Stanley Cup Winner Brent Sopel -- A Champion On and Off the Ice

I recently spoke with former NHL defenseman and Stanley Cup champion Brent Sopel about his experiences as a dyslexic student and professional athlete. You can read more about his story and his work on behalf of kids with dyslexia at his foundation’s website:

In 2010, Brent Sopel was a champion.  After years and years of grinding on the ice, the former NHL defenseman and his Blackhawk teammates won the Stanley Cup.  He was proud, elated, fulfilled.

He was also terrified. 

He knew that his hockey career would end soon, and even more than other pro athletes, Brent couldn’t imagine what would come next. 

Brent was an undiagnosed dyslexic.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, when his daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia (Brent has this too), that he finally understood why he had struggled so mightily in school and why he still struggled to keep his life together.

He’d always known that he didn’t learn as easily as other kids.  He’d been told every day that he was slow, dumb, would never amount to anything off the ice. 

Of course he believed it. And the feelings of worthlessness never really go away.

Coaches, you know those kids who always mix up the directions or who never seem to be paying attention or who disagree with every suggestion? They are listening.  They’re soaking up your vibes.  They’re hanging on your every word – whether encouraging or, sadly, degrading. 

What you say to them, what you see in them (or don’t), the bond that you form (or don’t) really, really matters.  To say that a coach can be the difference in a young athlete’s life is an understatement.

It isn’t always obvious which athletes need more from you or a different approach.  Kids can be masters at hiding struggles, fears and differences, especially when they worry that any weakness might affect their status in your eyes or on the team. 

Brent shone on the ice.  He threw himself into hockey because he was good at it, because on the rink no one would ask him questions or make him read.

Yes, his dyslexia caused him some difficulties even in hockey.  But he was so determined to play to what everyone saw as his only strength, and so afraid not to, that he learned to compensate.  For example, he was (and is) a visual learner; oral directions didn’t stick.  So he’d find out the drills before practice, or he’d go last in line so he could watch what the others did. 

Unfortunately, his coaches didn’t know to help him, but his hard work paid off.  He was finally successful.  He had found a refuge from the rest of the world, especially school. 

But Brent’s escape from the challenges caused by his dyslexia was temporary, and he knew it.  Far more important than his reading and other dyslexia-related difficulties, Brent’s confidence stopped at the edge of the ice. 

He describes living with dyslexia as so much more than trouble with reading.  It’s a whole different way of experiencing life – one that includes missing what’s in front of you because you’re constantly scanning the horizon for the next thing that you might not be able to understand or manage.  The next time you might fail.  The next embarrassing moment.

In the NHL, Brent became so anxious that he couldn’t take pregame naps, afraid of being alone with his thoughts.  He eventually took to drinking heavily to calm the fears and the loneliness that had taken root through years of being told that he was broken. 

What does this have to do with coaching? 

Brent was fabulous on the ice, a coach’s dream, a success story.  But he would trade every bit of the glory for the confidence and self-worth that escaped him whenever he stepped outside the rink, confidence and worth that he’s still struggling to find.

That’s where an informed coach could have stepped in.

Even absent a diagnosed learning or attention difference (which lots of kids won’t have because testing is expensive and public school systems often won’t recognize dyslexia), a tuned-in and educated coach can see when a kid is struggling – and this is important – even if those struggles don’t affect the athlete’s performance

Unlike Brent Sopel, only about 6% of high school athletes will play at the NCAA level, and only about 2% of those college athletes will make it to the pros.  An estimated 20% of kids have a language-based learning difference.

The youth coach’s most important job is not to create rock star athletes. It’s to help develop confident, capable, resilient kids.  It’s to equip kids for what comes next, when the going is bound to get rough.  

There are loads of kids with attention and learning differences who get 99% of their confidence from sports, where they finally feel like they’re good at something.  But Brent’s story warns that this limited sliver of confidence isn’t enough. 

As coaches, the goal is to build a confidence that transcends sports, that is founded on kids’ awareness of their inner strengths, not just their athletic talents – a confidence that the kids will internalize and translate to their next arenas.   

Learning and attention differences are invisible, and kids (and parents) can be embarrassed and afraid to disclose.  Reach out to athletes (and parents) at the beginning of the season, before the schedule ramps up and auto-pilot kicks in – and before kids start to struggle (or cause you problems at practice).  

If you don’t understand an athlete’s behavior, ask about his experience with an open mind.  Ask what she is going through off the court, out of the pool, beyond the rink. Then look for strengths, even if they’re initially hard to find, and make sure the athlete notices them too. The power of positive feedback from a trusted mentor can’t be overstated.

Brent Sopel was a champion on the ice.  But he wouldn’t wish his path on any kid, and he’s determined to help others avoid the misery and shame that he experienced.  Brent is now a champion for kids with dyslexia.  

Through his Brent Sopel Foundation, he’s sharing his story, including the hard parts, to let kids know that they’re not alone.  He’s also providing access to specialized reading programs to schools that otherwise could not afford them.  And he’s working towards his next big goal – a documentary that will teach parents, educators, coaches and anyone who will listen about the reality of dyslexia and the pitfalls of letting kids feel like they have no future. 

With early intervention, support and encouragement, dyslexia can be a gift, even a superpower.  Brent wants the adults in these kids’ lives to understand the depth of the struggle as well as the potential for greatness — and most important, the urgent need to help kids appreciate all that they can do.

Because in sports and beyond, it’s the confidence that matters. 

(Photo provided courtesy of Brent Sopel.)