Real Leaders

Leadership Lessons From Professional Ice Hockey

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Former ice hockey goaltender Helmut de Raaf played an incredible 114 times for Germany on the world stage as well as winning 11 German national championships. With a host of 14-20-year-olds now benefitting from his extensive experience, he explains why creativity in sport wins and how you can apply this to business too.

The 56-year-old went on to train the Jungadler Mannheim to 10 championship titles and now spends his time guiding young hopefuls at the Red Bull Ice Hockey Academy in Salzburg’s Liefering district towards a professional career.

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Where do you get your main inspiration from?

I receive my most important inspirations from people in different worlds – from trainers from different kinds of sport, but also from teachers from innovative schools or from interesting artists. In acting, for example, the director describes their vision of a scene, lets the actors act and tells them afterwards what was good about it – and then everything starts again from the beginning. The actors play the same scene five, six, seven times until they feel that the scene is ready.

When everyone believes they know how the scene should be performed, the director says, “OK. Now, play your own thing”, and that’s when it starts to get interesting. This is what the Red Bull Ice Hockey Academy is all about. Our players gather experience in training in order to create something new from it.

What should be the trainer’s priority?

A trainer, in my view, gives his players the tools in order for them to solve problems, but above all else, he gives them the confidence to find their own solutions. The necessary creativity resides in every human being. It’s fun to try out and go individual paths. All trainers should enable our players to live out their creativity, to fully tap their own intelligence. They should do what they have never done before: to skate around the goal and shoot the puck inside from behind. A scoop in an unexpected moment. A shot at the shoe of the defender, which surprises the goaltender. It doesn’t matter if it’s happening with us on the ice or with you at your workplace. If anyone can try something new and is able to fail, then a culture is established which can take everyone to the next level.

What benefits does a company receive from letting their employees be creative?

They create unexpected surprises and that is always an advantage – if it works. What are we waiting for in soccer, in ice hockey? For the toy that nobody saw coming. A pass through the legs, pushing the puck back because the succeeding defender in front of you has more momentum. Spinning in a circle in order to let the opponent run into the empty wall. What kind of start-ups are successful? Those whose ideas nobody had before. Naturally, new ideas bring forth new risks – they could fail.

You could always be the sucker. But if I don’t try, don’t practice, don’t work on my confidence to also be creative in critical situations, then I run a risk of stagnating and with me also the whole group. The task of the coach is to supply people with confidence, to make them reveal their innermost core. That’s true for sport, for art but also for school and for life. During the last decades in ice hockey, teams played by very strict systems. This is over now.

Can you highlight an example of letting creativity blossom and why you need to persist with it?

It is the last minute of the game and the score is 2:2. We attack, a player takes the puck, and rushes to the opponent‘s side goal, loses it, we run into a counter-attack and lose. Whose fault is it? The player who lost the puck? No, all players who stood on the ice! Because the one player didn‘t purposely make this mistake, but a chain of actions led to this mistake. Nobody was available for a pass. The other players didn‘t protect him enough from behind. He took the risk wanting to decide the game since the other previous tries didn’t work. In a team, it cannot be just one single player’s fault.

Every single player had several opportunities to prevent this seemingly hopeless situation. If you know that there are many people behind you, that have your back, then you can also take risks in good conscience because you know that you will not be alone when something doesn’t work out. The role of the modern trainer – and that of every leadership personality – is the one of a facilitator rather than authoritarian despot. The bellowing boss, who gives individuals a scathing castigation, is a figure from the past.

How do you prepare everyone to take these creative risks?

Before you can start, you need to make sure which path you will take together and make sure that everybody is on board with the current course of action, even those who had different opinions. Intelligence and a sense of responsibility from everyone is a prerequisite. This applies to the ice hockey players as well as to the trainers or to any other group dynamical process. It’s very important that everybody trusts one another to speak out their minds in order to keep the spirit of free discussion alive. This is the only way you can find out if your ship is going in the wrong direction. One direction is good and necessary but one also needs the courage to leave the current course – but only together as a team.

What is the greatest danger to a positive, creative approach?

The greatest danger is success. When everything appears to work out too easily, you are not learning anything anymore and give others the chance to catch up. This can be seen at big companies and also within sport organizations. It always helps to inject new and fresh ideas. Try introducing three or four new players and new co-trainers. All this changes the fabric of the team and gets everybody going.

How do you identify which people need more help than others?

Everyone is a human being and we try to maintain their character and not turn them into robots. In Mannheim we had a player who had a very bad body language. We spoke to him about it and he wasn’t aware that was doing it consciously. What did we do? We confronted him with himself. Normally, the last person to show up at the arranged meeting point had to perform a task: to sing a song, crack a joke, dance. Harmless things raise the mood and moral of the team. This time, I gave the task to him and the next time and the time after that. At the beginning he naturally wanted to refuse, but after a couple time he began to enjoy his exposed position. After a couple of years, he developed into a real good player and great guy.

Are players the finished product when they leave you?

FC Barcelona has a similar selection process where they give the kids a ball and search for the hungriest ones, but admission into the academy is just another first step of a very long journey. A couple of them understand that they are only standing at the starting line and jump right into it. A few believe that they already accomplished something, just because they managed to get in here. This is a massive mistake! They also haven’t reached anything when they exit the academy at age 18. This is just the next starting line, just like a successful high school diploma or a university degree is also just another beginning.

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