Emotions make for a tricky variable in sports. Exit a locker room too subdued as you head for the ice and you may not be prepared. Exit a locker room too fired up and you’re courting all sorts of thoughtless mistakes on the ice.
It certainly doesn’t help, either, that the game of hockey can go off script in a hurry. Pucks don’t always behave the way we’d like. Teammates may not be on the same page. An opponent may be running up the score. As fun as hockey can be at every level, it’s not a game without some frustrations.
Add to those on-ice variables the fact that youth players have their own life variables – from something as simple as an empty stomach after skipping lunch during a busy day, to big-picture social pressures that seem more complicated by the year – and you might have a tinder box of emotions coming to the rink.
The key to managing it all on the ice is finding a balance between getting pumped up and controlling your emotions.
“You can put a premium, in any sport and at any level, on controlling your emotions,” says USA Hockey’s Massachusetts District Coach-in-Chief Paul Moore. “We could be talking about a 12U kid or a pro hockey player. If he’s getting too hyped up, those emotions might affect him in a negative way. You have to control your emotions to be successful.”
When it comes to picking and choosing between the sometimes-competing notions of turning up the intensity and remaining under control, Moore, the 2012 Wm. Thayer Tutt Award winner, believes there's a happy medium.
“What I’ve talked about a lot is how you’re channeling that energy,” he says. “Are you channeling it in a positive way or are you channeling it in a negative way?”
Is that player running around the ice looking for a big hit that isn’t there? Is he or she acting negatively with teammates? Becoming a distraction on the bench?
Symptoms for negative emotion include more than a young player taking selfish penalties, too. Negative emotions can include the kinds of feelings that pressure kids into panicking with the puck or becoming visibly upset after a tough shift.
“Some kids get so worked up that it turns into nervous energy and they channel it in a negative way,” says Moore. “They might not be responsible with the puck. Some kids get nervous and their legs stop moving.”
This is where the controlling of one’s emotions can help fix an issue before it even becomes an issue.
“The message to young kids can be seen in players at higher levels who excel in their trade,” says Moore. “They usually have ice in their veins. They can control their emotions. Pressure doesn’t get to them. An opponent doesn’t get to them. You can’t get under their skin.”
Moore, who as a player starred for Falmouth High School and moved on to a playing career that included college hockey, the IHL and a training camp tryout with the New York Rangers, concedes these are concepts that aren’t always part of a young player’s natural skill set. Learning to cope with the inevitable adversity doesn’t always take place overnight, either.
“The adversity piece and its challenges, that all builds pressure,” says Moore. “It’s external pressure coming down on the kid, and they internalize it and then you can see some negative behaviors out of it when things don’t go the young kid’s way.”
Proper coaching can help pull a young player out of that downward spiral.
“There’s another side do this, especially at the youth level, where you have coaches who are over the top,” says Moore. “Young players feed off that, and it can be a negative. It starts with the coach, how you react to it, how you handle it, how you talk to the kids.”
Moore, like many coaches, grew up playing in a different era – one where coaches were more, to put it politely, vocal.
“How we deal with kids has changed,” he says. “If you were born in the 1960s and you played youth hockey in the ‘70s, you were probably getting yelled at a lot. We know today that’s not how kids learn. The coach is the first line of defense. Is he screaming and yelling at that kid who’s struggling and hyperventilating at the end of the bench because he’s having a tough time? Some coaches react negatively to that, and then you’re just pouring fuel on the fire for a 10-year-old brain or a 12-year-old brain. Or is he coming down to his level and talking to him?”
Coaches can also set the tone for the latitude a young player has to “fail.” Trying and failing is a part of the youth experience, on and off the ice. And creating a punitive environment isn’t nearly as effective as creating one that fosters the evolution of a player and a person.
“We need to embrace failure in sports because that’s how you learn,” says Moore.
It’s also important to note that Moore, who in his nearly 30 years of coaching and teaching hockey has coached every age from U8 through high school, including as the current coach at Falmouth, isn’t advocating a curbing of passion.
“Be intense, but think about how you're channeling that,” he says. “There's a fine line there. It’s being positive, being vocal and having a lot of passion. That’s the kid that you want.”