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If they’re not failing, they’re not improving

09/27/2017, 8:30am MDT
By Michael Rand - Special to USA Hockey

In the film “Apollo 13,” actor Ed Harris famously utters the line, “Failure is not an option” in regard to the American mission to land on the moon for a third time.

The line reflects the life-or-death nature of decisions made in space, but one also needs to consider this: in order to conquer space travel in the first place, rocket scientists had to fail countless times.

Youth hockey is not rocket science, but we can still learn a valuable lesson by comparison. Failure in hockey most certainly is an option. It’s really the only option when it comes to making kids better.

Rich Hansen, USA Hockey American Development Model regional manager of the Atlantic and New York districts, is constantly emphasizing that point.

“Let them fail,” he said. “Let them fail in the drill until they get it right, then add another component.

“As a parent, you see a kid failing and you think a coach is doing something wrong. But it’s all a work in progress. If it’s too easy, it’s not worth doing.”

Can be a tough sell

As Hansen notes, though, it’s hard to watch kids struggle – particularly for parents who either want immediate payoffs for their investment of time and money or equate short-term failure with long-term inadequacy.

“It’s all about understanding for parents,” Hansen said. “They understand the theory behind ‘let them fail,’ but it’s tough when they actually see it with their own kids. They have big-time jobs and understand failure in the real world, but when you apply it to hockey, it’s harder for them to understand.”

This is where good coaches step in with crucial explanations of the method. Without that, repeated struggles can just look like madness.

“You want to keep parents in the loop as a coach and explain things to them,” Hansen said. “Maintain good communication, and you will find they grasp and understand what you’re doing as a coach much better.”

Message delivery with kids is important

Similarly, it’s no fun for a 10-year-old to feel like they’re failing repeatedly. Kids have insecurities, and it can be difficult to explain to them that what they’re doing isn’t correct. But that’s what needs to happen for them to improve – as long as each situation is treated with the proper perspective.

“With kids, as a coach, I think the first thing you have to recognize is the age of the kid and how to relate. You’re not going to talk to a 10-year-old the same way you talk to a junior player,” Hansen said.

And when delivering a message that a player isn’t doing something right, an old-fashioned compliment sandwich can be far more effective than a string of negativity.

“The most successful coaches are the ones who are the most positive. It’s important to use constructive criticism without bashing them,” Hansen said. “It’s easier to handle failure if there’s a positive influence.”

First and foremost, though, kids need to know that it’s OK to fail.

“You hear all the talk of millennials not being used to failure,” Hansen said. “It’s really important to give the message that it’s natural; it’s a necessary part of fully developing your skills and capabilities.”

Long-term benefits

The notion of letting kids fail is a point of emphasis with the ADM.

Hansen is a USA Hockey veteran, having served both in the adult hockey department and now on the ADM staff, along with multiple seasons of coaching at the high school level. That background gives him a unique perspective – both in appreciating the work on the ADM done by those who have been around it longer and in comparing the needs of youth players to those of adult players.

“For adults to improve on the ice, the learning curve is different,” Hansen said. “The kids will pick up things a lot quicker than 40-year-old adults.”

That notion helps Hansen take the long view of failure when it comes to youth players. Smoothing out their mistakes now is much easier than it will be down the road, and the payoff for correcting them now is massive.

Hansen brings that message to the youth teams he visits now, explaining how the ADM and those who helped shape it have “changed the landscape of hockey,” in his words. Some of those teams are steeped in tradition and don’t want to change.

“It doesn’t make them bad people. It’s hard to change,” Hansen said. “But it’s also rewarding.”

Learning from failure is harder than reveling in success, but the two often go hand in hand.

“There are tons of kids in the NHL now who played Tier II or didn’t make certain teams,” Hansen added. “They had good mentors who told them to keep going, keep learning and keep persevering.”

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