© 2009. Liberty Mutual and Positive Coaching Alliance. All Rights Reserved.
Doug Wilson | elm tree of Mastery
The Responsible Sports Podcast series features Positive Coaching Alliance founder and Executive Director Jim
Thompson interviewing prominent former athletes, coaches and general managers. Each episode, these influential stars share their insights on Responsible Sports from their own sports careers. Listen in as they talk about filling emotional tanks, bouncing back from mistakes, staying motivated through long seasons to continually give 100% effort, and how they translated their sports experience to invaluable life lessons. about jim thompson
Jim Thompson is the founder and Executive Director of Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a nonprofit organization founded at Stanford University with the mission of helping to transform the culture of youth sports to give all young athletes the opportunity for a positive, character-building experience. PCA serves as the experts behind the Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports program. about responsible sports The Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports TM program supports volunteer youth sports coaches and parents who help our children succeed both on and off the ice. We offer many youth sports resources including $2,500 community grants, instructional videos, weekly tips, peer and expert advice, and coursework for those interested in improving the youth sports experience for all involved. To learn more, visit ResponsibleSports.com
in this episode: doug Wilson Doug Wilson is the General Manager of the National Hockey League (NHL) San Jose Sharks and a former Canadian professional ice hockey defenseman. After playing junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey Association, Wilson was drafted 6th overall in the 1977 NHL Entry Draft. He played 14 seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks and two years for the San Jose Sharks in the NHL. He was the first captain in Sharks history, serving two years before retiring after the 1992–93 season. His daughter Chelsea plays volleyball for the University of Southern California. His son Doug plays hockey at Tufts University. Doug and his wife, Kathy, have four children: Lacey, Doug, Charlie and Chelsea. Doug Wilson serves as a National Advisory Board Member for Positive Coaching Alliance. episode information
Episode Number 1
Episode Date: October 9, 2009
(p) 2009. Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports
© 2009. Liberty Mutual and Positive Coaching Alliance. All Rights Reserved.
This is Jim Thompson with Positive Coaching Alliance. And I’m here with Doug Wilson, the general manager
of the San Jose Sharks and an eight-time NHL All-Star. Doug, thanks for joining us.
Oh, it’s my pleasure.
Doug, you were-- you were one of the top defensive players in the NHL when you played for the Blackhawks
and even won the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman of the year. Nonetheless, once in a while, somebody
got lucky and scored a goal against you. How did you-- How did you bounce back and get your head back in the
game when an opponent scored a goal against you?
Well first of all, it was more than once in a while. It was-- Hockey is a game of mistakes like most athletic
sports are. And the preparation that you put into the game is-- you know, the mental aspect of it, you always try
to visualize good things happening. But you also have to be prepared when something bad happens, to say “You
know what? That’s just part of the game,” and go forward.
So I think it was the understanding that hockey is a game of mistakes. You can’t be afraid of failure. And just to
understand that all you can do is control the next shift and the next couple of minutes in your game. You know, it
was something that I had learned, I think, from growing up with my family and participating in many other sports,
and watching other people handle not only success but the failures that come along the way.
Did you actually visualize before games?
Oh, absolutely. Before I went to every game, I had a tape that I’d put together, just of four or five simple
plays, so that I had positive thoughts in my mind before I went to the game every day. And it was-- I tried to
remove all the clutter from my mind and just kind of read and react and play, but have positive thoughts before I
went into the game.
Positive Coaching Alliance has this concept of the ELM tree of mastery, “E for effort, L for learning, M for
mistakes, bouncing back from mistakes.” How do you think youth coaches should deal with players who make
Well, I think it depends on the type of mistakes. You know, if it’s a mistake through laziness or through
cheating, meaning cutting corners, I think you have to address that in a different way than you do an honest mistake. And I think that, you know, we feel that young people learn (1) through talking about it, then through seeing it, and then through repetition. And, in our sport, it’s just the repetition of doing things properly and trying to create good habits.
