Every athlete knows, there needs to be a strong mental foundation in order to achieve ultimate athletic success. These days, prowess goes beyond the ability to just play the game, extending into training both physically and mentally.
Dave Blanchard and those at Sno-King Amateur Hockey Association in Washington state have fully embraced the importance of coaching the mind.
Introduced for the first time this 2019-20 season, Blanchard and his team rolled out a mental skills program for all 36 of their 10U and up hockey teams in an effort to help players focus on mindfulness, emotions, attitude and brain aspects of the game.
Developing Lifelong Skills
“There [were] a couple of us that wanted to try to start instilling some different qualities in our players,” said Blanchard, who has served as executive director of Sno-King Amateur Hockey Association since 2017. “Our mission is developing players for life, so that has three aspects to it, one of which is developing life skills. That happens pretty naturally through youth sports, and there’s a lot of great things that happens through hockey that teaches life skills, but we’re trying to be a little bit more intentional about it.
“So, we now have a program that goes through things like mental toughness and grit and how to visualize and how to relax and all of these different things; all the things that will help the kids as they become adults to have better relationships, do well in school and in their careers, and become positive influences on their communities.”
Blanchard credits legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden for first getting the wheels turning in his own mind about a way to truly leave an impression on the players in his association. He notes that with all of the readily available distractions surrounding kids today, reminding them to focus on life’s important characteristics is becoming a priority at Sno-King.
“We want to provide an avenue where it cuts through all of the noise from music and TV, where they can hear about things like teamwork and character traits - like what it means to be trustworthy. We want them to learn life lessons that they can take with them.”
How It Works
The mental skills program is backed by Pro Performance and mindfulness coach and sports psychology consultant Jaime Sawchuk. Each team is encouraged to sign-up for the online training lessons, with parents being also nudged to sign-up for the lessons with their player to continue the conversations together at home. Each lesson is segmented to be age-appropriate, and none of the lessons are mandatory for any player or team.
“A 10U player might understand grit in one context, and if they can move on and remember that word and a few other things, we’ve done our job,” said Blanchard, who noted an 80 percent participation rate in the first lesson in October and a 15 to 1 positive reaction from participants in the inaugural lesson. “Then, as they turn in to a 12 year old, they see that word differently and on to 14 and 15, and the hope is that will stick with them the rest of their life.
“I don’t think many places do anything like this, and I think we are kind of cutting-edge that way. But I feel really strongly that it helps round out our program and give the kids a good experience. It’s a natural fit.”
Going Beyond the Ice Drives Demand for Ice
The mental skills program is just one way that Sno-King is working to attract and retain youth hockey players. The association has implemented a full marketing campaign centered around learn-to-play programs, purposely sacrificing public skate time in order to fill both youth and adult ‘learn-to-plays’, in turn, fully increasing numbers as they move toward the opening of the third Sno-King Ice Arena in June of 2020.
The association is in the process of adding a brand-new 72,500 square-foot facility in Snoqualmie, Washington with two NHL-sized sheets. HTG Architects is thrilled to help hockey grow across the state of Washington with the third arena expansion.
“The goal is when we open the arena we can hit the ground running with some additional teams,” said Blanchard, who in addition to the 36 10U and up squads, also oversees 14 6U-8U teams. “We currently have two arenas and 2.5 sheets of ice, so at any given time we can have upwards of 65 kids for practice being an ADM model association with station-based practices. For public skates, we have 300-350 on the ice and in the learn-to-plays there’s about 40 or 50 per session on the ice.
“We can definitely use the extra ice, and as a whole, we couldn’t be more excited about the direction we’re moving in.”