Reflections on a Junior Hockey Career Part 2: Patterns of Successful Teams

In part one of this series, I talked about the common patterns I saw among the most successful junior hockey players. But hockey is a team sport. At the highest levels, it’s not about individual accolades, it’s about who’s holding the trophy at the end of the season. At the junior level (20 & under), success is not defined by a team’s record, or how far they went in the playoffs. It’s based on learning, development, and being in a great atmosphere where everyone is pushed to get better each day. In five seasons, I was on successful and unsuccessful teams in these aspects.

My team this past season was by far the most successful group I’ve ever been a part of. After starting the year slow, we went 15-2 after January 1, climbing the standings from sixth to third in our conference and sweeping our first round matchup before losing a tightly contested three game series on the road, just one win shy of the finals. Our growth from the first day of training camp to the end of the season was unmatched by any other team that I’ve been a part of. There are a few things that stand out that made this team a special group.

Pattern #1: A great relationship between the coach and the players

To truly grow, a team needs to have a relationship of mutual trust, respect, and understanding with their leader. For this to happen, the coach needs to be approachable, and he needs to value the opinions of his players. This year our head coach, Jim Mosso, always let us put in our thoughts and be a part of the decision making process.  As players, we not only felt more respected, but also more motivated to execute because the decisions were ours, just as much as Coach’s. Another way to think about this dynamic between the coach and players is as what hedge fund manager Ray Dalio calls an idea meritocracy. In an idea meritocracy, everybody’s opinion is valued, but not equally. Those with more experience or some information advantage have their input weighted more heavily. If five of our veterans told our coach that we think there’s a better way, or approached him with an idea, he would either explain his rational, and change the minds of the players, or he would see our perspective and change the plan.

The worst teams I’ve been on, it was the coach’s way or the highway. When players have no input, or can’t at least have their voices heard, you shouldn’t expect them to be motivated to execute.

Pattern #2: A family atmosphere

The locker room is a social jungle. There’s cliques, outcasts, and constant bantering. All teams have this to some extent. But on successful teams, it’s more like your best friends from high school where everybody truly cares for one another. This season we did things together away from the rink, and could talk to each other about other things going on in our lives. When the season ended, it was the toughest group to say goodbye to. Yes, we were one game away from the finals, the sadness was more from the realization that this group would never play together again.

Developing this family atmosphere starts with recruiting good kids. Keep the egomaniacs and locker room cancers away from your team, no matter how good they are. However, this atmosphere grows from the leaders and veterans establishing that empathy and selflessness are the expectation. It’s a culture that gets passed down. In this culture players will develop the most, because they can play knowing they have a caring group behind their back.

Pattern #3: Facing adversity

Successful teams have hardships that become key lessons moving forward. Three seasons ago, our team lost four games the entire regular season. We were like 36-4. Everything came easy. Then in playoffs, we got hit with the flu. Our best players were shadows of themselves on the ice. We lost the first round. We never faced real adversity that season, and as a result, we didn’t grow as much as we could have.

This season, facing adversity early in the year (we lost a lot of games we should not have) led us to learning opportunities that made better the next day. Late in the year we talked about how if we just didn’t lose this or that game, we would’ve been home for the second round of playoffs. Yes, maybe. But if we didn’t learn those lessons, we wouldn’t have had that 15-2 stretch to finish the season.

For teams focused on development, you don’t want to be in a league where you win every game. If you do, you need to find a way to build challenges into your practices. At youth levels, you want to make a schedule where you can have about an even record. The younger they are, the more important this is. Let the kids face adversity, and when it comes, view it as an opportunity to learn.

Pattern #4: Massive individual improvement

You can recruit great players, but at this level, you need guys to incrementally contribute more and more. This season we had two kids make the team out of training camp. They both improved massively, and one of the them went on to be play a key role. Zach Booth at the start of the season was in and out of the lineup. By the end of the season, he was playing on one of our top lines. He scored the overtime winner in game one of round one, and another goal in our only victory in round two. In professional sports the championship teams always have a solid base of homegrown guys. This is also paramount at our level. But, because we’re so much younger than pros, guys can become completely new players from the start to the end of the season. This is a result of focusing on development, and building a culture where getting better is the expectation, and everybody is trying to improve. When you have these aspects, you’ll have guys step up more and more as the season goes along.

I talk about this from the perspective of a hockey team, but this applies to any team in any field. The common thread among each of these patterns is that they’re about prioritizing learning and growth. Whether it’s working with the coach to make the best decisions for the group, supporting and caring for one another, or accepting adversity as necessary for success, they all stem from having a growth mindset. When you shift your team’s focus to development, the successes, whether it’s winning games or serving your customers, will increase as a result.

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