No Matter How Big the Game, Having Fun Comes First

Players can have nerves when it comes to playing in big spots, but it’s important to keep things in perspective

By Greg Bates, Special to AHAI – When the postseason rolls around, the stakes get higher.

One-and-done scenarios can put a lot of added pressure on youth hockey players. But longtime Illinois coach Brad Bialas said playoffs don’t have to create more stress if coaches and parents can teach players how to handle the situation in a calm manner.

“When we were in a big game or a national championship game, our message was, ‘The ice is the same, the rink is the same, the puck is the same size, their team wants to win just as bad as you. There’s no difference between this game and Game 17 of the season,’” said Bialas, who used to coach in the Chicago Mission girls’ program. “‘When you break it down, your shift is your shift, your role is your role. The skills you had yesterday probably didn’t change a whole bunch.’ We would always urge, ‘Remember, this is a game and enjoy it.’”

Enjoy it.

Yes, that is a key point.

“The earlier the player can embrace the excitement and enjoyment of that, the easier it is for them to calm their nerves down and they’ll execute better,” Bialas said.

The weight of making it fun falls on the parents and coaches. The earlier a player is taught to have fun and not to worry about a big game, the more relaxed the kid is in his or her later years of hockey development.

Bialas has coached at the younger ages, 8 and 9, and also the older players, and he’ll see both sides of the spectrum where a young player could be less nervous because they don’t fully understand the magnitude of a game. But they also could feel the mounting pressure. Players at older ages could feel less pressure because they have played in so many big games by that point in their hockey careers. Or older players can feel the nerves even more as they realize what’s at skate.

“It really comes down to the player themselves and what they put on themselves,” Bialas said. “Usually in the older levels, the big concerns I would get was you’re in a national game and then you couple that with the fact that, ‘My gosh coach, there’s like 17 jackets’ — as we would call them — around the rink, which are scouts.

“Play for what’s inside the glass, not what’s outside the glass.”

If a player is nervous pregame, those butterflies generally vanish once the puck has dropped and the game is in full swing. A big thing for coaches to remember is not to change the team’s pregame process of what the kids are used to. Players are creatures of habit, and going through the same motions each game can leave them assured and calm.

“Do the same thing that you did for Game 22 and the same thing you did for Game 26,” Bialas said. “It’s the same thing. Once the puck drops, the refs are the same, puck is the same, the ice is the same — there’s nothing different than you did three weeks ago. It just so happens everybody says it’s the big game.”

If a coach notices a player is extremely nervous prior to the game, it isn’t a bad idea for the coach to pull that player aside and give them an encouraging message.

“If it was during the game, I might bring him over and be like, ‘Hey, Jimmy, go ahead and take Johnny’s shift,’” Bialas said. “’Jimmy, you cool, man? Calm down. It’s OK. I totally get it. If I were in your shoes, I might be nervous, too. Take a breath, drink some water and next shift go out there and do something positive.’”

Players can always revert back to their childhood days to get a calming effect. Bialas points out that when kids are 6, 7 years old and playing on the pond with their buddies, they instantly are thrust into becoming a legend like Wayne Gretzky in a Game 7, winner-take-all scenario with little time on the clock in a tie game.

“We all dream about that when we’re kids; we do that because we actually long for that,” Bialas said. “We think it’s cool and it puts a little more into it, more importance. We would tell the kids, ‘Embrace it. You played this thing over and over in your mind. Don’t go into it nervous, go into the same way you did when you were 5 years old when you thought it was the coolest thing in the world.’”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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