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How Coaches Can Balance Winning and Development

By Steve Mann, 04/13/23, 1:15PM MDT


Pressure, Parents & Player Development

It’s tournament time, so naturally the focus has turned the top teams competing for a championship and making their clubs, schools and communities proud.

But there is a point where we adults take it too far, and put too much emphasis on winning, thus creating extra pressure for our kids. While high school level players are probably capable of managing it, is focusing too much on winning too much to ask of our 8-, 10- or 12-year-old skaters? Paul Moore, USA Hockey’s Massachusetts District Coach in Chief believes it is.

“This kind of thing drives me crazy and it’s all too common in youth sports today,” said Moore. “When coaches and parents put that pressure on their kids to succeed. It’s the adultification of youth sports. Competition is a big thing that people chase today.”

Playing to Win Is OK, Winning at All Costs Is Not

Moore is quick to clarify that he believes teams should never be afraid to win, and that playing to win a game is perfectly okay. His concern is at what expense are we focusing on the outcome? He believes it should never be at the expense of the development of the individual.

“Winning is okay and is good even at the younger levels,” he said. “But how do you achieve that? And at what cost? Is it fair to the kids on the team that don’t get playing time because they’re not as good? Long-term that won’t work for individual player development, even for the best kids. We’ve seen that backfire as well.”

According to Moore, it’s important to define what “winning” actually looks like for young players. Is it just the scoreboard, or is it teaching kids discipline, accountability, to work within a team structure and be a good teammate? The answer should be obvious.

“Winning at all costs at the younger levels is not what anyone really signs up for,” Moore said. “I think it’s about age-appropriate training, teaching good fundamentals and good habits, creating a positive culture, instilling core values. These are things that lead to success on the ice and organically winning happens.”

What’s Wrong with Focusing Only on Outcomes?

The downside to making wins and losses the focus, says Moore, is that you’re creating added pressure and stress and likely short-changing development. He believes if you take care of the little things, have a good culture, kids create good habits and that winning is a byproduct of all of those things.

“To me it’s about the process,” Moore said. “Whether you’re at 8U or my high school kids, it’s important to have team goals and things you want to achieve. Be clear on how you intend to get there. It isn’t always about playing your best kids and only focusing on the outcome.

“There’s a time for putting a premium on winning, and the younger ages of the game aren’t it. What is a coach telling his players if he has to shorten his bench to win a game or if he sits certain players in every key moment? He’s telling them they’re not good enough. This, in turn, can shatter a kids’ confidence and strip the love of the game from them.”

Advice for Coaches

Too often, coaches and hockey directors are getting calls, texts and emails from hockey parents about not playing enough to win. Moore believes that expectations for parents and players should be set at the start of the season, at a team meeting led by the coaching staff.

“My advice is to have a solid parent meeting and frank conversation early about what your philosophy is,” Moore said. “So, what is your approach to the power play, penalty kill and end of games? Lay it out in the beginning of the season so parents can decide if the program is right for them. A premium probably won’t be put on winning, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to win, or won’t try to win.”

“Then, if issues crop up again later on,” he added, “coaches can always fall back on what was previously addressed. If you don’t properly convey this to parents, you can get yourself into trouble. Communication is always key.”

Moore says the policy with his team is when there’s five minutes or less in a game, and it’s a one-goal game, they want to give the kids a chance to win. However, “when you start doing that in the first and second period, there’s going to be kids who only get a few touches the entire game,” he said. “That happens when coaches get wrapped up in the scoreboard.”

“You typically don’t see a game on the line in the first or second period in a youth hockey game, so shortening the bench early on can get you in trouble, especially if you run a power play or a penalty kill. Typically, your best players are on special teams. This can lead to trouble and playing time gets skewed. I don’t believe you need special teams’ systems until 14U. Focusing on skill development, good habits and playing the right way between 8U and 12U will ultimately produce a better hockey player. There is plenty of time to focus on the scoreboard later.”

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