Navigating the grey: Hockey pushes player-coach interactions into spotlight

Player-coach interactions, particularly at the NHL level, have generated plenty of headlines of late.

Issue expected to dominate next week's NHL board of governors meeting

Bill Peters, shown in this September 2018 file photo, resigned his position as head coach with the Calgary Flames after apologizing for using offensive language 10 years ago. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press )

Longtime hockey pro Sean McMorrow knew what was coming after his team's particularly poor showing in a blowout loss back in his junior days.

Hockey sticks would not be needed at practice the next day. Instead everybody was told to line up on the goal line at one end of the ice. A bag skate drill — essentially a series of repetitive sprints — would dominate the hour-plus session.

"Blue line and back. Red line and back. All the way down and back," McMorrow said of the gruelling routine. "Do laps and then they would put the nets in closer and we'd have to do laps around the nets. It was crazy."

Coaches banged their sticks on the ice, barking orders in between whistles. McMorrow remembers the jelly-like feeling in his legs as the session wore on.

"Guys didn't faint or anything but by the end of it, guys were pretty wiped out and probably drank about five or six Gatorades just because we were all dehydrated," he said.

"We knew that we deserved a punishment but it was pretty extreme."

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No one questioned whether it was appropriate at the time. Players were hopeful of one day reaching the NHL and didn't want to have ice time reduced, be disciplined further or have professional plans jeopardized by speaking out, McMorrow said.

Of course, drills are common in all age groups and all levels of sport. But when things drift from training and practice into discipline and punishment, it can cross a line that can have significant effects on the physical and mental health of athletes, experts say.

"Where I think it gets really tricky and messy is when you cannot develop a trustworthy relationship with your coaches and teammates," said Dr. Natalie Durand-Bush, a mental performance consultant and professor at the University of Ottawa's School of Human Kinetics.

"That's often what happens with that style of coaching. It's driven by fear and intimidation. Yes, it can work in some instances. But for the most part, I would argue that you can't get the best out of athletes because they're working based on fear and expectations of punishment and gruelling practices."

Plenty of headlines 

Player-coach interactions, particularly at the NHL level, have generated plenty of headlines of late. Bill Peters resigned as head coach of the Calgary Flames last week after apologizing for using offensive language 10 years ago.

Former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who was fired last month after the team's middling start, has been accused of questionable motivational tactics. Chicago assistant coach Marc Crawford is away from the Blackhawks while the team reviews his conduct with another organization.

Some are calling it a 'reckoning' or a 'moment' for the sport. The issue is expected to be a main topic of discussion at next week's NHL board of governors meeting in Pebble Beach, Calif.

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McMorrow, who played one game for the Buffalo Sabres in 2002-03, has spent nearly 20 years in a variety of pro leagues and is still an active player. He said while hockey has continued to evolve, he's pleased a so-called 'turning point' appears to have arrived.

"I think something like this is going to draw attention to how changes need to be made in the culture," he said from Ajax, Ont. "Along with that, there's going to be a lot of aspects that change with the sport. I'm pretty excited about it actually. I think it's going to be better for the game."

The issue isn't limited to hockey. Coaches across all sports — from young rep teams, to high school and university sport, right up to the pros — may be pondering whether they have singled out players, used questionable motivational tactics or fully considered mental and physical ramifications.

It's important not to paint all coaches with the same brush since many sporting experiences — for coaches and players alike — are steeped in positivity, joy and accomplishment.

However, in more intense settings, different techniques are sometimes used. Racism and physical violence are never acceptable but where should the line be drawn in other areas?

Should tough love become a thing of the past? Will negativity be outlawed? Is it OK to use an authoritarian approach?

Dr. Lisa Firestone, the director of research and education at The Glendon Association, a mental health non-profit based in California, said anything that plays on shame is not helpful.

"Whether it's old-school or not, it's still so normalized that it's really problematic," she said from Santa Barbara. "It does discourage athletes maybe from ever getting (to the next level) and yes, they're so beholdened to the coach who holds the key to their future.

"It can really feel very life-or-death-like and they internalize a lot of that, so you're affecting their mental health for years to come."

'Change the culture'

End goals like scholarships, athletic ascension or in some cases — multi-million dollar contracts — can also be factors when it comes to coach-player dynamics, pressure and performance.

Durand-Bush, who has worked with elite Canadian athletes and is a co-founder of the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport, suggests coaches really get to know their players, avoid the urge to dictate, and use a positive, collaborative approach.

"We have to change the culture," she said from Ottawa. "There's ways to succeed and win without compromising athletes' mental health."

Peter Niedre, the Coaching Association of Canada's education partnerships director, said awareness, communication and education are key.

"I think the most positive thing right now is that people are now talking about it," he said from Ottawa. "That's the first step and then we can educate. Education is the most significant pathway to behaviour change in coaching."

Durand-Bush said it's easy for competitors to become drained or burn out if they're overpushed.

The best way to get the most out of athletes, she added, is to challenge them and allow them to develop resilience while making sure support is there, with the focus on respect, dignity and encouragement.

"You challenge and you recover," she said from Ottawa. "But if you challenge and then you keep kicking them when they're down, how do you recover from that?

"And when I say recovery, I mean from every standpoint: physical, mental and emotional."


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