Now, if somebody does not put the work or time into it, especially if you’re on a team, then you’ve got an issue
that you have to address that. But I do think you have to acknowledge if the player has been brought up the right
way, and the parents and the coaches have been, I think, consistent with the approach, usually the players knows
when he’s made a mistake before anybody else. And he can take that and use that as a learning experience, not
only for that person, but a teaching experience for them and for the teammates also.
We have a concept we call a teachable spirit. You know, no matter what happens, try to learn something
from it. I’m curious-- When you look at scouting young players to become part of your organization, what are the
kind of characteristics you look for in those potential NHL stars?
Well, what you do is you look for character. You look for hockey sense. You look to see if they truly, truly
love the game. Then you look to see if they understand and accept the responsibility to make those around them
better. And the fifth one is, do they perform the best when it matters the most.
So, when we’re looking for young players, we look to see how they handle adversity. I love to see a player make a
mistake on the ice in the first shift of the game, or something bad happened, and see how he reacts to it. Because, if he’s got the proper character and the belief system, and he’s been, I think, taught or been in a positive
environment, he’s going to continue to play and not going to go into a shell and not make plays.
You want people that want the puck on their stick at the end of the game when it matters. And, you know, when
you’re a kid, and you’re playing outdoors with your friends, there’s no adults around or coaches, that’s just your
natural instinct. So I think it’s really important that coaches and parents kind of enable and support that type of
approach that things do happen. Now show what you’re truly made of. And that is how you react to a little bit of
You know, that seems like a really important message for athletes. Because I think when athletes are in a
tryout situation, they feel like they can’t make a mistake. And, if they knew that how they responded to a mistake
could actually benefit them, that could help them a lot.
Well, we try and share that with them up front, is we don’t expect anybody to be perfect. You know, that’s
not what hockey is about. And very few sports are that way. But, if you know and you have a belief system in
yourself-- I remember talking to Michael Jordan once he’d missed-- Somebody had asked him-- He had missed 11
baskets in a row-- what did he think was going to happen with the next one. He says “I’m going to make that one.
There’s not even a doubt in my mind.”
And that’s the type of approach that you really want. And kids are fearless. You know, they-- they react, some
times, to other people if they think that “Jeez, you know, that’s somebody bad has just happened. And how do I
react to it?” I think that the parents and the coaches can inspire those teachable moments and really instill the
ability for an athlete to flourish in the face of adversity. Even though I always also feel that how you handle suc
cess sometimes is even tougher than how you handle failure.
Say a little more about that. Because I think most people think “Wow, I’m successful. That’s the end of the
Well, how you handle success, sometimes, is you become bigger than the team. You start feeling full of
yourself. You lose the respect for the game. You might not be as humble and respectful as you should be. So, we
watch for players that sometimes believe they’re press clippings and go outside of the team dynamic. And how
you handle success, that can reveal an awful lot about you too.
That’s great. Another concept we talk about in Positive Coaching Alliance is the emotional tank. Every kid--
Every person, really-- But every kid has an emotional tank. And, when it’s full, they can play their best. When it’s
drained because they’re yelled at all the time, etcetera, they don’t play their best. I’m wondering, what coaches in
your career were good at filling your emotional tank?
Well, I had a great coach, probably the winningest (sic) junior coach in hockey history, Mr. Brian Couric.
And he could be very firm, you know, in how things needed to be done. But, if a mistake happened, you know, he
would-- he wouldn’t yell a lot, but he could get his point across in a respectful way that we did respect his opinion
so much, we didn’t want to let him down.
But he also knew when to pat us on the back. And he was hardest on us when things were going well. And he was
a little more compassionate and understanding when things weren’t going well, because he knew we cared. And
it’s exactly like you say-- To be able to fill that emotional tank.
I have players that, if they go home after the game and they obsess about the game, and they worry about it, and
they think about it, and somebody’s yelled at them, and their parents are being hard on them, that’s more draining,
probably, than them going and running a marathon. So they come back to the rink the next day drained and not
ready to go back to work with a positive approach the next day. So you always watch for that emotional tank. And
for kids, I think it’s even more important.
