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Learning Hockey’s Soft Skills

08/10/2017, 1:05pm MDT
By Jessi Pierce - Special to USAHockey.com

Ask Gretchen Ulion-Silverman what she remembers about winning the 1998 Olympic gold medal – or any moment in her hockey career – and you’ll be surprised to hear it has little to do with the victories, medals or honors.

In fact, it has little to do with the actual sport at all.

“When people want to know about the Olympics, they’re really most interested in the medal and what it felt like to have the medal put around your neck,” said Ulion-Silverman, now head coach of the girls varsity team at Taft School in Connecticut. “It’s interesting because, even without the medal, my experience of the Olympics goes to every other aspect: the stories in the locker room, the jokes and the fun we had together.

“Yes, we succeeded, and yes, we won a gold medal, but at the end of the day, it’s not about the trophy or the medal. It’s about all of the fun you had to get there.”

Similarly, players at the younger age levels shouldn’t be focused solely on the outcome of one game or season. While striving for success and improvement is important, at 10U, the real importance lies in everything else a child is learning by being on the ice – especially the lessons and experiences they can take with them off it.

Social Skills and Friendships

Friendships are formed quickly, and oftentimes effortlessly, on the ice and in the locker room. Ask any player at any level and the majority of them will tell you that some of their best and lifelong friends remain those they met in youth hockey. For most, it’s why they continue to play hockey at any age.

“You form these friendships unlike any other,” said Ulion-Silverman. “Especially as you’re learning the game together, you’re naturally going to have a bond with your teammates. But they become so much more than just teammates. They really do become some of your best friends. They become your family.”

Confidence

It’s not easy to get on the ice with a pair of skates. Kids fall down … a lot. But they also get back up again.

By 10U, players have been through their fair share of ups and downs on the ice. Skating struggles, stickhandling hitches and overall snags are a part of learning the game. But what all of those challenges are really teaching them is resilience and confidence off the ice, too.

“Teams create an atmosphere where kids can try new things and be creative,” Ulion-Silverman explained. “More importantly, they can fail in a safe space surrounded by teammates and coaches who are supportive. There’s that great opportunity to develop a confidence that comes from having tried, having failed and having tried again, and finding that success through all of those struggles.”

Teammates inspire and support one another and coaches encourage players to be creative in small-area games. By having the safety net of a team around them, players are building confidence in their skills, and in themselves.

Communication

Hockey’s team dynamics help players learn a new way to communicate with one another. Encouraging each other on the bench, listening to linemates on the ice and heeding a coach’s advice in the locker room teaches 10U players to listen and communicate effectively in a group setting.

“At 10U, you’re learning how to listen to a coach and how to take what they’re saying and try to incorporate that into your game and into your life,” said Ulion-Silverman. “It’s listening and communicating with your teammates and learning how to do that as well.”

Leadership

Leadership at 10U is about more than just wearing the ‘C’ or being the most skilled player on the ice. At this age, leadership can be found in many forms.

“In hockey, you definitely learn both the roles of leaders and followers, and how the two roles work hand in hand,” Ulion-Silverman said. “Truthfully, the roles are reversed often, especially at the younger ages. Not everyone is going to be in the limelight and be the front-and-center leader. But how you find your role in a position elsewhere on the team is just as important. Many times you’ll find out how to be a locker room leader or a bench leader. Being a part of that is just as important to any player coming up, not only from a hockey team standpoint, but from a life standpoint, too.”

Learning how to lead will transfer back to a player’s confidence, and how a player works with others. Whether they find themselves the leader of the pack, or one of the members, they are able to navigate some type of leadership role within that setting.

Teamwork

Without question one of the most important lessons players can learn in hockey is the power of teamwork. Without the entire machine of a team working together, the system fails – a valuable life lesson for age 10 and beyond.

“Hockey is obviously a team sport, so I think the lessons that kids learn from celebrating their own successes to weathering the storm of setbacks can be cushioned with the support and camaraderie of a team,” Ulion-Silverman said. “In any aspect of life you’ll find yourself working toward a team goal, whether that’s a school project where you are grouped together with classmates, or down the road when you’re employed.

“Teamwork is what moves the team forward. Learning how to be a part of that teamwork is what will help propel a player forward in many aspects of life, too.”

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