9/15/18 – Jason Dickinson, Julius Honka, and development through positive reinforcement

The Dallas Stars have taken a severe beating from fans for the inability to develop prospects into productive NHLers. Drafting players with high floors and low ceilings plays a part, but another part of this problem is getting talented players to blossom once they reach the professional ranks.

I think often the development process is misunderstood in sports and education in general. Skill development is only part of the equation. People have to have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills to the best of their abilities, and they also need to be in the right headspace to maximize those abilities.

It is still all too common to think of an athlete as weak-minded or some other garbage whenever the mental attributes of sports are brought up. Robin Lehner’s story as laid out in The Athletic shows an extreme proof of concept that, who knows, maybe isn’t that uncommon?

You can scream “be a professional” all day if you choose, but every job on earth is more difficult with outside distractions. I’ve been dealing with debilitating tooth pain for two weeks constantly. I only missed two days at work. If I had been evaluated on any of those days my evaluation would suggest I need to find a new line of work.

Nothing I went through compares to what Lehner has dealt with, obviously.

A large mental roadblock is confidence, and I don’t think the significance of confidence can be overstated when it comes to personal development. I see it every year with my students who come in expecting to fail because they always have. They make jokes, refuse to try, and avoid all work because doing all of these things keeps them from facing failure.

The fear to fail keeps people from taking risks. As a teacher I can do one of two things: reinforce that fear by emphasizing the mistake, or emphasize the courage it took to take the risk while correcting it in a positive way. Reminding people of their failure repeatedly doesn’t add to the person. They very likely know they messed up. Building that person up to be the best they can is often difficult, but it can be crucial.

Two days into the tenure of Jim Montgomery as the Stars head coach you’re already seeing that he is a master of this ability. The way he seems to be handling his young players provides that missing element in the development process that has kept the Stars prospects from thriving in Dallas.

Sean Shapiro’s reporting from camp has been excellent as always. Early on he has pulled some quotes that caught my eye. On day one of camp he caught up with former first round pick Jason Dickinson, a prospect who definitely needs to step up soon.

“The way he runs it out there, he’s not black and white,” Jason Dickinson said. “He sees the other options out there. Like we’re going through a neutral zone forecheck and although I might miss the perfect route, as long as he sees the recovery, he’s really happy with that. And he’ll come over, and say, ‘That was a great recovery. The route at the beginning wasn’t great, but I like where you came back to.’ And that’s a huge thing. If he’s able to recognize that you knew you messed up, but you were able to fix things.”

You can see Montgomery emphasizing the positive here. You can see the impact it has on Dickinson. Montgomery is showing him that he believes in his ability as a player to solve problems on the fly, and he’s praising his ability to solve this problem while showing him the optimal way to do it.

It adds value to the young player by validating what he did plus showing him the best way to do it. He doesn’t have to be in his head when it comes time for the game wondering if he’s going to lose ice time for making a mistake. He can just be himself and know that’s good enough.

Anyone with a passing interest in the local hockey team saw how the Stars handled Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, and then Julius Honka. Questioning the ability of the players to play in the NHL is fair on some level. Then you see how Pittsburgh was able to pull value out of Oleksiak, and how the Avalanche pulled value out of Nemeth.

Honka has more upside than either of those two ever did. His game was so marginalized last season that at times he was barely recognizable as Honka. What can he do if he’s allowed to be himself? Sean followed up with Honka and Montgomery about their impressions of each other so far.

When Montgomery looked at the film he saw in Honka a lack of confidence. There were many things to like, but the defender needed to be in a spot where he was trusted and wasn’t second-guessing himself every shift.

“I want to get the confidence back and play the offensive style of game that I do,” Honka said. “It’s nothing too much, just play and, of course, pay attention to those little details. Just enjoy and play, kind of go with the flow.”

[…]

“I think the biggest thing is I want to be myself more,” Honka said. “I haven’t really had the chance to bring the best out of me yet. It was a good summer. I feel ready to go.”

[…]

“You know what? I saw a smile on his face for the first time today. So I was really happy,” Montgomery said. “He’s always guarded around me, and I felt like someone, I don’t know how, he was smiling around the coaches. I think he’s starting to see that his feet are gonna be something that are gonna really help us the way we want to play defensively and offensively.”

He got Honka to smile. What more do you need to know?

Montgomery can only put these guys in the best position to succeed. The players still have to play. They’re going to play better if they can get out of their heads. Montgomery seems to be putting them in a place to maximize their abilities by building them up instead of putting them down. It remains to be seen how that will translate on the ice, but if I had to bet I would bet on it leading to a positive change for the Stars development fortunes.

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