ballard journey 2

After putting in a twenty-plus year career working with all types of athletes in hockey, I try to focus on one important philosophy: Spend your time to focus on your journey instead of being caught up in your career destination. Where you end up in the game for your coaching career should be important to you if you have any ambition whatsoever. However, it’s importance to you shouldn’t outweigh the pleasure and the opportunity that a coach has of impacting their player’s lives on a daily basis.

My Early Years

Throughout my career in coaching, I have always preached my one important mantra to my players every year, “Enjoy the journey boys, you will always look back on this time and tell yourself that those were the best times of my life”. Yet, I could never get out of my own head to realize that I had not been practicing what I was preaching to my players. For years, I was striving to become the next up and coming coach at the highest level imaginable despite never playing at that level or understanding what it took to get there. I was looking so far ahead that I lost my true grasp on what I was determined to achieve.

Ballard Journey
One of my first championship teams from my early years back in Minnesota. The Iron Range Yellow Jackets.

I have always wanted to be a massive impact in my players lives because I still respect all the sacrifices that each one of them made to this day to chase an unknown dream.  It takes a lot of moxie for any young man to travel across the country, or even the world, and compete to try to advance their playing career to the highest level possible in our sport.  The countless bus rides, plane flights, training sessions, and the complete brutality of our sport take a toll on your body, your mind, and sometimes they can take a toll on your spirit.  There were so many families that had entrusted me to take their young sons under my wing and teach them the finer things in hockey and in life. I will always be grateful for that.

One of the many distractions that keep all players and coaches going is the “dream”. For those of you who don’t know what the “dream” is, here’s a loose definition – It’s when we get caught from time to time visualizing what it is going to be like when we finally make it to the level that we dream about.  For some, it may be the NHL, and for me it was.  Ever since I started coaching, I wanted to be involved with the NHL in some way, shape, or form as a coach. It was a passion of mine that fueled me every day. 

No matter what walk of life you’re in – you are guilty of dreaming.  Heck, we all are.  Whether we want to be a millionaire in business or a professional athlete playing in front of a crowd of thousands, every single one of us tries to escape reality and visualize our success. While visualizing success is argued by many to be a key component to success (and I agree that it is), there is a fine line where our ambition becomes a distraction.

That’s because when you focus on the destination, it is easy to lose touch with the present.

Young Coaching Mistakes

Teaching was not always at the forefront of my coaching objectives early in my career. My passion was motivating and keeping my players in a positive state of mind so that they would operate at their highest levels individually and as a team.  The problem with that was that now that I look back, I probably missed the boat on developing and connecting with my players that needed instruction on how to play the game.

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After I arrived in Fresno, I was too focused on the next step.

In the endless rat race of junior & college hockey, the nature of the beast is to get the next great player.  For years, I scurried to recruit and trade for the next great player because I believed that if I had an immaculate coaching record that it would help elevate my career. People at the next level want winners, and I was too busy trying to be one. Unfortunately, that can be the nature of the beast. I was looking over the fence for the next big opportunity, which now that I look back, forced me to fall short at times and lose touch with why I was there in the first place. Yes, I was trying to advance my career, but being caught up in that neglected so many other things.

Now that I am a parent of a 20-year-old junior hockey player I am starting to really understand the meaning of the title “Head Coach” or “General Manager”.  As I walk around the rinks and attend scouting showcases across the country, I am continually evaluating the behavior of coaches and see what drives them.  Unfortunately, I am seeing way too many coaches make the same mistake that I did when I was their age.  Frantically running around and making promises to the next up and coming star because he holds their promotion to the next level in their hands.  Don’t get me wrong – I understand that we are all competitive.  It’s why coaches do what they do.  However, too many young coaches are focusing on the destination.

A Moment of Perspective

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with former Dallas Stars Head Coach and now Vancouver Canucks Assistant Coach Glen Gulutzan when he served as the guest speaker for the NAHL’s yearly banquet. Glen delivered a speech that was filled with life lessons, however, there was one point he made that still sticks with me to this day. “If you do what is always best for the player, then people at the higher levels of hockey will always notice what you stand for.” 

Ballard Gulutzan Journey
Meeting Glen was a life changing moment for me as a coach.

I wish I would have had that chance to hear that message sooner in my career as I’m certain that would have refocused on the way I did things.

When you care too much about your career, you miss out on the opportunity of getting to know your players as brothers, sons, grandsons, cousins, and most of all, human beings. You never really learn what makes them tick away from the rink, at the gym or the public appearances and you fail to grasp the concept why you are put in that position of “Head Coach”. 

