In the same vein as the philosophical question of whether a tree falling in a forest still makes a sound if nobody is around to hear it is this one that relates to much of how 2020 has played out:
Is it possible to have a fear of missing out – FOMO, for shorthand – if nothing is, in fact, actually happening?
That hypothetical finds a real-life application in the world of hockey. Countless players and families at the 14U and 16U level have been in a holding pattern in recent months in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic – unable to work out on the ice or in the gym, worrying they will fall behind and generating anxiety over their status.
To those who are worried, Rod Braceful – assistant director of player personnel for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program – has some reassuring words: DON’T WORRY. Use this time to the best of your ability. You can’t fall behind if nobody is getting ahead.
“I would say obviously parents and players are worried,” he said. “But everyone is in the same spot.”
Embrace the Relative Calm
For players in the 14-16-year-old range who have been on skates since they could walk, being off the ice for several months is jarring.
“Quite frankly this is the first time for most if not all that they’ve taken a break from hockey this long. Even players that are multi-sport athletes or play spring sports, they would still get out and skate now and again,” Braceful said. “I think being completely away has put their mind in a different place.”
But different doesn’t mean bad. If families are able to use this time as a chance to recharge and be together, they can turn a negative into a positive.
“If anything, parents and players should just try to use the time to their advantage. We don’t usually get this time,” Braceful said. “Normally we’re on the go-go-go, so now that we don’t have that it’s important to focus on the things that are valuable. Family time is important. It’s usually a rat race. That has slowed down quite a bit.”
Do What You Can Do
That said, Braceful also recognizes there is a limit to self-reflection and down time even if it is valuable.
For those itching to stay connected to hockey, Braceful says he has enjoyed watching past NHL games on NHL.com – a free resource that has let many examine games in ways they might not have done previously. He also recommends HockeyTV.com, which offers free replays of junior games from around the United States and Canada.
“There were a ton of players and families who got to watch some of their own games and then some other levels they’re striving to get to,” Braceful said. “At 14U and 16U they really start speaking and thinking about junior hockey. Thinking of the USHL, they’re not able to get out and watch those games during the year. It’s important to watch those games online – to see where the players are coming from, how good is that league, to give them a better understanding.”
From a training standpoint, Braceful has been blown away by the quality of training videos from seasoned professionals posting on YouTube, Instagram and other platforms, including USA Hockey’s Training at Home guide, compiled by USA Hockey director of sport science Brian Galivan.
“These guys are expensive trainers and they’re showing modified workouts you can do with bands and a towel,” Braceful said. “Those are things you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”
Perhaps the best way to calm anxiety is to feel like you have a measure of control over a situation. That comes from information, and there are a couple ways to get that even when everyone is off the ice.
First, Braceful notes that technology has made it possible not just for teams to stay connected but for coaches and recruits to build relationships during the pandemic.
“Kids are able to communicate quicker than before with things like Skype, FaceTime and Zoom. It’s at your fingertips. It’s not dial-up internet that I grew up with,” Braceful said. “For the kids that were already in the recruiting process they’ve been able to use this time to get to know coaches better.”
Braceful also recommends that players and families research teams and leagues for which they are interested in playing to see how they might fit. Print out rosters, look at average ages of incoming freshmen and hometowns.
“It’s good for families and kids as they continue to grow to discuss things and make sure they’re making the right decisions for themselves,” Braceful said.
Be Ready for When Your Time Comes
But perhaps most importantly: know that this is temporary. Some rinks have already opened, and at some point in the not-too-distant future something resembling normal – or at least a new normal – will return.
If you’ve done what you can during this downtime to position yourself to hit the ice running, you’ll have the best chance to make an impact when your time comes, Braceful says. That’s a recurring message within the NTDP – a program that draws elite players from around the country.
“If you make popcorn the old-fashioned way on the stove, all the kernels pop at separate times. Your turn to pop is going to come. It’s true especially in the game of hockey,” said Braceful, noting that a lot of young superstars draw attention but the NHL is full of grinders who stuck it out, improved and found the right fit. “I know we had a couple former NTDP players who are in the NHL now and they spoke to our groups about the developmental path. It was beneficial for kids to hear from players at that level. It puts it in perspective that you have to be ready.”