A few years ago I had a really interesting conversation with one of our D1 hockey players at Endeavor.

It was his first Summer with us so I didn’t know much about him, but the report I got was that his coaches felt he was extremely skilled, but too fat, slow, and lazy to contribute a significant role on their team.

After spending some time with him, he wasn’t really fat at all (~12% body fat), he WAS definitely slow, and I think “lazy” wasn’t as true a descriptor as “laid back”.

He also prided himself on playing “smart” and not being one of those players that just ran around all over the ice.

This is a tough combination of qualities to overcome as a player.

Here’s the thing…if you’re 12% body fat, but you’re one of the fastest players one your team, you’re less likely to be perceived as “over fat” and even less likely to be perceived as lazy. If you’re fat and slow, but one of those players that brings an intense, focused look to every practice (e.g. not a laid back, joking personality), you won’t be interpreted as lazy either. Players that constantly move their feet and “run around all over the ice” may not be making the best use of their energy, but they certainly won’t be thought of as lazy.

But if you have a slightly higher body fat than the team average (most colleges look for <10%), you’re not fast, and you have a laid back personality, it’s hard to interpret you as anything except lazy, even if that’s not actually the case.

The reality is that players at every level bring different strengths and weaknesses to the team, based largely on their developed skill sets and genetic make up. And while I firmly believe every player can (and should) get faster, not every player on a team can be the fastest. This, however, rarely limits a player’s playing time on a team. In combination with the perception of him being lazy, though, will certainly send the wrong message to the coach and is likely to limit playing opportunities.

The reason I’m telling this story is because I think it’s important for players to understand how they may be perceived by their coaches (and even their teammates), even if…or especially if it’s not how they perceive themselves.

As I’ve talked about in the past (See: Play the Underdog), body language matters. So does how you respond to your coach’s feedback.

With this in mind, here are three common things youth players do, how these actions are likely to be interpreted by the coach, and how you can make subtle adjustments to improve the coach’s perception of your character. .

1) Action: Rolling your eyes while tilting your head back

Interpretation: I have no interest in your feedback and would rather continue doing things my way then even listen to what you’re telling me, let alone try your suggestion. Simply, I’m not coachable.

Roll Your Eyes

One of the few times I’d suggest not following Iron Man’s lead (Image from: EvilEnglish.net)

Better Action: Look the coach in the eye and just listen.

2) Action: Saying “I know!” or “I can’t…”

Interpretation 1: I’m quick to speak, but slow to listen. I think I already know what you’re telling me, despite my actions showing the opposite.

Interpretation 2: I’d rather give up then go through the uncomfortable process of improving.

Better Action: Look the coach int he eye and listen. When he/she is finished speaking, say “I’ll try that. Thank you.”

3) Sitting down/slouching at every opportunity

Interpretation: I’m tired and not ready to go.

Better Action in a training setting: Walk around and help spot/encourage teammates and clean up weights/equipment.

Better Action in game setting: Stand up, but if you must sit, stay engaged with the game. Anytime the coach looks your way, you want to look like you’re ready to go.

Wrap Up

These are very basic ideas, but making the subtle adjustments suggested above will make a huge impact on how your perceived by your coaches and teammates (For more tips on being a great teammate, click here: 10 Qualities of GREAT Teammates). A lot of this comes down to the two simple habits of being respectful and being engaged.

One of the greatest compliments someone can pay an athlete is to say that he/she is very “coachable”. Following the tips above will help you be just that. The best part is that it’s 100% within your control. Decide to be coachable and it’ll have a positive impact not only on the rest of your athletic career, but the rest of your life as you transition into the “real world” and have bosses instead of coaches, and coworkers instead of teammates.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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“Kevin Neeld is one of the top 5-6 strength and conditioning coaches in the ice hockey world.”
– Mike Boyle, Head S&C Coach, US Women’s Olympic Team

“…if you want to be the best, Kevin is the one you have to train with”
– Brijesh Patel, Head S&C Coach, Quinnipiac University

This is an exciting time for hockey players. Hockey development has come a long way over the last decade, and as hockey-specific skill and hockey training systems develop, it improves both the peak level of the game in general, and the ability of players that follow these systems to compete at the most elite levels. In other words, for the players that are willing to consistently put the energy into their development, elite status is possible. This is a foundational concept in one of my favorite books of all time: Bounce by Mathew Syed.

Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success

The underlying theme of the book is that EVERYONE can fulfill their dreams if they just keep at it, and find people to help them in the right direction. This is the case even in elite level performers that are considered “prodigies” in their sport or field. It always comes down to consistent, focused practice with the guidance of an experience mentor.

“Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again. Excellence is about stepping outside the comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavor, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundations of necessary failure. That is the essential paradox of expert performance.” -Matt Syed, Author of Bounce

“I wasn’t naturally gifted in terms of size and speed; everything I did in hockey I worked for. The highest compliment that you can pay me is to say that I worked hard every day….That’s how I came to know where the puck was going before it even got there.” -Wayne Gretzky (he played hockey)

When discussing the potential opportunity for any given player to compete at the most elite levels (NHL or National Team) the limitation of genetic make-up always arises. In reality, genetics will play an important role in determining an athlete’s true peak performance in any given sport. This is, in part, because genetics determine the functional make-up of the musculoskeletal system. Things like bony make-up, muscle fiber type distribution, and tendinous insertion locations will all play a role in the athlete’s ability to develop comparatively high levels of force production/speed or endurance capacity. With that said, it is an OVERWHELMING MINORITY of athletes that actually approach their true genetic limitation.

While genetics will absolutely determine the upper limits of an athlete’s performance, the truth is that most athletes never work hard or smart enough to reach this limitation. The idea of “making it” means different things to different people. In other words, different players have different goals, which inevitably evolve over time. For example, one player’s dream may be to play Division 1 hockey; another player’s dream may be to play in the NHL. Regardless of the endpoint, there are always steps along the way, more short-term goals that lead to the eventual attainment of the end goal. A player that wants to play at the NCAA D1 level may need to work his way up to playing Tier I youth hockey, then make a USHL team before finally committing to a D1 school. The NHL hopeful will likely need to play Tier I youth hockey, and then either go the USHL -> NCAA D1 -> AHL -> NHL route or the OHL -> AHL -> NHL route. These are far from the only options, but will suffice for our purposes today.

Through my work at Endeavor Sports Performance, I see hockey players at literally EVERY level, both in terms of age and ability, that express a desire to pursue some goal of higher level playing. When I meet them, typically their enthusiasm and willingness to make sacrifices to achieve their goal are at an all time high. The most unfortunate, yet most common situation involves a player achieving an intermediary goal (e.g. making a Tier I youth or USHL team), and developing a sense of complacency. With complacency comes stalled progress, failed dreams, and inevitable self-excusing internal dialogue.

Where aspirational hockey players train to fulfill their dreams

Play the Underdog
An underdog is defined as a competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest. Everyone roots for the underdog. More important than fan support is an examination of the underdog’s mentality.

Be this guy.

Underdog’s tend to present with a quiet sense of confidence. Knowing they have nothing to lose removes some of the high performance pressure associated with the fear of failure. Just as importantly, underdogs know that they will NEVER be outworked. They may not have the best skills, and they may not have the most advantageous physical stature, but they know that they will outwork their competition, regardless of who it is. This is true both in terms of their preparation and during competitive events.

There are uncontrollable variables in hockey that cause some players to lose enthusiasm or development momentum. The one thing that every player ALWAYS has control over is their own work ethic. If every player viewed him/herself as and accepted the mentality of an underdog, it’s inevitable that the development plateaus associated with a sense of complacency or entitlement would dissipate and the opportunity to reach a true genetic limitation would present. My advice to hockey players everywhere: Play the role of the underdog. You’ll be happy with where you finish, and during your journey to elite performance.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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