Dear Coaches, You Affect Hockey Player Development Way More Than You Think

Ben LevesqueCoaching12 Comments

pygmalion effect in hockey

When it comes to hockey player development, so many factors play into the big picture.

Things like physical ability, work ethic, self-confidence and attitude play a HUGE part in how well a player develops—both on and off the ice.

And while we know that great coaching, proper training regimens & adequate ice time are precursors to proper player development, one question remains unanswered…

Why do some payers develop better or more rapidly than others?

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I covered this topic briefly in my previous article on hockey player development, but this time around I’m talking about a completely different concept.

Consider the following example… 

If you were to take two hockey players that are carbon copies of each other—that is, they have the exact same potential, undergo the exact same coaching & training, and have the exact same physical ability—why would one end up developing better or faster than the other?

Well, the answer might have to do with a psychological concept called  ‘The Pygmalion Effect‘.

And this Pygmalion Effect has nothing to do with the players, and ALL to do with the coach.

If you’re a hockey coach (or any coach for that matter), you need to understand this weird effect so you can use it to your advantage and get the most out of your players.

In fact, just understanding how to apply it can improve your entire lineup.

It’s not about X’s and O’s on a whiteboard…

It’s not even about booking extra ice-time at your local rink…

If you want to improve your entire team, and more importantly, help your players develop faster and more effectively, then keep reading

What’s the Pygmalion Effect all about?

The definition of the Pygmalion Effect in psychology is as follows:

“The Pygmalion effect is a type of self-fulfilling prophecy where if you think something will happen, you may unconsciously make it happen through your actions or inaction.”

Too abstract?

Let me explain in plain English…

The Pygmalion effect is at work when someone raises their expectations of someone else’s performance, which actually leads to an increase in said person’s performance.

If it isn’t obvious already, this concept is extremely important in coaching—especially when it comes to player development.

But before we apply this concept to hockey, let’s take a look at it at work in the classroom.

The Pygmalion Effect at work

hockey sense gap

A study conducted by Rosenthal & Jacobson showed that, “if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from children, then the children’s performance was enhanced.

Their whole hypothesis is that reality can be positively or negatively influenced by the expectations of others.

In their study, a teacher was led to believe that a handful of students were smarter than the others (even though they were chosen at random), and so the teacher expected them to do better than the rest.

These higher expectations led to actions and inactions by the teacher that fostered a higher performance from these supposedly “smarter” students—even though they were chosen at random!

That’s the Pygmalion Effect at work in the classroom, and it’s just as powerful in the hockey world.

The Pygmalion Effect for hockey coaches

Remember our two identical hockey players?

What if a hockey coach is told before the season that Player 1 has tremendous potential? Even if it’s not true, he’ll most likely treat him differently than Player 2even though they’re identical players in all facets of the game.

Whether on a conscious or subconscious level, this new expectation WILL cause a change in the coach’s actions and/or lack of actions towards both players.

For example,

  • He may convey that he believes in Player 1 more often than he does Player 2.
  • He may be more demanding of Player 1 than he is of Player 2
  • He may meet less with Player 2 than he does with Player 1
  • He may be more negative with Player 2 than he is with Player 1

The list can go on and on, but it’s clear in the scenario above that Player 1 would come out on top in terms of performance and/or development due to the Pygmalion Effect.

The idea here is that a coach’s expectations can lead to actions & inactions that directly or indirectly affect a player’s performance—most times without the coach even realizing it! 

A real life example of the Pygmalion Effect in hockey

I know I talk about Guy Boucher often on this website, but it’s because he was one of my mentors and in my opinion is one of the great minds in hockey today.

Back in Junior, not a day would go by where he wouldn’t check in on each and every player on our team.

Even if it was just to talk about things other than hockey, he always wanted you to stop by his office and chat for a few minutes.

He always conveyed that he believed in you and would stress that he had high expectations for your upcoming game.

It seems insignificant, I know.

But you didn’t want to let him down…

When a player knows his coach believes in him and expects nothing but the best, you can be damn sure that the player will do everything he can to get the job done.

And after bad performances, he made it clear that he wanted more—it’s safe to say you worked twice as hard that week during practice to make sure you were ready for your next game.

That’s the power of the Pygmalion Effect. Unfortunately, it’s not all roses and rainbows…

The downside of the Pygmalion Effect

So far the Pygmalion Effect has proven to be nothing but awesomeness.

Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword for coaches.

You probably caught on already, but the underlying message is this…

Show your players you believe in them, and they well excelbut neglect them, and they will under perform.

It unfortunately works both ways.

Just as you can have high expectations for one player and have them strive to meet those expectations, neglecting another player either consciously or subconsciously can lead to bad performance and even underdevelopment.

You’ve been warned!


The Pygmalion effect can make a huge difference in a player’s level of development and/or performance.

As a coach, make sure you convey your expectations early and often to your players, without being overly hard on them of course.

The idea here is to let your players know you believe in them and that you expect them to perform.

By doing this, they’ll subconsciously work harder to meet your expectations.

It’s not trickery or cheating—it’s simply communication between teacher and student.

Remember to treat everyone the same and not favor one player over another, even if skill level differs.

In fact, you can oftentimes bring about more change with this conceptt in lower performing players than in higher performing players, as it’s those who are struggling that need to know you believe in them.

Show your players you believe.

The rest will take care of itself with a bit of help from the Pygmalion Effect.

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About the author

Ben Levesque

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Ben has been playing hockey for 20+ years and has learned a ton from playing with the world's best coaches & players. Among his accomplishments are a National Championship, a President's Cup, a Semi-Final finish at the Memorial Cup, several Queen's Cups and a helmet in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

12 Comments on “Dear Coaches, You Affect Hockey Player Development Way More Than You Think”

  1. Marc mestanas

    Hey Ben,
    I just wanted to say all your articles this year have been so helpful to me and I have been reading them all year. Prior to this year I didn’t make my AAA team as a Bantam Major because I was undersized. I played for a AA team this year and it was an up and down season for me. Overall, down the stretch of the season I used a lot of your articles to push me past the some of the hardships that came my way. And in the end I was the main guy on my team and I helped my team win a state championship. Your articles are great and I will use them in the future.

    1. Ben Levesque

      Hey Marc! That’s awesome! Glad to hear my articles helped you out! Congrats on the state championship, and hopefully there’s more to come! Keep up the good work 🙂

  2. Magnus

    Just wanted to say thank you for a really helpful and inspiring blog!
    I play in a recreatinal league in Finland. Its just for my personsal health and joy. Reading your articles really motivates me to get better and work harder. And you give tons of handy and usefull tips ofcourse. So thank you Sir!

  3. Stephen

    Coaching and playing at all levels for over 25 years this critical insight to the hockey mind is brilliant.
    Coaching my squirt a majors to the state championship in Massachusetts was the by ptoduct of your book.

    Stephen Estey

    1. Ben Levesque

      Hey Stephen, thanks for your comment! This definitely is a powerful concept and when used properly can make all the difference! Glad it worked out for you! Best of luck with all that is to come in your coaching career.

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