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Does Your Child Have Swagger?

02/17/2016, 1:00pm MST
By Michael Rand - Special to USA Hockey

You’d be surprised how much you’re saying even when your lips aren’t moving.

This goes for anyone in any walk of life, but it is particularly true for hockey players. Body language on and off the ice – for both youth hockey players and their parents – is just as important as spoken language.

In fact, it might be even more important.

“When you talk about body language and non-verbal communication, 70 to 80 percent of communication is non-verbal,” said Adam Naylor, a faculty member at Boston University and a sports psychologist who has worked with hockey families for more than 15 years. “It almost doesn’t matter what we say or what we do but what we show.”

For the 14U/16U age group (and parents), that can mean a lot of different things. Let’s discuss them here with the help of Naylor.

Only Hurting Yourself

Many of us are unaware of the messages we’re communicating with our body language. And within that lack of self-awareness there is this: While some might tend to think of body language in terms of how it is perceived by others, Naylor is quick to point out that there is a deeper individual impact at play.

“Body language is one of those funky things where our emotions can shape our body language and vice-versa: our body language can shape our emotions. We usually don’t appreciate that blend, if you will,” he said. “So I always tell players to go beyond what they look like to others. How will your body language feed your performance?”

So a player who hangs his or her head after a bad goal might actually be feeding his or her own negative performance just as much as sending bad signals to teammates. Conversely, good body language – “some might call it swagger,” Naylor said – has the opposite and positive effect.

“To me, there’s so much more than putting a fake smile on it,” he says. “I always talk about that with hockey teams: how do you spread emotions. I think it’s just awareness and knowing the performance benefits.”

Parents Take Heed

Good body language before games, after games and in the stands is also critical for parents. They’re sending valuable messages to their kids – and again, much of it is non-verbal.

“For parents, I think the big part of it is communication. For the most part, parents are pretty good at saying the right things,” Naylor said. “But when a kid looks up in the stands and sees their parents cheering and cringing at the same time, they don’t hear the cheers. They see the cringe. … When the kids are skating on the ice, half the time they don’t know what their parents are saying. They just know it’s loud and noisy.”

The same holds true for delivering a message after a game, according to Naylor. He is his own critic in this regard because he says his own graduate students think he hates their presentations because he often has a pensive look that they take as a negative.

“In some ways, it doesn’t matter what we say it’s how we relay it,” he said. “If your arms are crossed and you’re scrunched up and you say, ‘Ah, you tried hard today,’ your kid doesn’t hear that. The kid hears that there’s something (negative) going on here. The key to communication is matching up your body language with your message. That’s the parental challenge.”

Get Noticed for the Right Reasons

As much as Naylor stresses the impact of body language on the individual young player, he also stresses that it does give off signals to others – notably coaches and scouts who might hold a lot of influence over a player’s career.

So what is bad body language showing those people in power?

“It typically shows a lack of resilience. If someone makes a mistake you don’t want to see them smiling and goofing off, but pouting and skating away isn’t good either,” Naylor said. “I think sometimes we do that because we think it shows, ‘Hey look, I care.’ Nah, you’re showing that you’re easily frustrated.”

And bad body language in the dressing room or on the bench is telling a coach (or a scout) that you’re a problem who could infect the entire team.

Good body language, conversely, “shows poise in the face of a challenge,” Naylor said.

Starting off a game with good body language is the easy part; maintaining it is a challenge.

“What’s your body language during adversity?” asked Naylor. “I’ve watched a player tell teammates after giving up a soft goal, ‘No worries, we’ll get it back,’ but at the same time, he hangs his head. So what does the goalie hear? They hear that the teammate is mad.”

None of this is easy to master, particularly in the moment and especially for youth players dealing with a range of emotions and social pressures.

But at the end of the day, Naylor said, it’s all about this: “How does body language prime our performance and how does it help us display resilience?”

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