What I Learned Training My Own Hockey Team

Note: I re-wrote this article for hockeystrengthandconditioning.com. The writing is way better (obviously I’m so much better at this shit now) and the lessons easier to takeaway. So, just go read this over there.

I was incredibly lucky help my hockey team more than just on the ice this year. I think my biggest role in making this team successful was as my role as the strength and conditioning coach. How could I be a coach and a player? Was I the Jackie Moon of the Eastern Hockey League? Being in this at times awkward role taught me so much about coaching and leadership. Now I bring those lessons with me in all areas of my coaching and my life.

Lesson #1 – Start with why

The days of the coaches who get kids to work by yelling and asserting authority are on their way out. Real leadership is not telling people what to do, it’s showing them why it will benefit them. It’s responding to objections by listening first, and then explaining. If athletes understand the reasons why we do what we do they will show up each day with enthusiasm. Players who don’t understand will just go through the motions. Simon Sinek in his book Start With Why talks about why understanding the purpose makes everything more effective. In a coaching situation like this, where I don’t have the authority of a regular coach, them understanding the reasons why is essential.

Even if you are in a coaching situation where you can force them to do things, not only are you making them resentful of your power over them, but they’re also not going to improve they way could. In these scenarios, athletes will be looking to take shortcuts, to go through the motions, because they don’t see what’s in it for them. I’ve often seen a disconnect between what players think the reasons for training are, and what the real objectives are. During the season, our main goals are to prevent injuries, and improve performance, not to crush them. But, many players vision of the workouts did not line up with the reality of our goals. So, as a coach, you can’t emphasize enough what the goal is for each season, the reasons for them, and how it fits into the plan for overall development.

Being more aware of this now, I’ve seen the importance of it in all areas of teaching. In schools, I don’t think we do a good job of explaining to adolescents why they have to learn something. What’s the point of algebra? Of history? Physics? If students don’t see a reason why, how do you expect them to work hard at it? Sure, you can have teachers walking around the room like sharks and telling each off task student to focus, or you can get them to understand why staying on task is important. Get your players and students to see what’s in it for them.

Lesson #2 – A coach alone can’t build a great culture

A culture of buy-in and mutual trust and respect must start with the coach, but it won’t flood to the rest of the team without great leadership. There have been mornings where I’ve made my whole team wake up earlier than they wanted to. They would walk in, annoyed at me for making them be there, not ready to work. I can explain to them the purpose, but inevitably logic and reason will not fix their emotional annoyance. Some of these days, I did the best I could. I know some guys got nothing out of the workout that day, and resented the overall process. However, a lot of these days, our leaders stepped up to help me out. They helped to motivate the group, led by example, and got more players refocused. Inevitably, this energy rubbed off on the rest of the team. Seeing this, I realized that a great culture is not just about the coaches. It’s about the character of the individuals of the group. You need great leaders, and players willing to listen to these leaders in order to create the culture you’re looking for. You need a full room of guys who want to get better. The reverse is also true. If the assigned leaders aren’t doing their job, their teammates will follow suit. If the players are there for a good time and not to get better, then it doesn’t matter how great the coach and captains are. To our head coach’s credit, he has done an incredible job recruiting the right guys, and not just the best guys.

I could not have been successful as a strength coach without the support of our leaders, nor could our team overall have had the success we did without starting with a group that wants to get better.

Lesson #3 – “Look the part” is BS

What I’ve always known, but have had to come to accept, is that being a great coach and being a great athlete are completely different things. What goes into each discipline is as different from being a doctor or a lawyer. Coaching is not about being a great player. If you know someone who can make you better, it shouldn’t matter whether they can do all of it themselves. Yes, if they went through it, they will have experiences that will help them as a coach, but it’s not a necessity. “Looking the part” may help you get clients, but it won’t help you keep clients. That’s about getting THEM results and building a relationship. Those factors are independent of how good an athlete you are. After all, coaching is a field of service to others. Our goal is to make others better, and our personal fitness or athletic progress isn’t one of the key factors is contributing to that. This is the first time that I’ve trained athletes who are better than me, and so it’s the first time I’ve had to deal with this insecurity. I will have to get over this, because it won’t be the last time I work with athletes better than me.

Being a coach in this capacity has been one of the best learning experiences of my life. I now view the coaching process very differently. Consider how these lessons can help you be a better coach, teacher, or learner. Do your students understand the reasons why? Does your culture need to focus on picking the right group to begin with? Are you really focused on helping others and not what you’ve accomplished?

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