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SportsLife: Navigating the locker room

By definition, the locker room is a place to put on and take off equipment. But in truth it's a social space that often defines relationships and a team's success.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — It's a phrase we hear repeatedly from sports pundits, that a team's success on the field, court or rink can be attributed to a "good locker room."  

Say what? By definition, a locker room is simply a space where competitors come to gear up, putting on their equipment before a practice or game and taking it off afterwards (albeit stinkier and sweatier than on arrival) before heading home. 

In practice, the so-called "locker room" is much more than four walls. It is a place where athletes and coaches develop relationships, learn to communicate and build a culture that can define a team's success or failure. Professional teams do serious reconnaissance in determining whether an athlete is a "good locker room guy" or gal before drafting, signing or trading for that player. Stories abound on how adding someone whose self-centered, me-first attitude have ripped successful teams apart, destroying cohesiveness both on-and-off the field. 

In a recent KARE 11 Facebook post seeking potential topics for SportsLife, multiple parents brought up the misery their children have experienced in a team locker room. 

"My son just quit hockey... was bullied by his teammates and his coach's response was 'no one cares,'" shared Kayli.

"Bullying in the locker room is a huge issue," Kari wrote. "Kids do it when the coaches aren't around so when it's reported, the bully flips the script and becomes the victim."

"My son spent 90% of his time this year being a good sport, was a leader on his team and constantly set a good example," said Tanya, a new squirt hockey mom. "However, others on his team brought the whole team down and sadly I started seeing some poor sportsmanship from my son at the end of the season."

The importance of a supportive, respectful locker room is not lost on Hans Skulstad, owner and founder of Center for Sports and the Mind. For the past 20 years Skulstad has been helping young athletes improve their "mental fitness" by using their brain, positive thoughts and feelings to perform at their highest level. 

"It’s an important part of sports culture because you win in the locker room first," says Skulstad, who holds a Masters Degree in counseling psychology and family therapy. "Your locker room is about culture... and having a cohesive culture is important to great performance. We know from research and anecdotal experience that locker rooms and teams that are cohesively connected play well, tend to play better."

Cohesiveness doesn't mean that every athlete has to have the same personality type, beliefs or skill level. In fact, Skulstad believes successful teams understand that players have different experience, roles and talents, and respect all teammates for the varied contributions they make.  

"A healthy and positive locker room has people from all kinds of backgrounds and skill levels, and in those locker rooms there is a sense of a higher purpose, like the team is greater than me, there is mutual respect," Skulstad asserts. "And that mutual respect, although it might not mean that you have to like everyone you’re with, you do have to respect them, and you do have to treat them in a way that it’s going to help them be their best self."

Things can get sideways when a locker room develops what Skulstad calls a "false hierarchy," where team members who are the most skilled come to believe that they are better people who rule the roost because they are superior players. Bullying of players with less skill, or those not in the so-called "inner circle" can follow.

"It shows up sometimes in behaviors on the ice, but generally off the court, or off the field, it shows up by physical intimidation, name calling, swearing, excluding kids from team events or keeping them off the group chats, talking behind their back on group chats or social media, things like that," Skulstad explains. "Those are the most common that I’ve seen, or I suppose another way it shows up is by freezing people out, like not sharing the ball, puck, that kind of thing."

With younger athletes, a coach or parent monitor can sometimes help hit the reset button if they learn of unhealthy things happening within a team's locker room culture. But Skulstad cautions that intervening might not be the best course of action in the long run.  

"We live in an era where we have many lawnmower or helicopter parents... who go ahead of their children and move all the obstacles so they can be successful. That, on the surface, feels comfortable and helpful, but on the other hand what it communicates to the kid is 'you’re not capable of fighting your own battles.. and you’re not capable of working through adversity,'" Skulstad says. "Your first course of action should be to educate your kid on how to deal with it and give them strategies to deal with it so they can effectively navigate it."

Those navigation skills can pay off as athletes reach their teens, adults no longer monitor the locker room and social media can fuel behaviors that are more extreme. If things rise to a dangerous level - hazing, or psychological, physical or sexual abuse, for example - organizations like SafeSport or even local law enforcement should be involved.

Convincing athletes at a young age that a healthy team culture is essential to winning teams may be part of the long-term solution to problems in the locker room. Along with running his business, Hans Skulstad is Hockey Development Coordinator for the Armstrong Cooper Youth Hockey Association, whose teams are known as the WINGS. It's an acronym for Work hard... Integrity... No excuses... Gratitude, and Success for all. Skulstad believes that living those organizational values - and not just talking about them - are making the program more successful and more importantly - a more welcoming place to skate.  

"Good locker room people lift other people up, they build relationships, and the know that people have their back and they care about them," Skulstad says. "And they’re able to use their relationships to build the culture and bring people together and get them working together."

SportsLife is an episodic blog based on topics suggested by young athletes, their parents, officials and anyone who has an abiding interest in youth sports. Share comments and suggestions on KARE's social platforms or by texting 763-797-7215, with SportsLife as the topic.  

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