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How To Get Off The Fourth Line: Without “Hard Work” (The Levels Of Thinking)

Updated: 4 days ago

Podcast version:

I hear people say the old hockey saying: "Hard work beats talent - when talent doesn't work hard”.

It’s often recited as gospel.

Many great coaches use it to motivate their players to remember to outwork a more talented team.

Yet, when we look a bit closer, this quote isn’t always true.

Every season in every league there are teams that win many games and championships even though they were “outworked”.

The quote should really be: “Hard work increases your chances of winning versus not working hard”

Doesn’t feel the same haha.

There are many hockey players who dedicate thousands of hours to their craft, embodying the essence of hard work, only to find themselves stuck on the 3rd or 4th line on their team.

Look at the NHL for example.

Do you really think the top guys outwork the 3rd and 4th line guys?

There is the term “grinder” for a reason.

Many players work very hard and never even get considered by scouts at the next level.

You will notice that some players just keep getting better year after year and some players just never really separate.

I call this the Effort Fallacy.

The Effort Fallacy means: it is a lie that hard work alone is the only ingredient to success.

It is a necessary variable, but it is something players will hide behind to avoid facing the fact that they do not know how to improve.

Hard work becomes an excuse for failure “Well I tried my best, but it didn’t work out”.

Well, it sounds like you needed to find a new “best”…

The Misconception of Effort = Success

The Effort Fallacy leads players to believe that success is directly proportional to the amount of physical effort invested.

They assume that if a skate, a stretch, or a workout is hard, then it is the most valuable thing they can do.

When in reality that is simply not true.

We all know that skating suicides might help us with cardio, but they will not make us a more skilled skater.

We all know benching 300 lbs will make us stronger, but it will not directly translate to us having a better shot (though for a physically weak player, this will probably help).

These players have failed to understand what is holding them back.

So they just hit their head against the wall doing the same thing as everyone else and keep hoping it will get different results.

Sounds insane when you think about it.

But it’s the common story for my hockey players and athletes.

Effective Effort

Darryl Belfry (who specializes in player development working with hundreds of the best players in the NHL for the past 15 years) focuses on identifying and enhancing a player's unique identity on the ice.

Belfry understands that all NHL players work hard.

And yes sometimes they need to work harder.

But ultimately it's about working smart—targeting areas of improvement that align with one's intrinsic strengths and potential roles in the game.

Belfry understands what I call the levels of hockey thinking.

Levels of Thinking

The pyramid starts at the bottom where the most young players are at.

Then people generally progress up from there.

But often times players will rise and fall on these levels of thinking with various thinking in their careers.

Where Most AAA and Junior Players Are

Most players I work with in older AAA and junior start off at level 2 or 3.

Most people in the hockey world are in level 1, 2, or 3.

Level 1

Level 1 thinkers believe that if they just learn more than other people then they will be better.

So they watch lots of social media and YouTube and then go out and tell people they want to make the NHL

They don’t realize that they need to take action on the info they are learning.

No amount of motivational speeches will make you better if you do not act on anything.

Level 2

Level 2 thinkers take action.

They believe that if they do more stuff than other people, they will separate themselves from others.

Think of this as throwing sh** at the wall and hoping something sticks.

A player in level 1 thinking is watching Instagram highlights, drills, and workouts every day, dreaming big, and telling everyone he’s going to make the NHL.

A level 2 thinker is watching those and then going and doing it in the garage (better than just thinking and talking).

They will get better than someone who just watches stuff and hopes it will work out, but level 3 thinkers will typically get ahead of these people because they work harder.

Level 3

Level 3 thinkers see the info, take action, and then put more energy into it.

These are the guys spending every waking hour shooting pucks, stickhandling, skating, and watching hockey games.

The effort they put in is what will separate them from level 1 and 2 thinkers.

Most people assume this is where the line ends.

But to control your fate and build yourself into an elite player, level 3 thinking needs to be your baseline.

Level 4

Level 4 thinkers are the players who start to really separate from the pack.

They are aware that leverage exists.

Leverage means you get more output for whatever input you give.

If you push down on a lever and it lifts a 1lbs dumbbell, that great.

But if you change the pivot point on the lever and you can lift 100 lbs with the same energy, that’s 100x leverage.

Level 4 thinkers realize that if they take more effective actions versus just working harder, they will get better results.

So they go and seek out smart thinkers and learn from them.

They may hire an in-person or online coach for a certain area of their game.

