February 21, 2011

Coaches strive to find comfort zone

By Lyle Phair

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

If you want to find out how hard a player is willing and able to work, watch that player during a tryout.

At no time throughout the year will you see a player work harder than they do when they are trying out for a team. If, in fact, they really want to play on that team. Not during practices, not during regular-season games, not during playoff games. So why is that? Is it because they want to make the team so badly? Or because they so badly fear not making the team?

I guess that could be open for debate. Just like what motivates people when they compete. Some people say they are motivated because they love winning. Others say they hate to lose. But is it hate or is it fear?

Fear can be an extremely powerful motivating force, although many people don’t like to admit that they are motivated by fear. They are more likely to say they are motivated by something else. But I think in reality it is fear that drives them and here is why.

In youth hockey, it is virtually impossible to recreate a tryout environment. In a tryout, you either make it or not. There is no in between. You are or you aren’t. There is a definite finality there, which in turn spawns a sense of desperation.

But once the season starts and you are on the team, is there anything that is that powerful of a motivating force? The player is on the team. Can’t get cut at that point, right? Well, maybe in some circumstances they can, but in most cases, probably not. They are there for the season. And oftentimes they don’t see far enough ahead to think about next season. What they fail to realize is that, in the mind of a coach, every game, every shift is in essence a tryout.

So it’s human nature to let down your guard once you make the team, isn’t it? Many players do, but there are some who don’t, or at least appear like they don’t. There are still many motivating factors for players once the team is made. It could be wanting to win, wanting to score or wanting to play on the power play or in key situations. Or it could be the fear of not achieving any of those things, couldn’t it?

In any event, most coaches will tell you it is tough to re-create tryout intensity. I wish I could. I wish I could find a way to bottle it and feed it to the players at certain points throughout the season. I wish I could get them to understand how hard they had competed to earn a spot on the team. And get them to compete like that all of the time. In every game and practice.

But I know that I can’t. It is unrealistic to expect that players can sustain tryout intensity all season long. There is nothing that I can do that can manufacture the desperation that players feel when they really want to make a team or not be cut from a team. Once they are on, they are on, and it’s easy for them to start to settle into a comfort zone for the season.

At some levels of hockey, the threat is always there. National Hockey League players can get sent to the minor leagues. Junior players can get cut or sent to a lower-level league. At those levels and also in college or high school hockey, while players might still be on the team, there is always the threat that they might not get to dress for a particular game.

The desperation for borderline players is omnipresent. It never goes away. That is why you will often hear of players having a “sophomore slump” after a strong rookie season. They start to feel like they belong and get comfortable, which could be good in terms of confidence but could also be a problem if they stop doing the things that allowed them to be successful in the first place.

But in youth hockey, once the team is formed and the season starts to unfold, there can be times that coaches wonder how they can get their individual players to compete as hard as they did when their position on the team was in jeopardy. How do you push them to be as good as they can be, yet at the same time put them into situations where they have the opportunity to succeed, gain confidence and grow without being paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes?

So, in essence, a coach’s job is to resolve conflict as much as possible and at the same time create some conflict. While you want your players to be comfortable and play with confidence, you also have to constantly have the whip at the ready. The reality is that you want your players to be uncomfortable being comfortable and at the same time comfortable being uncomfortable.

To be successful, players need to feel good about themselves and be comfortable in all situations. To be on top of their game, they have to play with confidence and poise, assessing situations, weighing risks and making the right play, unafraid of making a mistake. While they have to be in a comfort zone, at the same time they can’t get too comfortable, always striving to push harder and achieve more. In other words, uncomfortable being comfortable.

On the flip side, when things aren’t going as they would like them to during games, they need to understand not to panic but to dig down for that little extra. Good coaches will try to create uncomfortable situations for players in practices. If the practices are tougher to handle than the games, then the players will be much better prepared to compete in the games. While they have to be able to handle pressure situations, they can’t be overwhelmed by them. In other words, comfortable being uncomfortable.

If a coach can hit both ends of the spectrum with his or her players, then they have found the true comfort zone.

Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com