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Tough and Clean: Finding the balance

01/30/2017, 11:15am MST
By Blake Schuster - Special to USA Hockey

As players advance to 14U/16U and beyond, the game intensifies. Athletes’ bodies are maturing, the pace picks up and the quality of play improves rapidly. For boys, body-checking is now permitted. And for girls, body contact and physical play also ramps up.

To be elite, there’s an element of toughness that becomes necessary.

What exactly is toughness, and how can we as parents ensure our kids play tough, clean hockey?

Line in the sand

Dr. Larry Lauer served as a consultant for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program. He is the former director of coaching education and development at Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and has studied aggression and violence in hockey.

Lauer has worked with kids to show them just where the line is between playing tough and playing dangerously.

“If you are unduly creating harm for someone else physically or psychologically, then that’s over the line,” said Lauer, now a mental skills specialist for the United States Tennis Association. “Now, within the norms of hockey, throwing a hit, body-checking, that’s all legit. I love that part of the game. But with players, we have to define what is over that line. When you’re throwing an elbow, your intention is to put someone in harm’s way. Same with leaving your feet to initiate a hit. There’s a reason why those things are not legal.”

Lauer recommends talking to kids about the specific behaviors that can separate a clean play from a dirty one. The more detailed, the better. If you’re watching hockey with your child – on TV or in person – and you see a dirty play, explain why it’s illegal. And vice versa, if you see a clean battle or body-check, point those out as well.

Think about your reactions to dangerous plays on TV. If these are celebrated, your kid might take that as a sign to replicate that behavior in his/her own game.

Showing videos of both incidents and the avoidance of them will enhance these conversations. One player Lauer cites as playing the correct way is former Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom.

“He never wrecked anybody,” Lauer said. “But he was always able to get possession of the puck, protect the puck and make the next pass. You let video do the talking a lot of times. You show players on video what it is that you mean and they can get a visual of what’s inside the lines and what’s outside.”

Remind your kids why body-checking and body contact is allowed in hockey: to separate the player from the puck.

Word to the wise

Sometimes it’s the language parents, coaches and kids use when talking about hitting that is just as important as the aggression seen on the ice.

Have you encouraged your kid to play more physical, play with an attitude or “hit somebody”? Your intentions may be clean, but a player could interpret this as “go injure that guy.”

These are some of the moments that worry Lauer. And the ones he finds most correctable.

“Help the kids understand that they have control over most of these behaviors by doing certain things,” Lauer said.

Lauer advises players to create a routine for when they get angry or aggressive: turn away from your opponent, keep your stick on the ice and use the adrenaline in a positive way.

Parents and coaches should be careful of punishing players for stepping over the line if these routines fail.

“If the language becomes ‘do this and you’re sitting,’ well that’s great, but we know that 14- and 15-year-old kids aren’t great at managing their emotions,” Lauer said. “You need to give them skills, to work with them and be patient. Punishment is not the only tool. It should be the last tool we use to try and get our message across.”

Big hits have big consequences

Punishments for undisciplined play manifest in other ways during a game. When a player lines up for a big hit, aside from the risk of injury, he or she can end up out of the play and help create a scoring chance for their opponents.

Or they’ll be penalized.

The way hockey at the highest levels is moving toward a more open, faster style of play, special teams are so important. The cost of going after another player on the ice isn’t worth the outcome for either party.

It also shows poor character. And if your kid is hoping this type of behavior will help them get noticed in a good way, think again.

“That kind of behavior, where a player is taking the game in their own hands and trying to take somebody out, they’re going to eliminate themselves from the game,” Lauer said. “Coaches won’t rely on them in the pressure moments. They can’t trust them to not take a penalty.”

Are coaches looking for tough players? Absolutely. But it’s the mental toughness on and off the ice that creates successful athletes and people. Overcoming adversity, making a commitment to training and nutrition, maintaining discipline, having a Zach Parise-like work ethic and battle level every game – that’s what coaches are looking for. That’s the kind of toughness players need to excel.

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