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12U: Developing Gritty Players

11/03/2021, 11:15am MDT
By Michael Caples

What it takes – and what it shouldn’t – to be a gritty hockey player

Dr. Amber Fryklund knows a thing or two about the word ‘grit’ as a player and a coach. After establishing scoring records at Bemidji State that still stand today, Fryklund worked her way up the coaching ranks before spending nine seasons as an assistant coach for her alma mater. While she was doing all that, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Bemidji State, a master’s degree from Minnesota Duluth and a doctorate from St. Cloud State. 

“I would define a gritty hockey player as someone who works hard, has a passion for the game and when is presented with a challenge they look at that challenge as an opportunity to grow,” Fryklund said.

“They’re willing to just be one of the hardest workers.”

Culture of Success (and Failure)

Fryklund, now an assistant professor of human performance, sport and health at Bemidji State, knows what it takes – and what it shouldn’t – to be labeled a gritty hockey player.

“I was reading some stuff recently and it talked about fighting and being a little bit aggressive in a negative way,” said Fryklund, who spoke at USA Hockey’s Level 5 Coaches Symposium this past August. “That’s definitely not grit. That’s not what I would want to see in a hockey player.”

Fryklund says it’s all about the environment coaches and parents create for their players.

“I think, first and foremost, it’s the culture you create with your program,” Fryklund said. “Embracing a positive culture, but not being afraid to have your players experience disappointment or failures. Not protecting them from those failures; I think it’s very important that you cultivate an environment where players feel comfortable to make mistakes and they understand that’s a part of hockey.

“We all know hockey is a hard sport. We know hockey is very complex and I think sometimes young athletes can get frustrated. It’s really important that coaches cultivate that environment where players experience success, both individually and as a team, but also that they’re able to experience those failures. Having those conversations and talking about what it means to persevere through those – how do you take those opportunities, those challenges and opportunities to grow and be better? I think it’s important that you don’t protect players from failure but you also make sure that they’re experiencing success and then celebrating that success.”

Small Area Grit

That culture can be established in practice – especially through small-area games. Putting players in tight spaces forces them to make quick decisions, use body contact and battle along the boards for every inch of space.

“Small-area games are incredible opportunities for a variety of different reasons, including developing competitive players,” Fryklund said. “You can keep score – maybe not even keeping score of goals, but whatever it is that you’re working on that day. Maybe the goal of a particular game is making passes, keeping possession, producing or limiting scoring chances.”


Grit doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet.

“Often times, we measure success by the goals scored or the stat sheet, but there’s so much more that goes into that,” Fryklund said. “As a parent or coach, celebrating hard work and teamwork and the little things. Not taking anything away from the players who have points and score goals, but really highlighting players who have overcome, made progress, contributed in different ways. How about that great forced turnover and first pass that started a transition? Or winning a board battle in the offensive zone? It’s important to highlight these things where you’re giving feedback that’s positive about the things they do, that don’t show up on the scoreboard.”

Most importantly, establishing a gritty mindset in your hockey player sets them up for success away from the rink, as well. 

“Not everyone makes it to the National Hockey League, Premier Hockey Federation or the Olympics,” Fryklund said. “Being part of a hockey team gives you so many opportunities for personal growth, learning teamwork, perseverance and accountability. When employers are looking to hire people, they want to hire athletes. They want to hire former athletes because they know how to work hard, they know how to work with a team, they know how to cooperate and they have that grit, that determination and passion for what they do.”

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