictable and things can go really well – or really not well – so quickly.”

It's a Failure Sport

And because hockey is a sport ripe with opportunities for failing, players can fairly quickly and easily allow confidence to slip away like a fumbled puck. This isn’t always a recipe for success when it comes to building confidence, and the game itself can throw a young player’s confidence into a tailspin.

The kinds of things that can help, in addition to keeping those tailspins to a minimum, include moving on mentally when you can, putting games specifically and the game broadly into perspective, gaining experience, being lucky enough to find good coaching, positive teammates and parents, and even learning to visualize success.

Going over the boards thinking about everything that could go wrong probably isn’t the answer.

“It is a failure sport, but I do think it’s important to get yourself into a headspace where you’re focused, and you don’t want to be thinking this could be a bad shift,” Coyne says. “I think you have to go over the boards, every shift, with confidence. And then just let it play out. If you go out questioning things already, you kind of don’t have a chance.”

A minus shift doesn’t have to make for a minus game.

“A lot of it is negative self-talk,” says Coyne, a former defenseman. “You have a bad shift, you do cough the puck up and it leads to a goal. But you can’t let that ruin your whole game. As a defenseman, I know that pressure. I’ve done it before. And you feel like you let your team down, and it doesn’t feel good. But you also have to treat yourself the way you would treat a teammate who did the same thing. It doesn’t make you a bad player. It makes you a hockey player.”

Hockey Happens

Coyne, who won a gold medal with Team USA at the 1998 Nagano Games and also played for Team USA at the 1992 and 1994 IIHF Women’s World Championship, can look back not so fondly on taking a penalty in a close gold-medal game. Hows that for a spot that might dent confidence? But Coyne also by that point had lived through a good many cycles of confidence going and then coming back throughout her hockey life.

And, just as there were big-stage mistakes, there were also times where Coyne did the right thing on an international stage in a championship game and it still went wrong.

“It was a close game, and I’m just inside our own defensive blue line, which is always one of the most dangerous places on the ice, and I go to chip it off the glass because I just had to get it out,” she remembers. “So I chip it, and the puck hit off the stanchion and goes the other direction. It didn’t lead to anything bad, but I remember the panic. I did the right thing and it didn’t go well. But some of those things you just can’t control. You just have to respond.”

Hockey happens. And that’s when some perspective can come in handy in bolstering confidence.

“It’s really just staying consistent,” says Coyne. “If you go out as a forward and have a two- or three- or four-point game, it’s not letting that get you too high. Or if you go out and cough up the puck and it leads to a big goal, not getting too low. Experience is so much of it. It’s easy to say, ‘Dont get too high or too low,’ but, until, you have been through the cycle and lived through it, or thought you were really on to something and blown it – or thought you were on the verge of the end of your career only to bounce back – it’s really hard to understand things can change that dramatically.”

Coaching Is Key

From behind the bench comes another key component to building – or eroding – confidence in young players.

“Coaching has an awful lot to do with it,” Coyne says. “The best coaches, the seasoned coaches, whether that’s seasoned through having been a player themselves or seasoned through years of coaching, you understand. You start to understand that a bad shift is just that: a bad shift. A bad game is just that: a bad game. It’s so much easier to kind of turn the page and not dwell on it because you’ve been through it before.”

Building confidence can feel just as much like pushing something uphill as losing it can feel so much like it's going downhill far faster, and not many people can send it tumbling down as quickly as a coach.

“It doesn’t help screaming from the bench,” says Coyne, whose 11-year-old son’s coach seems to have it dialed in. “He’s just fantastic. He just approaches it from such a positive manner, with every kid. He’s constantly pumping them full of confidence. He knows that some kids on his team could probably be on the team above, and some kids on his team could probably be on another team below if there was one. He just tries to get the best out of every kid, keep them engaged and let them know he thinks they’re doing a good job.”

Not only are there age-appropriate ways to treat a person, but also a practice when it comes to building confidence. Setting up complex plays or tricky edgework skating drills could be setting a really young player up for failure.

“I think that when you’re practicing with youth kids in particular, you want to practice things where they can have success,” Coyne says. “So, I think the drills that you have, you’re making sure they aren’t too complicated. Giving an 11-year-old flow drills or something like that probably isn’t going to help their confidence. I think some coaches, for better or worse, they see these trends in the NHL or in college and think, ‘Oh, I guess I should be teaching that.’ No, you don’t. You’re dealing with 8-year-olds. Just be happy they know they have edges. You have to coach to the capabilities that you’re working with.”

Confidence Breeds Creativity

Then, when it comes time to perform, a confident player is more likely to be a player who can execute. Even if that means trying a little more than they traditionally might have been able to in generations past. A creative, confident player is more likely to help the game evolve than anyone.

