When Ben Frank went to a symposium five years ago on USA Hockey’s American Development Model approach to youth hockey, he had what he calls a “life-altering” experience.
Everything about the message being delivered resonated and made him want to change the way he was running his youth teams in Southern California’s Wildcats Hockey Club.
So Frank, a former college hockey player, scrapped his traditional approach in which he had his 10U and 12U players doing many of the same drills he used to do. Instead, in the middle of the season, he implemented the types of practices encouraged by the ADM.
He was thrilled – but he also met some resistance.
“I had to spend a lot of time justifying it,” said Frank. “My parent group didn’t understand what I was doing.”
In the process, he learned a valuable lesson:
When trying to build a strong culture within a team and eventually an entire club – from top to bottom, everyone from coaches to rink managers to volunteers – it’s not just about having good ideas. You must also create a consistent way to deliver that message.
“You need to get everyone on the same page and understand different stakeholders have different reasons. Getting them on board is number one because if you don’t, you’ll have problems,” he said. “If everyone can agree on the goal and their role in supporting that role, that’s when you succeed.”
As the president of Wildcats Hockey Club these days, Frank spends a lot of time thinking about how to communicate those messages. Here are some of his best tips for creating a cohesive club:
Two-way communication is key
Frank says starting conversations about the vision for the club might be uncomfortable at times, but it’s critical to bring it to different stakeholders to make sure they understand the mission.
“What I’d say is the most important thing is going to be communication – two-way communication,” he said. “Getting people to have conversations around what the vision is, and what the end goal is. That conversation is going to be different for each role.”
That last part is an important distinction because while the mission should be unified, the way each stakeholder can help might be different.
“Let’s say the culture is that you want to move toward the ADM, age-appropriate programming. There are reasons for different roles and how they would support them is different,” Frank said.
“I go to my rink owners and talk about why we should be ADM rinks.”
“If I’m talking to the coaching staff, it’s about player development, becoming a better team.”
“If I’m talking to parents, I talk about their kids in the long term, years from now, doing the right things now.”
“With board members, it’s a conversation more around the bigger picture of what they want to stand for and bring to the community.”
The ‘why,’ not just the ‘what’
If you’re trying to implement a system, it’s particularly important to emphasize the method – lest it sound like madness to those who have become familiar or comfortable with other designs.
“Things like the ADM that are all positive, based on research and sports science, we know it’s right,” Frank said. “But if someone doesn’t understand it and why it’s important, you might get an argument.”
Explaining the method helps avoid pushback in the long run and gets everyone back on the same page if things start to veer off course.
“Everyone is excited and then someone gets caught up in the middle of the season with wanting to work systems to win a particular game,” Frank added. “We come back to what we agree to. It’s not about the weekend, it’s about the long-term … It’s easy to be focused on coaching your team, but in my opinion it’s a very important leadership position. We have a responsibility to those kids to do the right thing.”
Know your audience
Frank was asked if it’s more difficult to sell the development model to coaches, parents and kids at younger levels since there is a perception of delayed gratification when the goal is long-term success instead of short-term gains.
But he says it’s easier to deliver the message to those newer to the club – whereas those who have played in other systems might need more convincing.
“For a new parent who is newer to club or travel hockey (without preconceived ideas), it makes sense to them that their 8-year-old should have fun and have an age-appropriate hockey experience, as long as you’re clear and up front right away. Some of the people that have been part of a different culture for years already, it can be harder to change their mind,” Frank said. “It’s so important to know your audience. With an 8U group, it might be a different message than for an older group.”
If you can pull it off, though, the payoff is huge in Frank’s eyes.
“The ADM completely changed our club culture with retention and enjoyment and growth,” he said. “For me and the staff, everyone feels great about what they do every day.
“It’s easy to get stuck in the old culture, but when you redefine the decision about what’s best for athletes long-term and not just trying to win games now, we know that’s going to help us win down the road and develop better players.”