It doesn’t matter if the team is at the minor level, high school, varsity, NHL or Olympics. Once poison creeps into the locker room, it’s an incredibly hard extermination to perform.

We’ve all seen teams that struggle, seemingly without reason, turning wins – even occasional ones – into incredible losing streaks . When this happens at the Pro level, watch the press conferences from the frustrated and bewildered head coaches and general managers: the same word crops up time and time again. That word, ironic for a team incapable of scoring, or a defense incapable of stopping plays, is confidence.

Confidence

It’s ironic because somewhere along the line, confidence – that characteristic that comes with hours of practice and play – has gone into hiding, afraid to show its shining face. That’s because somehow, the collective team’s confidence has been compromised. Teasing and sarcasm turn into digs, and somehow those digs in the locker room begin to amplify in the players’ minds. “That pass was three feet ahead of me” or “always in my skates”. Or “Can’t win a battle on the boards”. “Puck hog.”. “Swiss Cheese”.

Then, as those little whispers start to resonate on the ice, that’s when crazy things start to happen. A forward will get the puck, split the “D” and has a clear shot at the opposition’s goal, but the locker room whispers of “He never passes the puck” goes through his mind and the goal-hungry burst of energy and speed he’s just displayed melts in a millisecond. That confidence-shaking mind flash overrides his playing instincts and, instead of making the shot, he looks for a winger to send the puck to, to share the puck with and prove he’s not what they say he is.

And that’s when it all goes sideways.

If no one is there, you’ve run out of room to change your mind and make the shot and that perfect moment, the one where it was just you bearing down on the goalie, his eyes piercing through you, is lost and may never show itself again that game. If there is a winger in sight, chances are the opposition will sense your change of heart and grab the puck while it’s being passed, anticipating the play.

And, as it happens so often in hockey, missed great scoring opportunities are followed by a gut-wrenching goal down at the other end just a few seconds later.

The poison in a dressing room doesn’t just effect the goal scorers, but defensemen and, of course, goaltenders too. The defensemen stop winning their board battles and can’t seem to get the puck out of their zone to save their lives – or keep it in their’s, either. Goalies start taking unqualified risks and go left when they should go right. Centers stop winning face-offs and wingers are the last ones out of the opponent’s zone.

Removing the Poison

A poisoned locker room may be just about as hard to exterminate as bed bugs in a two-star hotel, but here are a few strategies to help get your players back on track:

  1. Keep your instructions simple. Tell your centers to “Win Your Faceoff” and tell them “Good job!” when they do. Tell your defensemen to “Win Your Battles” and tell them “Good job!” when they do. Tell your forwards to “Shoot on goal” and tell them “Good job!” when they do. Count their shots, their zone exits, their saves and “Good job!” them every time you can. Notice the exclamation point after “Good job!” and use it!
  2. Celebrate and reinforce all the positives, even if you need to dig deep to find them. If your team is able to survive in a short-handed situation, tell them “Good job!” If they get scored on short handed, but did their best to keep their position throughout the attack, tell them “Good job!” Deeks that work, head’s-up plays, tape-on-tape passes — no matter what it is, find the positives and celebrate them by saying “Good job” — and mean it.
  3. Insulate your team from negative talk outside the locker room. Media, fans and parents can all be positive — and negative — influences on a team. Keep your players away from the trolls as much as you can. That may mean, as hard as it may be, to disregard your Twitter feed or fan forums.
  4. Don’t play the blame game – I know coaches who have a 24-hour rule in place – parents, for example, can complain about something that’s happened in a game but they need to wait 24 hours before they do. Although that’s not always how it works, don’t take sides before you know the whole story and then think about your team and each of the individual players before you do. If you’re going to play politics, you need to play nice.
  5. Never Stop Believing – or else. The Pro teams can sometimes make shifts with their players depending on the contracts, but at the lower levels, the team you’ve got is the team you’re stuck with until the season’s end, so if you stop believing in your team, there’s no turning back. Let them know you believe in them: take them aside one-by-one, if you have to, listen, encourage and let all of them know you believe.