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Fostering a team-first environment

By Mike Doyle, 12/27/17, 10:45AM MST

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Coaches must work hard to ensure players can gain the many health and physical benefits of participating in youth sports

Alongside the many health and physical benefits of participating in youth sports, playing a team game like hockey can help with a child’s social development. Hockey and being a part of a team can help teach kids how to respect others, be selfless, create goals and forge lifelong friendships.

However, it’s important for coaches to create and foster a team-first environment, or culture, so that children can acquire these attributes.

Rick Trupp, USA Hockey’s Alaska District coach-in-chief, has been coaching youth hockey in the nation’s northernmost state for decades. He shared some insights on how to teach youngsters to be better team players.

Communication is key

Sometimes coaching can seem like one-way communication with the bench boss barking out orders. However, allowing players to have a voice in the locker room can give insight into what they’re thinking and also make them more comfortable in a team environment.

“A good team approach is making sure everyone has a voice in the locker room and there’s respect amongst everybody,” Trupp said. “Allowing the team to ask questions and hear everyone in the room about their thoughts.”

Many teams participate in team-building exercises before and during the season. Make an effort during these off-ice sessions to allow for every player to give input, especially those who might be a little shy. 

“We encourage communication, and for those who are less likely to talk, to be in the spotlight and feel comfortable in different surroundings talking in those situations,” Trupp said. “As a part of the team-building process, get teammates to learn about each other. The more that players can learn about one another and not have discomfort in the locker room, the quicker your team can grow and appreciate each other and build a stronger bond,” Trupp said.

Additionally, Trupp hosts chalk talks away from the rink. It’s the coaching staff’s responsibility to get participation from every player so they are not only engaged, but also feel like they can contribute to the conversation.

Learn to play with others

Sometimes, chemistry on the ice is instant and unmistakable. Think of some of the great combinations in hockey history: Gretzky and Kurri; Hull and Oates; the Production Line; the French Connection; and the KLM line. Regardless of how certain players might jive, it’s important for teammates to move around and skate with other players.

“Take the opportunity to have every player play, in some fashion, with every other player on the team, to build that team cohesiveness and chemistry,” Trupp said. “As you do that, there’s an appreciation of the other players and learning about them from a standpoint of playing with them. It also encourages conversation between the players that they otherwise wouldn’t normally have. That helps break up any cliques you might have on the team.”

Trupp believes that players gain the most when they have to learn to cope with new circumstances.   

“My philosophy is you really want to grow the player and the player really grows when they are put into different situations,” Trupp shared. “So, playing with all players, they learn how to react to a different style or another player’s personality.”

Though switching lines and positions through the season may create some rough patches, it will teach players lessons that will last beyond a year of hockey.

“Sometimes the team isn’t as successful when they’re playing with different players and there’s not a lot of flow that comes from that, but you try to hone that in near the end of the year where you have a little more consistency to develop that chemistry and comfort level,” Trupp said. “The rest of the year is about developing and [playing alongside other teammates] is part of a player’s growth.”

Setting goals

Getting youngsters to grasp the concept of a coach’s team-first culture can be difficult. Setting goals is one way coaches can get players on the same page, moving together toward a common objective.

“Every team is going to be different, but you have to get them to buy into a common goal or ideology of what you want to accomplish,” Trupp said. Set goals for a team at the start of the year. Have players set individual goals and see how they contribute to your common team goals. That’s one way of getting them to speak up or agree on where they need to go.”

Again, creating an environment where communication is open will help your team to get on the same page. Rather than giving a rousing speech before every game, Trupp said coaches can allow players to, “share their goals before a game and so they have to communicate that to everybody in the room.”

Rituals as reminders 

As players get older and more serious about the sport, they increasingly become creatures of habit. Creating a routine can be a good cue to remind players of a team’s philosophy.

“We have a ritual with our pucks set up before a game in a pyramid,” Trupp said. “We start with five pucks on the bottom and build the pucks up to a pyramid. The five pucks represent five key things we like to think are important that we want to display every day.”

His team’s five C’s are: Caring, Commitment, Compete, Character and Courage. Each “C” is a pillar each player wants to exhibit for themselves and their team. The team frames their conversations on being respectful for each other and showing up with the same common elements.

“The pyramid of pucks is the symbolism for what we stand for,” Trupp said. “Whether it’s at practice or a game, it’s what we base our season on. It doesn’t have anything to do with skills; it’s about being a good teammate and what we’d like to accomplish as a team

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