Watching pro hockey highlights on TV, a young player might get a pretty narrow – and ultimately false – definition of what it means to be “tough.”
The big hits and even the fights are glorified in many cases while those players truly exhibiting toughness toil behind the scenes, helping their teams be successful. Rest assured, though: coaches know the true definition of toughness and laud those players whose effort and mental preparation shine through.
At the 12U level, these characteristics are starting to come into focus – and it’s the players who can develop this kind of true toughness who stand the best chance of taking the steps necessary to improve and grow.
“I think sometimes toughness is overshadowed because people think it’s (all) physical play,” says Casey Jones, the men’s hockey head coach at Clarkson. “We talk about being mentally tough and being committed to the little things as signs of toughness. For our guys, the mental toughness is the consistency of coming to practice and getting better. That can be grueling in the dog days of winter, but it’s crucial to have the self-motivation and toughness to put it out there every time on the ice.”
Gaining the edge to become a tough player is a process that takes place in a smaller space than a tight corner by the net. It’s a process that takes place in the head. It involves understanding that there are parts of your game that need improvement – and that’s OK, as long as you are willing to put in the time to work on them.
“I think the biggest thing for us at the college level is that once players get critical feedback, they need to come up with a game plan and really take that extra time to get on the ice,” Jones says. “The guys you see improving will take that charge and have a good game plan.”
Again, though, that’s easier said than done and speaks to the true nature of toughness. Those who put in the time in practice to become better are the ones who tend to play with more grit and determination in games – hallmarks of a tough player.
“People sometimes don’t give enough credit to training your mind and improving as signs of toughness,” Jones says. “We watch guys improve along the maturation process, where it clicks. Somewhere along the line, good players have been told what their deficiencies are and found ways to improve.”
Giving and Receiving a Message
Ideally, the process of building mental toughness comes both from within and from good interactions with coaches. For a young player to evaluate his or her own performance – not necessarily in terms of goals and assists but in terms of little things like puck battles or effort level – is a key sign of maturation.
“The best players do evaluate themselves. It’s one of the toughest things to teach a young person, but it comes with growth,” Jones says. “They should also always be looking for feedback from coaches to learn how to evaluate themselves – and learning to take the feedback and implement it. What are you doing when a coach isn’t looking? Those are the players who really separate themselves.”
Clearly communicating ways in which youth players can develop this kind of toughness is a difficult but important task.
“It’s all about the way it’s presented. It can’t have an edge to it at the youth level. It’s more like, ‘This is an area you do really well at. Here’s an area I want you to do better at,’” Jones says. “If the message is not delivered right, it’s lost on young kids. Having the patience to deliver messages in the right light is important.”
Hitting Close to Home
Jones has a unique lens into how players mature and become tough on and off the ice. Not only is he in his fifth season as Clarkson’s head coach, but also he has a 13-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son involved in youth hockey.
Helping them both develop the mental edge needed to be tough players is a work in progress, Jones says, and certainly requires a different set of soft skills than coaching his own older players.
“I wait for them to ask me questions, but I think what they’ve learned is that they have to be prepared for practice to get the most out of it,” Jones says. “I stress that they should try to take the lead with their teammates and be mentally prepared for practice so they can improve. It has to be fun, but there has to be a focus when they play.”
That type of toughness won’t make it onto most highlight shows, but it will help your child succeed, and it will help them mature as a person.