skip navigation

For Young Hockey Players, Failure Isn’t Only Inevitable, It’s Helpful

By Greg Bates, 03/01/21, 1:00PM CST


Helping players learn from their mistakes can be instructive teaching


It’s inevitable that every hockey player who hits the ice is going to mess up at least once in his or her career. 

How a coach or parent reacts and finds a rational solution for the kid that “failing” on the ice is ok will go a long way in that player’s development. 

“Every human learns by failing,” said Guy Gosselin, a USA Hockey ADM regional manager and Paralympic gold medal-winning head coach of the U.S. National Sled Team. “We all make mistakes and we learn from them. In human development and youth sports or any kind of sport, you’re going to make mistakes out there and the way you react to your fails essentially is going to control your destiny. Our players need to understand that from a skills standpoint, you can always get better and from a mental standpoint you can always get better. You don’t want to have too many peaks and too many valleys. You don’t want to go in the tank when you fail; you want to understand what happened and, can you come to a solution for that?” 

In the movie “Apollo 13,” Ed Harris, portraying NASA flight director Gene Kranz, famously states “Failure is not an option.” Well, it is for young athletes. And that’s OK.

AHAI Coach-in-Chief Jim Clare used to be in the military where failure wasn’t an option because it could mean costing lives. But, obviously, hockey players don’t have to worry about failure to that extreme. Without failure, a player will never develop and grow.

“I look at failure in my mind as an opportunity,” Clare said. “So, if I’m a player is at practice and trying a new drill or coach is challenging that player and they fail, it’s an opportunity to grow and learn. That’s how I want the kids and parents to look at it as well. When I mention the Apollo 13 movie quote, “failure is not an option” as a nuclear weapons officer in the military, it’s fatal. Failure’s not fatal in the world of hockey, in hockey and sports and development, it’s not. It’s mandatory. You’re never going to get better. You’re never going to stretch yourself if you want to reach the next level, if you don’t fail along the way trying to get there.” 

Gosselin stressed that kids don’t react to negative talk. Body language and tone of voice are extremely important when addressing a player. It needs to be age-appropriate teaching.

“We want to turn our players on to the game and love the game and negative aggression is not the way to get that done,” Gosselin said. “I don’t care what level you’re talking about, but you don’t bury a player. That’s not how we coach today. You don’t take his or her confidence away. Just using the right tone of voice and not being critical, but trying to help that player find a solution.” 

How a coach talks to a player is going to be a little different conversation than a parent to player. 

“As a coach, I’m watching a drill or a game or a practice or whatever we’re doing,” Clare said. “Is it everybody that’s failing or is it just one or two kids that are not getting it or not able to perform the drill, which I wouldn’t necessarily call failing. It’s a different reaction if the whole group is having trouble with something, then maybe I need to dial that back — the group isn’t quite ready for that yet. I need to find somewhere where they can have some success and then work my way back towards that concept that they were having trouble with and see if they can get it later on.” 

If it is just one or two kids not getting a concept or drill, the coach needs to figure out another way to get them success. Maybe the kid just doesn’t understand what’s going on or it’s a physical skill they haven’t mastered yet. 

Pulling a player to the side to talk isn’t a bad thing. It’s all about the approach.

“I can go crazy and start yelling and screaming because they’re blowing up my drill or maybe it’s a bad drill or maybe they’re not ready for it,” Clare said. “Or you can say to them, ‘Hey, I’m curious. What did you see out there?’ I’m on the bench and I’m watching it and it didn’t work. ‘What do you see and what’s going through your mind as you’re going through that drill or that play on the ice?’ Let the kid explain it to you and what they’re seeing. Maybe they’re seeing something different. You might be at an angle on the bench — and this goes for parents as well. I’m a parent in the stands and I’m watching a game. I’m seeing it from my perspective, but I’m not seeing it from the player’s perspective.” 

As for a parent talking to a kid after practice or a game, Clare suggests having the kid dictate the conversation. 

“Let [the parent] say, ‘Hey, I saw that the coach is running a pretty cool drill. How was it?’ And the kid might say, ‘I don’t get it.’ Or, ‘I had trouble with it, dad or mom,’” Clare said. “That opens the door for the parent to say, ‘What was going on? What did you see? What were you feeling out there? Did you understand it?’ So, they can have that conversation as opposed to getting them in the car going, ‘You screwed up that pass and it cost you a goal.’ Or, ‘You blew up that drill and you were all over the place.’ It’s just a different approach to the conversation. They’re going to fail, and I think the parents have to understand that. 

“They’re kids, they’re not miniature adults. I don’t care if they’re 15 or they’re 5, they are not miniature adults. They’re not professional hockey players, because even those guys screw up. These kids are developing and they’re learning. The question I would ask the parents is, ‘Have you not ever failed at something? … Have you always succeeded at everything? I highly doubt that. You’ve made mistakes, you’ve had failures.’ Those mistakes and failures are what make you a better person/player/parent/coach.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.