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Building character, commitment and camaraderie

11/17/2016, 3:00pm MST
By Blake Schuster - Special to USA Hockey

At 14U/16U and beyond, players must decide how committed they want to be to hockey. And while it adds a new air of excitement to the sport, it also carries challenges both inside and outside of the rink, which require more introspection than most players have yet to experience.

Specifically, it comes down to making smart choices about the people you surround yourself with, the stuff you put into your body and your focus on excelling as an athlete. As benign a task as it may seem, these matters become increasingly complicated as players get older.

John LaFontaine has coached at Minnesota prep school powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary’s and now leads the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the United States Hockey League. On the topic of teaching players how to make positive decisions, for the most part, there are no cookie-cutter answers. Every player is different. So what he advises instead is for the players to truthfully reflect on themselves.

Asking yourself the right questions

“With the world we live in, there’s a lot of distractions, that’s for sure,” LaFontaine said. “There’s a lot of things that can steer people in the wrong direction.”

The first step to staying on a healthy path, and keeping the right people in your life, comes from three questions LaFontaine asks his players to deeply consider:

  • What is your passion?
  • What are your your goals?
  • How do you stay focused on working towards those goals?

Answering these questions is vital to moving one’s career forward in a positive way, and eases the temptation of a variety of vices or distractions outside the rink.

“We put so much stress and focus on kids that it becomes, ‘You’ve got to present yourself in a way to get attention,’” LaFontaine said. “‘Twitter this and Facebook that.’ You get disappointed with that focus because that’s not what life is about.”

Being a better teammate

To illustrate the importance of what life and hockey is about, LaFontaine tends to focus on the culture inside his locker room – making sure he knows his players personally, and that his players know each other the same way.

“We want you to understand what it means to be a teammate and understand what it means to care about others instead of only yourself,” LaFontaine said. “That means being in the right place and doing the right things.”

LaFontaine quickly learns which players will look him in the eye when speaking to them, which ones carry themselves with confidence and which ones are struggling to get out of their comfort zones. That’s why he advocates teaching players how to learn about each other, imparting the same values they should look for in friends in and outside of hockey.

“There are some players that have so much confidence it’s scary,” LaFontaine said. “They learn to just take care of number one, so their focus is a bit different. You need to learn humility and sacrifice.”

He says the key is to make sure players have an agenda to get to know each other, especially as some 16-year-olds begin to flourish on the ice and can end up on teams with players two-to-four years older than them.

Build healthy habits

The final issue LaFontaine covers with his players is how to create a beneficial schedule when they are given increased freedom.

“There has to be structure,” LaFontaine said. “If you play for this team, what are the expectations of you to stay on the right track? Eating right, getting your right amount of sleep, preparing the right way, coming to practice focused so that you can get better at practice.”

A lot of it comes down to trust. If players are setting good goals, acting as good teammates and keeping a tight circle of friends, there is less cause for worry.

For LaFontaine, that’s the end goal.

“As they get older, you’re going to let them see if they can handle responsibility,” LaFontaine said. “You want them to be able to handle responsibility.”

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