These players will see massive growth in those areas of the game.

They will then expand and hire more specialists and see the other areas also massively improve.

Eventually, these players will start to hit sticking points and they will struggle to figure out what it is.

Each specialist coach will tell them it is a different problem.

A skills trainer will blame skills.

A mental trainer will blame the mind.

And Physical trainers will blame the body.

But no one is looking at things from a higher view.

That is where level 5 thinking comes in.

Level 5

Level 5 thinkers are able to look at things from a systems perspective.

I like to spend a lot of my time in this area when I work with players for more than a few months.

It’s about seeing things more holistically and realizing that the whole of a player is greater than the sum of its parts.

Typically a player must get a coach to help with this area.

Not because he is incapable of systems thinking.

He will do this because he has such a biased view of himself.

This player may be able to look at someone else and help them with systems thinking, but they will struggle to see their own blind spots.

A level 5 thinking coach can come into a player's development, see what is lacking and help them to understand where to apply leverage.

They will then help to make the entire system more cohesive by:

  1. Removing the unnecessary stuff the players is working hard on.

  2. Adding in the necessary stuff that this player needs based on their own unique Identity.

Level 6

Now a level 6 thinker is where you get the truly elite coaches.

This is where I am really trying to get better as a coach.

A level 6 thinker is able to look at a system and understand how it works over time.

They will understand how to “periodize” the system so that it maximizes development over time.

This is not just something you do once and then leave it.

A player's training system must continue to be adapted as things change.

Some examples of a level 6 thinker would be someone who looks and sees that though a certain type of shot might work at the current level, it will not work at the next level.

So they will have this player learn to shoot in a way that works now but can be converted later for more success.

So a player stuck in level 1, 2, or 3 thinking, might think this is crazy and would never hire someone to help them.

But a level 4, 5, and 6 thinking player will happily listen and invest in a coach or person who can help them understand this.

The problem most players face is that their team coach doesn’t think in level 6.

Their coach might be stuck in level 2 or 3 thinking hard work is all that matters.

This is why these players must hire a coach to help if they want to keep accelerating their development.

Level 6 thinking gets results over time, not just in the short term.

Learning from the Greats

One of the most effective ways to escape the Effort Fallacy is to study the paths of those who've achieved success.

If you look at what all of the best players do, they work with development coaches.

When they work with a development coach, they engage in level 6 thinking.

This involves:

  • Analyzing game footage

  • Seeking out mentorship

  • Incorporating lessons learned from both the triumphs and setbacks of seasoned players.

  • Transcending the Effort Fallacy by creating a unique player identity.

  • Blending new skills that create unique skill stacks

  • Cultivating habits and traits that resonate with their identity.

  • Ensuring that all efforts contribute to a distinct and valuable role on any team.

A Blueprint for Success

Now how do you do this?

Well, for every player there is a unique path.

But you can follow the principles:

  1. Set Clear Intentions For Every Practice: Identify key areas for improvement and set measurable targets

  2. Seek Constructive Feedback: Regularly consult with coaches and peers to gain insights into your performance and areas for high-leverage activity.

  3. Study and Adapt: Dedicate time to studying successful player and their training methods. Focus on players who share similar attributes or roles to you. Adapt their strategies and mindsets to fit your development plan.

  4. Embrace a Long Term Mindset: View challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. Be open to feedback and willing to adjust your approach as needed throughout the next 5-10 years.

Moving Up The Levels: Beyond Hard Work

The journey to hockey excellence is unique for every player.

By now it should be clear that it demands more than just hard work.

It requires:

  • A strategic, focused approach

  • Effective, high-leverage effort

  • Continuous learning

  • Development of a Unique Player Identity.

By embracing these principles, you can navigate beyond the Effort Fallacy, positioning yourself for success in the competitive world of hockey.

Remember that this is an inner game.

So focus on your path, and one day you will look back and see everyone else in your rearview chasing after what you have accomplished!

If you are:

  1. A 15+ year old hockey player playing at AAA, junior, college, or pro level

  2. With the goal of playing higher-level hockey

  3. And you want to go deeper with maximizing your mental, physical, and skills training using the highest levels of thinking...

Let's hop on a call so we can strategize and see if we can help you!

See you at the Next Level


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Who is Corson Searles?

I am a former player & mental/performance advisor for AAA, junior, college, and pro hockey players. I am obsessed with dissecting atheletic performance potential, lifestyle design, and hockey development.


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