As a 28-year-old at the top of her game and with a strong capacity for leadership, Brianna Decker is in a unique and enviable position.
The full range of her skill set was on display in 2018 – first as an alternate captain on the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team, and more recently when she was named an assistant coach of the U.S. Under-18 Women’s National Team.
“I’m definitely still planning on playing,” Decker said, “so I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to take on a role like this. But it’s definitely something I’ve always wanted to do.”
With her career situated within both the current generation of elite women’s players and the future generation of elite players, Decker has some tips and perspectives on women’s hockey and what it takes to get to the next level for the 14U and 16U players who are right on the cusp.
Advice from the top
In terms of straight-up advice for emerging top players, Decker keeps it fairly simple: It’s not all about technical skill or production, but rather the intangibles like attitude and work ethic that separate the very good from the elite.
“As a coach looking at players, it’s really important to see how kids compete. Are you working hard? Do you have a smile on your face and are you being a good teammate?” Decker said. “Those kids who are knocking on the door, if you’re working hard, it’s important.”
Even at the very top level, those values and attributes are coveted.
“If I look at the current National Team, you can look and see all of us have that competitive instinct and smile on our face,” Decker said. “It’s easy to distinguish the younger player who is competing every shift and every practice. When you talk about practice, you have to see that every day. Those elite players carry it out.”
If you ask…
Because of Decker’s stature and dual role, she gets plenty of questions from young hockey players. Because she deals with slumps and goal binges, highs and lows, Decker can relate to their concerns.
She encourages all youth players to ask their coaches more questions, whether it is about their own individual skills or the game of hockey in general.
“From a player standpoint, when they reach out, they usually want to talk about getting out of a scoring slump or that they’re struggling with consistency in a game,” Decker said. “I try to break it down for them and tell them not to think too much. The best thing is to help them focus on some details to strengthen their game and help them know the scoring is going to come as a result.”
Decker says she doesn’t get many questions from parents – a trend she hopes continues.
“I don’t communicate too much with parents, and I think that’s good, because it’s good for kids to seek answers and get out of situations themselves,” she said. “My parents never really communicated with coaches. They supported me in my career and came to all the games, but they kind of let me do my own thing.”
Kids these days
USA Hockey’s American Development Model is lifting talent nationwide with its emphasis on individual skill development, and Decker says she’s impressed by the talent level of teen players with whom she works.
“First, the amount of energy they bring every day is awesome to see,” Decker said. “And their individual skill is great. A lot of these kids, the way they can stickhandle and shoot the puck, how fast they are – the skills really stick out to me.”
If she has a critique of the next generation, it’s that sometimes younger players tend to focus too much on hockey while failing to achieve balance in life. Playing multiple sports not only develops more well-rounded athletes and hockey players, it also gives kids a much-needed mental break from hockey. This can prevent burnout and overuse injuries while re-energizing their love of the game.
Decker has also noticed that elite skill sometimes brings a tendency to coast – a trait she hopes to eradicate.
“I would say maybe the one thing is that there’s a little too much complacency,” Decker added. “They’re used to coming from their programs and being the best there. Wanting to make the U.S. team and be the best of the best is something I would love to see a little more of.”
Growing the game
Decker, a Wisconsin native who starred for the Badgers in college, is committed to growing the sport. As both a player and coach, she’s hoping the U.S. gold in February can be a springboard to even bigger and better things in the future.
“From a USA Hockey standpoint, winning gold created such a big awareness and I want to continue to see that growth,” Decker said. “I really enjoy working with the high school kids. They listen to you and absorb everything because they want to get to the next level.”