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The Art of Coaching: Environment, Relationships & Growth

By Mike Doyle, 07/26/23, 4:15PM MDT


How a Gold Medal Coach Reaches Every Player

In youth sports, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for coaches when it comes to getting the best out of their players. Each kid is different with varying interests, desires and motivations. Some want to make it to the pros; some are just there to hang with their buddies. Regardless of the reasons they are participating, it’s the coach’s job to try to draw the best out of them.

“I was just talking to another coach about the ‘easy people to coach’ or the ‘easy people to teach,’” said David Hoff, USA Hockey Northern Plains District Coach-In-Chief and head coach of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. “It’s easy to make people who are good at something feel good. But the challenge to me in coaching is, how do you reach player 15, 16, 17?”

Read More: 2022 Paralympic Coach of the Year David Hoff: “We Have So Much Room to Grow”

Hoff is also a long-time math teacher. He’s taken a lot of the lessons learned in the classroom and applied them to the locker room.

“I think a team is so representative to a classroom and how there’s 15 or 20 kids in a class and how it’s up to us to try and make connections with each of those individuals and try to find their best way of learning,” said Hoff. “To me that is the biggest challenge, recognizing that each person in that locker room is different and how we try to connect with those individuals.” 

Creating the Environment

For Hoff, it’s all about making the rink, or classroom, a place where kids can learn, grow and thrive.

“It’s my philosophy when it comes to teaching, but it’s also my philosophy when it comes to coaching: it’s up to us to create an environment where people want to be,” said Hoff.

Obviously, the motivations change depending on the age of a kid. What makes an 18-year-old tick is a world away from an 8-year-old. Regardless of age, it’s tough for younger athletes to excel in spaces they don’t enjoy.

“If you want to motivate someone, you’ve got to create an environment where they want to be. Create an environment where they feel valued. Where they feel important,” said Hoff.

Connecting With Your Players

So, how do you get players to feel valued? Hoff said it’s up to coaches to get to know each individual on the team. This will not only make the player’s experience better, it will be beneficial for the coach too.

“It comes back to finding out what motivates kids, and everyone is different,” Hoff said. “But everyone wants to perform well or be recognized for playing well, doing something correctly.”

Coaches and teachers face obstacles when trying to connect with their players. Even though no two kids are exactly the same, they are lumped together to learn curriculum in the same setting. Education is often a one-size-fits all approach.

“Part of it is the way schools are designed. But it’s the way practices and teams are designed too. So how do you take a team setting or a classroom setting and still individualize it?” Hoff asks. “And make it about individual people and not just the collective group of 15 or 20 in a classroom or team.”

Getting to know how a kid will take feedback is a good way become a better coach. If a player gets frustrated or loses interest in the message, you may have to change your approach with that player.

“That’s the art of knowing kids,” Hoff said. “It’s on us as the person delivering it – to make sure that feedback is given in a way that we know where the kid wants to be, we know where we believe the kid can be, but how does that kid take that feedback and make themselves better?”

Lessons Off the Ice

Of course, the youth coach’s job does not end when the horn blows. Coaches are also responsible for helping teach their players lessons they can take with them for the rest of their lives.

Sportsmanship, fair play, respect for opponents and officials, and responsibilities for themselves and their teammates are all lessons coaches are tasked with passing along.

“What does our team or program stand for? It has to be more than hockey. Because if our relationships with kids are based on hockey, those are pretty shallow relationships,” Hoff said. “So, the opportunity to teach more than hockey has to be present. Because that’s when you get growth in individuals.”

Again, creating the environment plays a crucial role in developing our young players into productive people. Are you modeling respect in interactions with opposing coaches and officials? Are you setting rules in the locker room, like cleaning up and throwing away used tape balls? Are you making sure your players are not picking on teammates or being disrespectful around the rink?

“I think those opportunities are so important. And more important than the hockey side of things because we are developing people first and the hockey player second,” Hoff said.

Lighting a Fire

Hoff said that he feels like being a motivator is much more a part of the job than it used to be. But the best results will come out of respect and trust built on the relationships between players and coach.

“I often think about it, if a kid sits in my classroom or in the locker room on my team and they’re 90% in, how can I get them to be their absolute best?” Hoff asks. “If they don’t feel 100% valued in that locker room, then that’s on me. If that’s the case, there’s no way I’m going to get the best out of a kid. 

“So much comes back to creating an environment where people feel valued. When that happens, you have the chance for someone to be their absolute best.”

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