Players and fans love to tout it. The media is quick to promote it.
Man, hockey players sure are tough.
Staying in the game, playing through pain. It’s come to define a sport that’s as intense as it is exciting. And it’s a trait valued in the top leagues. But if we’re not careful, as parents and coaches, is it sending the wrong message to our younger players who are still learning the game?
Dr. Larry Lauer, former consultant for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program, has studied aggression and violence in hockey. He has worked with coaches, players and parents to make sure they understand the dangers of playing through injury.
Whenever someone brings up the toughness factor of NHLers, his rebuttal is swift and simple.
“Those guys get paid millions of dollars,” Lauer said. “It’s their livelihood. They’ve made choices along the way that has put them at a point where they’re taking responsibility and they have good insurance and are getting paid. The kids have to understand that for them, it’s a game. They’re not making any money off of it. It’s OK if they sit down.”
Lauer also tries to give clear advice on how to decide if a child needs to sit out of game. He recommends players ask themselves two questions before trying to go back into a game: If I go in, am I hurting myself more? And if I go in, am I making it worse for my team?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to either of those, it’s imperative to stay off the ice.
Telling someone you’re hurt is not always easy, especially in the middle of a game. Certainly not in a sport that, at the highest levels, glorifies playing through pain. That’s why Lauer recommends constant communication between players, parents, coaches and athletic trainers or doctors. There needs to be a consensus on returning to play from all of them.
“You want to have the parents support that you’re not being a hero when you go back in hurt,” said Lauer, who is now a mental skills specialist for the United States Tennis Association. “That just doesn’t happen that way in youth hockey and it’s not worth it. They have to understand that they have so many more years in the game if they can stay healthy.”
It’s important to recognize what type of pain you’re feeling on the bench as well. If it’s beyond shortness of breath and general soreness, ask for help from a coach. To prepare for these situations, Lauer recommends having conversations before games and practices to ensure they don’t get caught up in the moment, either.
“The coaches need to be cognizant of their first role: to keep the kids safe and do not turn this into ‘the only way you show toughness is to go back on the ice,’” Lauer said. “It’s not true.”
Stymying the stigma
The best way to show you’re strong is by speaking up when necessary. Whether as an injured player, a coach or a teammate. In order to protect yourself and your team from harm, there are certain culture changes that locker rooms need to exhibit.
It starts with older players setting the tone that joking or badmouthing an injured teammate or opponent won’t be tolerated. Teams need to also make sure that when a player is injured they are not forced to stay away. They should be welcomed and included at practices and games. Players should focus on supporting one another when dealing with injuries, not pretending they don’t exist.
Parents and coaches should make these points clear – and set a good example.
“What’s our purpose? It’s for the kids to have a great experience and keeping them safe,” said Lauer. “If we understand that comes first, we can eliminate some of the fears that kids have that are related to being injured.”
Encourage the healthy toughness that truly defines hockey – resiliency, relentlessness, tenaciousness, commitment. If we pressure kids to play through pain – and let’s remember, they are kids – we are putting them at risk for further injury and disappointment. And if the game is no longer enjoyable, we also risk losing them from the sport entirely.