Watch an interview with any athlete or coach who has just won a major title and you will invariably hear the words “hard work,” “determination” and — nine times out of 10 — “family.” Like any family, sports teams are made up of members with different personalities, different perspectives and different strengths. This can be a challenge (think Christmas dinner table) but, with well-defined family values, these differences can make a family ⎯ and a team ⎯ stronger.
This couldn’t be more true than in hockey. Sports journalists from all over the world have often commented that hockey players are the most humble and the best to interview, because the sport is dominated by players with small-town family values who do not take for granted all that this great sport has provided them. NHL teams considering drafting a player will interview family members, arena staff and school teachers to get a better sense of that player’s character, integrity and values. When coaches recruit players in junior, college and professional hockey, the first questions they ask a former coach pertain to work ethic, respect for teammates, respect for the game, attitude and likeability in the locker room.
Below are what I believe to be the four most important “family” values that not only help to create a successful, cohesive team but also to increase an athlete’s ability to add value — both in the locker room and on the ice.
Family Value 1: Support
Player attitudes, team chemistry and interpersonal dynamics significantly impact an athlete’s performance and that of the entire team. Players who support each other in good times and bad have more success. It’s so true it almost sounds cliché. Optimism in a team setting is contagious and can lead to great achievements. However, one player’s constant negativity can disrupt a balanced team and run the train off its rails. In Simply the Best by Ryan Walter and Mike Johnston, it’s noted that numerous NHL coaches say they deal with “cancers” in the dressing room by simply getting rid of them. Like parents in the home, coaches who celebrate positive behaviour within the team will mould strong individual and collective character.
Family Value 2: Responsibility
With responsibility usually comes trustworthiness, common sense, maturity, reliability and dependability. Sport is amazing in the way that it offers many opportunities to teach young people all of these important character traits. When players follow the rules, it shows they have the necessary commitment required to be athletes. Fair but defined team rules will also help build a strong family/team unit. Some simple but valuable rules may include:
- Keeping the locker room clean (no tape on the floor, etc.). Players must learn it’s their responsibility to contribute to the image and professionalism of the team.
- Making sure showers are off when the last player leaves the dressing room.
- Losing ice time for selfish or undisciplined penalties.
- Never letting a game jersey lie on the floor. Did you know that a Montreal Canadien was once traded for throwing his jersey on the floor? It was seen as a sign of disrespect for the game and for his teammates.
- Carrying your own bag. Young hockey players who carry their own bags are learning small yet significant lessons in responsibility and respect.
Family Value 3: Respect
While working in New York City at the Nightingale-Bamford School, I coached a varsity girls’ soccer team. We had a few players who believed that, as senior students, they were somehow owed something, and it was causing issues amongst the other team members. Their disdain for my unwillingness to grant extra privileges based on their senior status showed in their body language — and in an overall lack of respect for the team, their school and the game of soccer. In some of the greatest hockey players to have ever played the game, I have noticed a common theme. They understand that the game was here long before they started playing, and it will be here long after they are done. Respecting the game — and our families, friends and teammates — above our own egos builds character and successful athletes on and off the ice.
Family Value 4: Mentorship
If you have ever watched a game on a dirt field in a developing country or on an outdoor rink in rural Canada, you will notice kids of all ages and skills playing together. Younger players respect the older players and give all they can to compete and keep up. Older players enjoy their skill and size advantages, but respect the fact that without the younger contingent, they may not have enough players to play. There is rivalry and squabbling, but also an overall understanding that, for the game to happen, they must work with one another. Some parents today worry that if their more experienced player plays on a team with less experienced players, he or she will not “develop” — hence the popularity of highly competitive spring hockey and travel teams. However, it’s important to note that during the current lockout, NHL players around the world are skating with Midget and Junior teams to stay in shape and keep their skills sharp. A few years ago, my colleague, Mike Coflin, was coaching a Peewee skills clinic at a local rink. In walked a 17-year NHL veteran with a bag over his shoulder, who then asked permission to skate with the group. Mike warned him that the kids were just 11-year-olds, but the player said, “No problem, I’ll make it work.” For the next 60 minutes the player trained like a pro, adding moves, dekes and fakes to every rush of the puck. He found his own way to benefit from every Peewee drill. The best team players at any level can focus on their own efforts, skill sets and outcomes while, at the same time, learning to be great leaders.