Any parent, teacher, mentor, or in this case, hockey coach will tell you that keeping a handle on organized chaos is difficult. When you start talking about major-junior, collegiate, and professional hockey, that chaos usually swirls around developing young men into pieces of the puzzle that create a winning product. For the longest time, the focus was always on just that — winning. To a point it still is, because what would be the point of sport, especially professional sport, if no one really cared about winning?
But over the last several years, winning has been joined on the pedestal by the state of players’ mental health. We’ve seen it across the whole spectrum of sports — football, basketball, soccer, baseball, and hockey. But the story is always the same: no matter what’s going on around you, whether you’re in the prime of your career or slowly fighting your way up the ladder, mental health issues are the almighty equalizer, and no one is 100 percent immune.
The focus always seems to be on how the spotlight on mental health has changed the lives of players, but coaches are quietly overlooked. The game has not only changed for players, but coaches find themselves facing challenges and expectations that were never previously applied to them.
Kurtis Foster and Rob Wilson both find themselves working the bench as head coaches in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) now that their playing careers have come to an end. Foster is heading into his inaugural season as the bench boss for the Kingston Frontenacs, and Wilson is about to start his first season as the head coach of the Peterborough Petes, the team that he played with as a teenager.
I wanted to know how this recent spotlight on mental health has changed the dynamics of leading a team, how they plan to adjust and how their professional careers have prepared them for the unique challenges each will face when dealing with their players as individuals and as a team.
GSC — What is the biggest change, from a coaching standpoint, you have seen in hockey culture since the mental health of players has come under the spotlight?
Foster — “I’m only going into my third year of coaching. The difference from between the heart of my career to now is that I find players and everyone in the hockey world are more open with what is going on in their lives, and I think it’s a good thing. I mean, for a long time, as a player, you’re nervous or scared, kinda, to be honest with what you are feeling, and I think we are at a place now where people can be open and honest. You might not always get the response that you’d like, but at least you feel comfortable that you can speak your mind.”
Wilson — “I think one of the biggest changes is that everyone has to understand that listening has moved to the forefront. You have to be paying attention and be aware of what’s going on around you. When I was playing, it was different, and that’s not to fault anybody. It was just different. Players were definitely not as open to come forward with information or to talk about their private life as well as not just what’s going on on the ice. The whole game has changed as far as listening. I think everybody has their ears open, and people feel it’s okay to come forward and speak — that it doesn’t have to be hidden away. The difference now is, coming forward can show strength. Being strong enough to come forward and talk about these things is a good thing.”
GSC— Have you seen a change in the atmosphere and mentality from hockey players within the locker room in regards to understanding a teammate’s mental health issues?
Foster— “I wouldn’t say I have seen a big change. Part of being a teammate is taking note of the people around you and getting to know what makes them tick, to play their best, to be the most fun to be around, but also getting to know them or what they’re going through, where they’re from, what they like to do and what they don’t like to do. I think that’s all part of being a teammate. But I think at the same time, you’re correct in saying that people are paying more attention to it. I think as a coach, you have to always know your players the best, and know each one differently, what their strengths and their weaknesses are, how they deal with things, and if you do that it leads to learning and better play at the end of the day.”
Wilson — “It comes back again to it being a different time when I played. Maybe you would confide in one teammate, and if something did come out, you were really hesitant to go back to the dressing room the next day because of how your peers looked at you. I think kids today, and credit to them, and maybe it’s the world as a whole, are listening to a lot more. Your voice is no longer looked upon like, ‘Oh, did you hear about this?’ Instead, it’s now okay, and it’s important. The young people today, I see it with my own children, they’re very understanding and sympathetic.”
GSC — Do you find yourself having had to alter your own coaching philosophy or strategies to adapt to the new open conversation surrounding mental health?
Foster — “Me being a young coach, one benefit I think I do have is that I can relate to the players really well. I’m recently out of playing so I feel that they can relate to me, and I can be that kind of model to them, help them form that relationship style that might help them open up a little bit more than they would than say if I were an older guy that’s been around for a long time. I think for me it really helps me as a coach to get to know my players better than if I would have been coaching a long time ago.”
Wilson — “You have to grow as a person and as a coach. You talk about sport and society mirroring each other. To be effective as a coach you have to go with what had been going on, and you have to be abreast of the situation and everything else that is happening. It’s just everything that is going on in day-to-day life, and the two of them mirroring each other helps you grow as a coach and as a person.”
