Anatoly Tarasov and other Russian coaches knew how frustrating hockey can be, so they took a creative approach to preparing their players for the worst. In practices, they would often trip players as they skated by in a scrimmage or drill. Coaches might even slip into the locker room before practice and dull the edges of some skates.
The idea was to build mental toughness by overcoming adverse conditions in practice -- the "X-Factor" suggested by Ron Foyt in his latest LPH article. Learning to live with the decisions of referees is part of it. Playing through illegal hits by opponents, the trash-talk and verbal challenges, all examples of how frustrating this game can be.
"Toughness" is defined in a winning program as the ability to play your own game no matter what the opponent does, no matter what decisions are made by officials, in spite of the most challenging circumstances.
The opposite extreme is adopted at many levels of North American hockey where "toughness" often means selfishly ignoring the needs of your team and retaliating when an opponent slashes you. This is the mentality of losers, and you'll rarely see genuinely tough athletes stooping to this level in team sports other than hockey.
Among the toughest of all athletes are the offensive linemen in the NFL. Their job is to protect the quarterback, so their team can keep moving the chains toward the goal line. When the opponent punches them, steps on their hands, calls them names or spits in their face -- the offensive linemen don't retaliate, because the penalty would be too damaging to the team.
This is genuine toughness.
"Adversity is just part of the examination," said Gary Player, the Hall-of-Fame golfer from South Africa. "We're all involved in sport, because it tests our limits. If that's one of our reasons for participation, why would we not welcome the stiffest of tests?"
Bring it on. You can practically see that attitude in Tiger Woods' eyes. "I hope the course is tough, the conditions brutal, and the opponents at their best."
The Soviet hockey teams coached by Tarasov when they dominated the international game, were not only the best example of a skillful style, they were also the most disciplined -- the toughest mentally. When they'd come to North America, their passing, skating, puck-control style was incorrectly perceived to mean they were not tough enough to "take a check."
Of course, they were not easy to check because of their speed and because they moved the puck so quickly. But when our players got close enough to slash or crosscheck, it had no effect on the Russians. They just kept skating, passing, and scoring goals. In order to keep the game within sight for our side, North American referees had to penalize the Russians for getting slashed.
Ignoring the obstacles and remaining focused on the goal -- this is the challenge in all sports, but hockey is certainly one of the most frustrating. The skills themselves are difficult with no one else on the ice, but unlike golf, the opposing defenders work overtime to eliminate our skills. Some days, the goaltender can just close the door.
The defense in hockey is allowed to cheat openly, and the stick becomes an effective weapon. Every time a newspaper prints a picture of a "check" by a defender it will be a blatant crosscheck to the head, probably because there are too few legal checks to be caught by a random photograph.
There is also no chance that a defender will "impede" a puck carrier any other way but to hook or hold. So the "examination" that Gary Player referred to includes the additional challenge for hockey: offensive playmakers have to ignore all the illegal attempts to negate their skills.
It's ironic that if you want to be good in hockey you need to work by the hour to improve your skating, shooting, and passing -- and then when you compete you must ignore the fact that the rules do not protect those skills. But this is simply the way it is, and to succeed you have to learn to play through it.
Tom Klein, the longtime high school coach and teacher, has used a scrimmage format designed to teach mental toughness. One team is designated the "bad guys," and they are allowed to cheat in any way. The others have to ignore the insults. Their challenge is to overcome the obstacles to score goals and stop opponents legally.
It's difficult in a world of instant replays to teach young athletes to ignore the officials' decisions. We have no control of that part of the game, and we will be at our best when we learn to focus on things we can control.
Our lessons to young athletes seem out of step with society when TV zooms in on coaches berating the officials and broadcast announcers passing judgment on every call. At youth games, parents are totally out of control, because they see the game differently than the officials -- half the time. The other half it is the opponent's parents who are unhappy.
Think about that. Not only does the replay phenomenon imply that referees and umpires are supposed to be accurate 100% of the time, but parents from two opposing teams -- parents who see the same play in a totally different light -- expect the officials to satisfy their passions.
As a former referee I have news for you: officials are human and will not be right all the time. But certainly, they can never make both sides happy with each call.
While working my way through college, I thought umpiring baseball games would be pretty easy money. I didn't tell anyone that at a young age I abandoned my plans to be a major league baseball player and took up golf, because I just couldn't see those curve balls.
When I took my place behind the catcher I learned quickly this wasn't the easy money I had envisioned. No matter what the call, someone was irate. The fans on one side screamed obscenities when I called, "Ball;" the others were all over me when I called, "Strike."
At first I thought they knew I was a rookie, that my vision was better suited for golf balls sitting on tees, but I learned that parents just have biased eyes when their kids are involved. I also learned that it's pretty easy for officials in any sport to make mistakes -- honest ones.
TV commentators are making big money to entertain, and it has become a required part of their job description to second-guess the officials. This, of course, tells the public that second-guessing officials is part of sport. Somehow, for the development of our children, we need to separate professional sports from amateurism, because it is apparent the only purpose in professional sports is to make money. Its just entertainment.
The greater purpose in youth sports is to teach values like good sportsmanship, unselfish commitment to a team, work-ethic approach to improvement, and overcoming adversity. To become winners in hockey or in life young athletes must learn that dealing with frustration is "just part of the examination."
You seldom get all the tools you'd like in order to accomplish your objectives. Those who learn early that they can still succeed -- that the hurdles are just part of the test -- those are the winners. Our job as coaches is much more about teaching kids how to handle frustration than how to shoot a puck.
And, by our actions, we are teaching every second we are in contact with our students.
Jack Blatherwick has a Ph.D. in physiology from the University of Minnesota. He is a physiologist for the Washington Capitals, and has held the same post for the Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and Minnesota North Stars. He was also a coach/physiologist on the U.S. Olympic hockey teams in 1980, '84 '88, '92 and '94. Check out Blatherwick's website at http://www.overspeed.info/.