It’s the final minute of the game and the puck is stuck in our defensive zone. We’ve been able to cut the deficit to one goal and are hoping to get one last chance to tie it up. The puck moves back to a defenseman, who takes a booming shot. Out of nowhere a forward slides in front of the shot, causing the puck to ricochet off into the neutral zone.
I race down the ice as my teammate picks up the puck. It’s just us with the goalie in front of us. The goalie commits to the shooter and I’m ready to knock the puck into the open net. But as we approach the goal, my teammate drills the puck into the goalie’s chest. Time runs out and we lose the game.
I’m not really surprised though. I would have been more surprised if he passed. He was one goal away from a new pair of gloves his father promised him.
Hockey is the ultimate team sport, yet for some, it has become more individualized than ever. For some young players stepping onto the ice, they are more concerned about how many times their name appears on the score sheet than how well they or their team performed.
Many times, this can be traced back to parents, who are providing an incentive program for their young hockey players – score a hat trick, get a new stick.
While this may seem like a harmless way to motivate a young player, it has adverse effects on both the individual and team.
“Although it may motivate a player in the short term, it ultimately hurts them developmentally,” says Adam Naylor, director of the Athletic Enhancement Center and sport psychology coach at Boston University. “It’s not a good use of a reward system when it forces the player to focus toward the game’s outcome rather than the game itself.”
But if you ask a youth hockey player, the excitement of new equipment can mask the problems behind the system.
“The first instance I remember having an incentive program was during one of my Peewee seasons,” says a former youth hockey player who laced up the skates in the New Jersey Youth Hockey League. “I wanted a new stick at the time and my dad said that if I scored two goals he would buy it for me. He thought it would be a good way to inspire me to play better, and it was always exciting when I accomplished it.”
The system was pretty straightforward between father and son. Whenever the player wanted a new piece of equipment, he would ask his dad, who would make up a goal total depending upon how much the item cost.
To be clear, hockey parents don’t hold a monopoly on rewarding their children for individual achievements. Just like a parent who attaches a monetary value to good grades in school, the lessons taught, while well meaning, can have the opposite long-term affect.
Naylor says the focus on individual statistics doesn’t have a place in the younger levels of youth hockey. He says focusing on the game’s outcome at a younger age teaches children that they need to face weaker opponents to be successful.
“We need to teach kids to compete, struggle and persist,” Naylor says. “Unfortunately we’ve flipped it around where younger athletes care more about winning. The outcome of the game doesn’t matter until around age 16 or later. Kids have to compete and struggle in a healthy manner before they reach higher levels – in both hockey and life.”
Ken Martel, USA Hockey’s director of the American Development Model – a new initiative that looks at age-appropriate training and long-term athlete development, agrees with Naylor, saying that the player has to be the one motivating him or herself.
“If a player’s going to be good down the road, it all comes from within. They’re the ones that decide if they want to be good,” Martel says. “We need to build passion in our kids – the fun of playing, the joy of being on the ice. The goal should be for every kid coming off the ice to have a huge smile on his or her face and be wanting more. That’s what makes a young player successful.”
In addition to affecting the player’s long-term development, an incentive system may also have a negative impact on the relationships between the player and his or her teammates.
“I think most my teammates were unaware of the incentives that my dad gave me,” the N.J. player recalls. “There’s a possibility that some were jealous, but I think for the most part they paid very little attention to it.”
The player admits that he oftentimes didn’t reach the goal and wouldn’t get a new piece of equipment. He says he can’t remember a time that it changed the way he played in a game, but admits it might have affected his game subconsciously.
Naylor says that it’s quickly apparent when this type of behavior is present.
“Everyone recognizes it when a player is being rewarded this way by a parent,” says Naylor. “It doesn’t help the player on a social level interacting with teammates, or for the game. The teammates know what’s going on, and they’ll still remember who played this way five, 10 years down the road.”
Although an incentive program affects the players directly involved, it also creates a somewhat undesirable situation for the coach, who has the tough task of balancing up to 20 different personalities.
“I think it undermines a coach’s ability to coach because it sends the message that a player is more important than the team,” says Mark Tabrum, director of USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program and a long-time coach.
“The bottom line is that it creates selfish play on the ice, which is detrimental to the team concept.”
An incentive program like this one might send the wrong messages to young players, but that doesn’t mean they should never be rewarded. It’s critical to celebrate the little, but no less important aspects of the game in which players succeed – keeping your feet moving in the corner or winning a key faceoff – than how many times they score.
“It’s important to reinforce aspects of the game that have to do with the playing of the game,” says Naylor. “Kids are motivated if they’re learning and having fun. It’s important to be creative when rewarding a player to keep the specialness.
“The ultimate reward for the players is being on a team they enjoy all season and the friendships made at the rink for practices and games, and the hotels for tournaments. That’s what they’ll remember most about playing.”
Matt Caracappa is USA Hockey’s 2009-10 Brian Fishman Intern.