Building confidence is the single most important task for a hockey coach.

When you’re teaching a high school math class, it’s not always easy to find ways to praise the struggling students – I mean the ones who truly struggle: working hard and finding it difficult to experience success.

Not easy? Why should “easy” be a factor when the job of a teacher or coach is the most important in the world – preparing youngsters for life?

I’d argue that building confidence is the single most important task for a hockey coach. Yet we often see coaches (and parents) doing just the opposite: working consistently to tear down confidence, criticizing every mistake, ignoring small steps that can lead to major improvement.

Sometimes a student needs to hear that the small positive step forward – a math problem done half right – is a huge step in the right direction. A young hockey player, whose skills are not yet up to the standards of a Patrick Kane (or even to the team average), needs to be rewarded for a successful small step that seemed almost insurmountable beforehand. Otherwise, the pressure to avoid trial-and-possible-error is too great in the competitive world of youth hockey and academic achievement.

Without recognition and confidence, improvement is unlikely – and improvement is our job, not winning a frigging Bantam game. And– for those who want to measure teacher success with standardized tests – educational success is not measured by scores on a frigging exam. Ask Albert Einstein.

Harvey McKay quoted the aging Duke of Wellington, a British military genius who, in conjunction with the Prussian army, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.  Asked if the retired leader had advice regarding mistakes he might have made in his life, “I’d give people I worked with more praise,” was the immediate reply.

McKay cautions us to be honest. Don’t make up success where there is none. But I’d add: work harder to find small steps. The kids who score don’t need as much praise. They get plenty, but don’t forget the little things they do that don’t turn into goals. I often wonder when I see coaches taking out the notebook after a depressing goal-against: Do they ever write about a positive play that would otherwise be forgotten?  That would fill up those pocket notebooks in a hurry.

If you can’t find small steps in the right direction every day, you’re not looking.