It is a privilege because you’re not only in charge their development in the game of hockey, you’re also responsible for their development in the game of life.  Coaches cannot overlook preparing young athletes by developing their soft skills in life.  They are extremely important and seem to be a skill that continues to dwindle every year. Unfortunately, now that I look back, it seemed to always be an afterthought. I was caught up in how to win more games and how to cash in on that. 

A bold statement? Yep, I can agree. I can admit that at times it was my intention and I was consciously and unconsciously thinking about it.  Now I realize that I missed out on countless opportunities to make relationships with my players after I talk to all of my colleagues about the importance of several coaches in their lives.

How I’m Improving As A Coach

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I am always trying to get through to my players.

Now, at the University of Colorado, I am continually trying to get to know my players on a personal level each year by spending more time and being more involved with them as they grow. Whether it is small things like proctoring exams, talking about family matters, girlfriends, or to just ask how their day is going, I am trying to impact them in any way that I can.  In turn, it is creating a closeness that I truly enjoy and has opened a line of communication between me and my players.  In our recent exit meetings this past year, I am learning to become more positive on the bench during games because that is what they want to have.  Whenever I speak to other coaches, I would say a majority of them have the same problem.  The nature of the beast tries to creep in every once in a while, but now I have help recognizing that it is there.

Right or wrong, I had been programmed to be so intense and have high expectations all the time in junior and midget AAA hockey that I wasn’t paying attention to what my message was to my athletes.  In a world of “Win at all costs”, we tend to lost perspective on what is truly important.  Actually, you can still win today and be fired!  Why? Because coaches are failing to see that coaching is about development for the player as an athlete AND as an individual.When a player gets those two components from a coach, he becomes better for it all.  When a player has a sense of accomplishment to the process and is rewarded for their efforts, they, in turn, develop into better people for society.

Spending time with certain players and understanding their struggles and obstacles in life is something I am really excited about doing a better job at.  I recently worked with a player that spent 2 full seasons playing at a very high level in the world of Junior ‘A’ hockey.  In his third season of juniors, he chose a path that did not work out as he and his family had planned, which as a coach we know happens all of the time.

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Its a privilege to coach in venues like this today.

However, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with him and after investing my time into his personal development, I learned that he had so much to offer this game. It had become clear to me that he had been programmed for so long to look at the destination that he was not enjoying the journey.  It took us both some time to realize how important we were about to become to each other in our lives’ through hockey.  After the dust settled, he found himself playing NCAA DI college hockey, which was right where he always wanted to be.  His journey had some ups and downs that tested his faith and belief that he belonged and for most of the time spent together we understood it was going to be an uphill climb. 

We kept things very positive, constructive and continuously worked on small things both on and off the ice that helped him realize that he was worthy and that he was where he needed to be.  At the time, there was no way we could have predicted the outcome and it turned out so much better than we both had hoped.  His journey taught me so much. 

Getting to know him on a personal level and offering advice that helped propel him as a person are what helped me help him through his own efforts. Now, he is a NCAA Division I collegiate hockey player and enjoying where he is.  Early in my career, I don’t think I would have made the decision to get to know what made him tick.  I probably would have cast him under the category of “He just can’t play” or “He just doesn’t get it” and traded him to Timbuktoo.

His success at the end is one of the reasons why I keep going.  I am grateful that he and his family believed in me and I was able to help him realize his goals. He bought in that if he put in the time, then he would win in the end.  He never faked it!

My Final Advice

In closing, my advice to players, parents and coaches is simple: Take the time to enjoy the journey and quit spending so much time focusing on the destination.  It sounds very easy when you put it in writing, but we all know that it becomes very difficult and stressful when things don’t go the way we all want them to.  Stay the course, talk to people you can trust and always keep your faith in the notion that if you truly put in the time, everything will work out.

All the hard work and dedication will ultimately pay off.  You get out exactly what you put in.  Hopefully, as coaches, we can remind ourselves that coaching is a privilege and it is so important to fully understand how important you are and can be to these young men or women you are in charge of. 

Focus on the journey and appreciate where you are. Life happens too fast.

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Eric Ballard
Eric is the Head Coach of the University of Colorado Men's Ice Hockey Team and owner of ETP Sports Group. Throughout his career, he has coached hockey for more than 20 years up to the NAHL level and served as a scout for teams in the WHL and USHL.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article….I wish every coach of every sport could read and adopt this philosophy.

  2. From the time we sat with you at the Greeley Ice Haus till Tim left your side to try things in Minnesota I have always believed in you and what you stood for. Your intensity was second to none and we always felt secure in your leadership as a coach and person. For me personally and as a parent of a hockey player you coached, I can only say those were the best years of my son’s life (as well as mine) and I will always be thankful you saw something in Tim and took him under your wing. Great article!

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