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14U/16U: It’s OK to Not Feel OK

03/20/2023, 10:45am MDT
By Michael Rand

Human Development Before Player Development

As conversations about mental health have become more mainstream and the topic has become de-stigmatized, it has naturally filtered down to the world of sports.

Hockey, which is so good at teaching life lessons, has added another to the list by welcoming discussions on mental health at the youth levels.

Dan Jablonic, a player development manager for USA Hockey, provided details in a recent interview on how the topic is playing out in both on-ice and off-ice situations.

On the Ice

Jablonic has had a leading role in his district’s hockey director course in recent years, where experts on mental health and social-emotional health have been brought in to help 14U and 16U players.

“How can we give skills to coaches and players to deal with things like when a bad shift happens? How can you reset, reflect, and go tackle going back out again with the right mindset?” Jablonic says. “Through simple breathing techniques we set kids up to have a chance. You make a mistake, how do you find a way to come back in those 2-3 minutes while reflecting on the bench before going back out.”

Off the Ice

More importantly, there is an increased emphasis on ‘checking in’ on how fellow teammates and coaches are doing. It can be as simple as asking them to rate where they are at, mindset-wise, on a 1-5 scale (from worst day ever to best day ever).

“If you have a kid who’s a 4.3, I know I can push that player in practice and they’re ready to go,” he says. “But if you have a player say, ‘I’m a 1 today,’ and they have a tough situation at school or at home. Maybe that player shouldn’t be on the ice that day.”

Those check-ins can make a big difference.

“That’s why you have a staff, so you have the time connecting with that player. It’s human development first before you can have player development,” Jablonic says. “If we aren’t focused on that first, it doesn’t work. If you have relationships, you find out where your players are at.”

Health Is Health

Part of what can make mental health challenges difficult from an outside perspective is that they often are harder to see than a physical malady. But that doesn’t make them any less real, which is part of the work being done to de-stigmatize mental health and make it a priority across sports and in larger society.

“If a player has a sore wrist or sore ankle, it’s tough to shoot or skate. But it should be no different if something is bothering them,” Jablonic says. “It’s letting everybody know that it’s OK to not feel OK. That’s an important message to let people know that we care about you as a person first. It’s not to play doctor but to get the right help if it’s needed.”

An Evolving Conversation

Jablonic notes that mental health isn’t the sort of thing that was part of mainstream hockey or sports culture in the not-too-distant past.

“It wasn’t addressed back in the day. In today’s world, with everything thrown at these kids, we owe it to kids to be as inclusive as possible. It’s important to set these kids up to succeed. There is a lot going on,” he says. “The mindset is shifting. There are not too many coaches nowadays who would refuse that sort of thought.”

USA Hockey is not alone in having these conversations around the rink. Individual associations are addressing mental health issues, while non-profit organizations like Sophie’s Squad – started after a 14-year-old hockey player took her own life – are making a widespread impact.

“I’m excited to see where we go with this as it’s a relatively newer topic,” Jablonic says. “How can we be better? What are ways we can bring awareness to it to make sure the needs of all our players and coaches are met?”

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