There is some research that indicates that an optimal ratio of tank fillers to tank drainers, or criticism, let
me say, is about five to one, five positive tank fillers for every time you criticize a kid. And we actually call that the
magic ratio, because if a coach gets to that five to one ratio, magical things happen. From your experience, both
in youth sports and professional sports, that magic ratio of five to one, what do you think of that, in terms of sports
all the way through, up to the professional level?
I think that’s probably fairly accurate. I mean, different players and different people react to different
things. And that’s where, to me, a coach has to be like a teacher and look in the classroom and look on his team,
and say “Okay, this player responds to this and this and this and this. And this other player responds to this, this
But I think it’s-- There’s a great story, I think, that was written many years ago, about the greatest athletes giving
their greatest performance-- Wilt Chamberlain getting 100 points, Bob Beamon breaking the long jump record by
almost two feet, people, you know, breaking the 20-- 20 foot barrier in pole vaulting.
And they asked them what they were thinking when they were performing. And they always said “Well, I wasn’t
thinking about anything. I was just playing.” And I think that’s where, sometimes, the clutter comes from, you know,
the act of de-motivating an athlete by yelling or criticizing, when that’s not the time and place, and that’s not what’s
needed for that athlete at that time.
And we always try to clear our players’ minds. And, if they’re thinking, “Jeez, you know, what’s the coach thinking
about me? Or who’s going to yell at me next,” instead of just playing and reading and reacting, it gets in the way of
your best performance and, probably, the most enjoyment from your-- from your activity or your sport.
Great. You know, the Sharks, this year, had just a great regular season. And I know you and the team were
disappointed in the playoffs. Is it possible to really appreciate the great regular season you had, even though the
last didn’t work out the way you wanted?
Well, you’ve got to take-- You know, I always take time, and I let the emotions diminish before you make
an honest evaluation of what happened. And there were some really good things that happened. You don’t win the
President’s Trophy and get 117 points by smoking mirrors. You have to have people that perform at a certain level
as a group.
What disappointed us-- and I think all of us equally-- is that we didn’t play up to our capabilities at the end of the
year. You know, we had seven or eight players, key players, that were injured and hurt. And that happens. And we
played against a team that had a hot goalie and all that.
But you try and take those moments and learn from them. And you can’t be afraid of failure. You have to be saying
“You know what? Let’s go and line up. And let’s just leave it on the ice.” And that’s the thing we’ve talked about,
is removing some of the clutter, not worrying about the expectations from external sources such as the media or
whatever it may be, and just play the game the way you’re capable of. I think in our-- our situation, we played against a team that had won a Stanley Cup two years ago, playoff-hardened team that was playing really well the last 20 games of the year, just to get into the playoffs. And they almost
beat Detroit. So, it was a very good team we were aware of. We just weren’t humming on all cylinders. And we
have to use that, now, as an opportunity to get better, become more mentally hardened, and also understand that
you can’t get in the way of yourself. You just got to line up and play.
You know, one of the five things you mentioned that you’re looking for in young players is the love of the
game. And, you know, you’re talking about the regular season as a marathon. I would guess it’s hard, sometimes,
for a hockey player, when you get to the playoffs, to really reconnect with how much they love to play hockey after
a draining season.
Well, you know, in hockey, there’s a difference between being hurt and being injured. I mean, I played
16 years, and I think I had surgery after 14 of those 16 years. So you’ve got to push through things. And it comes
down to-- I use a term-- a hockey rat or a gym rat, somebody that truly, truly loves the game, remembers where
they came from, remembers why they play the game.
Sometimes you see athletes where the pilot light has gone out a little bit, and their love for the game has kind of
gone away. Doesn’t make them a bad person, it just means that it’s a really tough, tough game, seasons are long.
You do have to push through, as I say, the injuries that come your way.
But the guys that love the game the most, and if you get a group of them together, good things are going to happen. Because it’s not always the most talented team, it’s the team that truly understands we’re 100% in. And we’re
going to do whatever it takes to win. It might not be pretty. It might be somebody blocking a shot, somebody making a little play that can turn a game around. So the dynamic of the respect for the teammates often has much to
do with success as the talent level.