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14U/16U: Unlocking Mental Fortitude

01/28/2022, 1:00pm MST
By Michael Caples

Often times it's mental skills that truly separate players from the competition

Throughout his coaching career, Adam Nightingale has worked with the top hockey players in their age group, ranging from 14U all the way to the NHL.

It would be easy to state the physical skills that put his players above the rest. In their age group, they are certainly the best skaters, the best shooters, the best defenders. Their mental skills, however, is what truly separates them from the competition.

In Olympic hockey years, there is talk of competing with the Olympic spirit or having the Olympian’s mindset. It’s about the drive to be the best version of yourself on the ice, and while that requires mastery of skill, a player’s mental fortitude and commitment is the key to being a great hockey player.

Being Where Your Feet Are

Nightingale, the head coach of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Under-18 Team, has seen what mental skills separate players at the 14U level (as a head coach with Shattuck-St. Mary’s) all the way up to the NHL (as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings).

“I think it's their ability to focus on the now and not get caught up,” Nightingale said. “I think we live in a world where you're constantly looking to what's next and just kind of being where your feet are, and that's really challenging. I think it's something you have to work at, and hopefully people around you encourage you to have that mindset. Even with our guys here at the NTDP, we talk about how tomorrow will take care of itself, we’ve got to take care of today, and just having that grounded mindset that the only thing you can control is your effort and gratitude for what's going on right now.”

Adversity at Every Level

Nightingale continued with talk of how a grounded mindset helps a player handle adversity — you will face a lot of it in your rise through the hockey ranks.

“If you want to be an elite player, the reality is it's not a straight path. Development is not a straight upward path, there's going to be adversity, there's going to be challenges, there's going to be low points, and there's going to be injuries. How you handle all of those things really impacts your ability to fully develop to your potential. I think that's really important. 

“You turn the TV on, you see the guys who play in the NHL, it wasn't a straight path for them. Even the best guys, there are points in their career, maybe they’re 14U/16U, and they got an injury. How do you handle that? Or maybe they're not playing as much as they want or the puck’s not going into the net. Our sport is a game that, mistakes happen, it's how you react to them.”

Ownership in Development

Parents provide the resources a player needs, while coaches share their knowledge to help them advance. However, the responsibility is on the player to make the most of their opportunities.

“We have a quote right where the NTDP players walk in and we talk about it a lot: ‘Take responsibility for your development.’ At the end of the day, taking ownership and understanding that if this is my passion, and this is what I want to do, I'm responsible for it and hopefully I have people around me that care about me and push me and are honest with me.

“[Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill] had a quote. I remember him talking to a group of players, and I really liked what he said: ‘The player determines the route, the route doesn't determine the player.’ I think that's so true in our game. Sometimes we think that every decision we make — we play for this team or play for this coach or go to this hockey camp, like this is a mathematical equation. Really, it comes down to the player and if they are determined and committed and they have the athletic ability the goal will be achieved.”

Be Like Larkin

Dylan Larkin is a popular player to discuss. Nightingale worked with the Red Wings captain and former NTDP star back when Larkin suited up for Team USA at the World Juniors, and then again in Hockeytown for three seasons. Larkin’s mental approach to the game is why he has lived out a Michigan native’s dream: playing for the NTDP, the University of Michigan and the Red Wings.

“I’ve known him for quite a while. The words ‘inner drive’ get thrown out about people and you’ve got to have this ‘inner drive.’ When you're around someone like him, you see that drive that is at a world-class level. I think where he's really good is that he's never satisfied. 

“I talked to our guys about Larks. He's a winning hockey player, he's constantly working at his craft. You know, whether it be his shot, his skating, his face-offs, his defensive play, his leadership, all those things that he does at a great level, he's constantly, constantly working. He doesn't beat himself up if it doesn't go well. Then it's back, have a good day the next day, and I think that's what makes Larks special.”

Be Selfless

Nightingale reminds all hockey players that adversity is coming, and it’s important to learn how to handle it, both for your life in hockey and your life outside the rink.

“All of us will face adversity at one point or another in our lives, so you know that it’s coming, and you have to be prepared to handle it,” he said. “One of the biggest things I really love about the sport of hockey is it's a team sport, and understanding that it's not about you, it's about the team. I think when you get into the real world, as far as when you're done playing and having a family and understanding that concept that you need that selfless approach that it's not about me, it's about the team. When things don't go well, how am I going to help? How am I going to help the team? How am I going to pick myself back up? 

“Positives and growth come from adversity. How do I get myself through this? And how do I get my team through it? I'm super thankful for my experience as a player. Going through adversity, I think it's helped me to be a better coach, a better employee, a better father, a better husband — there are a ton of positives.”

Passion & Perspective

He also reminds players to keep things in perspective. Give it your all, but also remember that you’re doing and playing something you love.

“I'm a big believer that we all have a passion for the sport, and perspective is really important too, because it can get hyper charged and everyone wants to achieve their dreams. 

“At the end of the day for anyone that's able to play this sport, there's a lot of sacrifice that goes into it, and sometimes we can lose that. Be appreciative of the opportunity, whether you're playing house league, or you're playing AAA or high school or juniors or pro, I think just have that perspective. Man, we’re fortunate just to have our health, and I think when you're in that mindset, when you face what we call adversity in sports, it's really, really not that bad compared to what some people have as far as real adversity.”

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Tag(s): ADM Features