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Keys to Motivating Youth Hockey Players

When you set a goal, regardless of what it is, there has to be a willingness to do what it takes to get there. If the player is willing to do that, they’ve got a good chance of achieving it.

“Getting up” for every single practice and game can be a challenge even for NHL players.

But for younger players, like Mites and Squirts, the matter of motivation is often a new concept for kids and can be a test for coaches and parents alike.

As head coach of the boys’ hockey team at Greenway High School and someone who has been involved in the development of youth players and programs across the state, Grant Clafton knows there’s a strong connection between motivation and development.

Clafton, a Grand Rapids native and four-year letterwinner at St. Cloud State, believes it takes a village to foster motivation, and that coaches, parents and teammates may play a big role in creating a more positive hockey culture and journey.

Clafton shared his thoughts on how to motivate young hockey players.

Minnesota Hockey: Why does motivation matter?

Grant Clafton: Motivation starts early on, when the teaching starts, explaining to young players what it takes to get to each next level. When young athletes aren’t performing they may get down or discouraged. And when a kid feels that way, when he or she doesn’t want to go to the rink, that’s a problem. That’s when coaching and communication comes in to play – explaining the game and holding them accountable but making sure they understand that even though they are being corrected or coached it doesn’t mean they’re a bad player. It’s just a part of the process.

Minnesota Hockey: Can a player get better if they aren’t motivated?

Clafton: I use this sledding analogy with Peewees: if you ask everybody if they liked going sliding down the hill, every time they all say “I do.” If you ask how many like walking up the hill? Different answer. You have to want to walk up before you go down. That’s the small price you pay before reaching that level of euphoria.

Minnesota Hockey: Are there signs you see as a coach if a player isn’t motivated?

Clafton: The biggest thing is shutting down. Coaching can be misconstrued. Every kid is different and some don’t respond great to it. It’s important to follow up with them and get them to see that we’re trying to get this little bit more out of you and get you to see something in yourself that you aren’t right now.

Minnesota Hockey: What are some barriers to motivation?

Clafton: Maybe getting cut from a team, not getting praise or practices not being fun or designed poorly, skating for conditioning every day. If a kid has been playing for 5-6 months and his parents sign him up for a camp and he doesn’t want to go, he won’t get much out of it. Coaches need to make practices consistently different and keep them fun so everyone is thinking. Make sure drills are age-appropriate and provide opportunities for small successes.

Minnesota Hockey: What are creative ways to motivate young players?

Clafton: At these ages (6-12 years old) you’re talking about skills, not really talking about accountability. You’re not going to threaten them with bag skating. So make it fun – set some attainable goals, focus on small, competitive games and offer rewards like Gatorades. Not everyone plays just to get better. Not everyone shows up for that – some just want to be a part of it. Motivation is just getting them to the rink and being part of the team environment and giving them a positive experience.

Minnesota Hockey: Do you have any tips for setting up goals for individuals?

Clafton: When you set a goal, regardless of what it is, there has to be a willingness to do what it takes to get there. If the player is willing to do that, they’ve got a good chance of achieving it. With each big goal have sub-goals that the player has to achieve first. For example, if you can’t catch a stationary pass consistently, how can we expect you to do it while moving? Build off of simple skills before you get to the big ones. Maybe a goal is completing a pass and accelerating to create an odd-man rush or being in the right position while shorthanded. Try starting in two- or three-game increments – if you get two shots one game, work for four the next game.

Minnesota Hockey: Are both positive and negative reinforcement appropriate?

Clafton: Tone is important. How you communicate is big. The younger the player, the more positive it needs to be. But whether you’re coaching a high school kid or an 8-year-old, explaining the ‘why’ is important. Coaches need to explain why they’re telling players to do things. ‘Because I said so’ isn’t going to cut it. Negative reinforcement is hard, especially for younger players, because they don’t understand where it’s coming from and may feel it’s a punishment rather than trying to help them get better.

Minnesota Hockey: Is it healthy to allow failure to serve as motivation?

Clafton: Yes. It’s like anything else – you don’t know if you’re doing well if you’ve never done badly. You need to be able to compare it to something. However, for every kid you have to figure out what works. Everyone is motivated by something else. Some are motivated to make a team, some are motivated to improve and some are motivated to score goals. We have to find out how each kid is motivated. You can’t just have a blanket style across the board.

Minnesota Hockey: Who is responsible for motivating young hockey players – parents, coaches, teammates, or each kid individually?

Clafton: I think it’s the entire hockey community. Coaches only see these kids for an hour a day. Teachers see them for seven hours. Parents see them the rest of the time. Teammates are around. A lot of it is coaches building the culture of what you want and communicating expectations, and then following up to see how kids respond.

If parents reinforce consistent messages at home, that’s great. Being positive and supportive and cheering your kid and the team at games is all good stuff.

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