Coyne points out that a former teammate of hers at UNH, Ellen Hughes (the name should ring a bell for NHL fans), would often find herself in trouble in Durham for rushing the puck from her defensive post or trying things like a spin-o-rama. Hughes is the mother to three young players of almost unfathomable skills for growing up in one family: Quinn, Jack and Luke Hughes, who went No. 7, No. 1 and No. 4 overall in recent NHL entry drafts. Think maybe the Hughes household was a place for creativity and confidence on the ice?

“Ask [Ellen] what her thoughts were about her boys trying those kinds of things growing up,” says Coyne. “She was told not to do those types of things. And now every kid in the NHL is doing them.”

So, try the Michigan? Absolutely.

“Yeah,” Coyne says. “That’s my opinion. But a 14-year-old kid is probably going to make a lot of bad decisions around that. You do want to be a good teammate, and part of being a good teammate is making sure you pick your times to try things like that. Even something as simple as a defenseman rushing the puck. Part of learning the game of hockey is learning when that’s a good decision or a bad decision.”

Building your own confidence can translate into games, too. Take, for example, a recent soccer game north of Boston.

“I was sitting at an indoor soccer game and my daughter’s team was getting killed,” says Coyne. “There was one girl on the other team, and they were all quite talented, which is why we were getting killed, but she was coming down the wing and she tried to do this rainbow. And her mom, she kind of knocked on the glass to say, ‘Don’t do that,’ because she thought maybe it was showing us up. But I looked at her and asked, When else is she going to try that? I know as a mom she was just trying to remind her daughter to be a good sport, but, at the same time, as the other mom, I was, like, ‘Now is the time to let her try it.’”

Rooting for players on both teams is an underrated parenting approach. As is letting a young player decide just how much talking to do about the sport while driving to or from it.

“As a player, I learned how important it is to keep yourself as confident as possible, and knowing that it goes up and down,” Coyne says. “As a parent with that knowledge, it’s hard to teach that lesson because it goes back to experience. But I think it’s super important to let my kids know how to build and maintain that confidence – basically, how to turn the page, whether it’s a good day or bad day. If you had a good day, ‘All of your practice paid off today. It’s not going to pay off all the time, but you were able to have a practice like that because of the practice you put in.’ And also being able to let it go after a bad game. If they want to ask me about something [about hockey], I’ll answer, but I literally say, ‘Hey did you have fun?’ Does it seem like they want to be taught more, or does it seem like they want to go home and get on the iPad? If they’re not thinking about it, I shouldn’t be thinking about it.”

Culture Is Critical

Another source of confidence is a player’s teammates. Culture can go a long way to creating supportive environments for confidence.

“Somebody gets off the ice, whether it’s a good shift or a bad shift, you may not even have to say anything, just acknowledge them,” says Coyne. “For the young kids, if they knock a puck in their own net, it might feel like the worst thing that has ever happened to them and hockey. And it might be because their careers are so short. In that case, being a great teammate is just that, giving them a tap and saying, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, we’re going to get it back.’ Staying positive. And it should go without saying that, for coaches, it should be the same thing.”

Mindset Makes a Difference

At the end of the day, though, the battleground for confidence may rest largely between a player’s ears.

“I think visualization is key,” Coyne says. “Obviously, practice things that are easy to practice – puck-handling and shooting because you don’t need the ice. Skating is a little harder. But practicing things that you can and visualization. That was a key to getting to the level that I did. You could just lay down and picture yourself in different situations, being successful, making every play in the book in your head before it ever happens.”

And when you go over the boards, try to put any worry out of your mind. But don’t wipe it clean of the things that matter.

“At the outset of a game, it’s kind of like a blank slate — it’s 0-0 and there’s 20 or 18 minutes left in a period, and you just kind of go and do the best you can to read and react,” says Coyne. “Throughout the game, the situation changes. If there’s just a few minutes left and you’re up by one, you’re telling yourself certain things – be careful with the puck, we don’t need to score a goal right now. If you’re down by one, your mentality changes. As a defenseman, you don’t want to do anything reckless, but you want to be ready to take your chances. You have to know that your team needs a goal. If that puck lands on your stick and you have some ice in front of you, you should probably have the confidence to at least start moving with it and then make a decision.”

Learning to go boldly into that decision is often just a try or two – or a dozen – away from wiring it into your game. Coyne has seen it firsthand at the highest levels and would pass along the same advice to younger players.

“It’s letting them understand that confidence comes and goes,” she says. “If you’re not feeling confident today, tomorrow is a new day. And really letting them know, yes, if you are serious and you want to have the skills to build confidence and that is important to you, you have to put the effort in and the time. Your actions are determined by your priorities. It’s believing in yourself and believing you’re capable of achieving it.”