GSC — Do think that old-school coaching mentality of “toughen up and play” will ever fully disappear from competitive hockey?
Foster — “That’s a tough question. I feel that there are pros and cons to any kind of coaching style you might have, and I think that we’re in a day and age where concussions and mental health, those sort of things, have changed and evolved the game. We have to really listen to our therapists and our doctors as to what our players’ best interests are at the heart of these decisions we’re trying to make, but at the same time, our job is to grow and develop young players in a winning environment. Because if we don’t win we don’t develop, and we don’t have a job.”
Wilson — “It’s not about ‘toughen up and play,’ and it was never just on the coaches. It was also the environment of the players and how they felt they were viewed by their peers or their own parents, their brother or their friend group that they went to high school with. Then they’d go on to play hockey somewhere and that was how they wanted their new organization to view them, and that had a lot to do with the situation. It wasn’t just the coaches that players were worried about what they were thinking. When I look back now, you realize all of the coaches, whether you liked them or not, we’re just humans too. It was a different time, and it wasn’t just on the coaches. How the players felt around their teammates and peers added just as much pressure as the coaches.”
GSC — Did you ever have one of those moments as a player where you found yourself battling anxiety or depression, or doubting yourself? How did you handle it? What about as a coach?
Foster — “If it ever did happen, I wasn’t very open with it. Maybe my wife or family might have known about it, but that part of the game I kind of kept to myself. But, using a sports psychologist, probably seven or eight years into my career, kind of changed my game and helped me rely on the five or six things that I really needed to do to really play my best. Once I got that critical thinking down, it really let me play a better overall hockey game.”
Wilson — “At that time I wouldn’t have told anybody, probably wouldn’t even have told a close teammate to be honest. That was just the way that I was. I wouldn’t have dealt with that. I think there were many different times where I had anxiety for sure, feeling like, ‘Oh God, I didn’t play well,’ or ‘I’m disappointed.’ I remember a few times, getting released from NHL camps feeling very, very low, feeling ‘I should have done better’ or ‘why did I do this?’ You know I fought a bit, especially when I was younger, so when you have that role you feel the anxiety of letting down your teammates if you lose a fight. Or the night before a game, and you know you might have to fight against someone who is known as one of the tougher guys in the league, so you do have those anxieties. I think you would be stretching the truth if you said you didn’t.”
GSC — Do you think more pressure has been put on hockey coaches now that they have to be more aware of their player’s mental health? How do you plan to handle those situations?
Foster — “Going back to what I said earlier, it’s all about getting to know your players. It’s about getting to know them not just as a hockey player but on a personal level. Once they are able to open up to you and explain what they’re going through, there’s going to be days where you’re going to have to tell a player, ‘You had a bad game or practice,’ or, ‘You didn’t seem into it today,’ and when I played coaches never really asked you ‘why.’ Now, I feel like we are asking the ‘why.’ Maybe they aren’t seeing themselves. Maybe we’ll open up to the root of the answer, which, hopefully, will lead to solutions, which will help the player and the team at the end of the day.”
Wilson — “I don’t think it’s pressure, but you do have to be way more understanding, and you have to be up on it. I have an open-door policy, and I make it clear from day one that if you want to talk to me about family, friends, girlfriends, school, not just about hockey, you can speak your mind. I’ve been dealing with a lot of pro guys over the years. Guys are married and things aren’t going so good, and whatever they have told me I have kept to myself in order to build trust. One of the things that I have learned, that I first heard seven or eight years ago when you’re a coach you have a responsibility to make a positive impact.”
GSC — What is the one piece of advice that you are going to pass on to your players about how to handle themselves as players and people when they are dealing with feelings of doubt and depression?
Foster — “I think that the biggest thing I am going to say to guys is that they need to find somebody to talk to. Whether it’s a teammate, family member or coach, you just can’t keep it to yourself. Because when you keep it to yourself, it just builds and builds and builds, and they’re at such young ages that they just don’t know how to deal with that, and you just don’t know where they’ll go. If they’re able to talk to people, at least they can get it off their chest at first. Hopefully, whoever they are dealing with or talking to can give them some advice that leads them to the right solution.”
Wilson — “That the sun will come up tomorrow and there is a new day ahead, and that nothing is ever as bad as it seems. I wish that when I was a young person, I would have realized that. That you are going to make choices that aren’t perfect, and that’s okay.”