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Monday, September 20, 2010

I'm Just a Kid

As we drop the puck on another hockey season, it’s like a new day dawning, a fresh sheet of ice, a long and winding road ahead ready to be taken.

Many new adventures will unfold. Each practice and each game a new chapter in the novel that is the season. Countless lessons will be learned by those new to the game and re-learned and re-learned over and over again by those who have experienced it for years. Sometimes we forget. But the game never stops teaching.

As a coach and a parent I know every year that I need to remind myself to make sure that I am approaching the game from the proper perspective. As we all know (or if we don’t yet we soon will), it is pretty easy to get caught up in the emotions of the moment and do something or say something that we will very much regret later on.

What’s it really about
But there are plenty of reminders around us at almost every youth sporting event that takes place, be it soccer, baseball, football or hockey. Someone, somewhere will get out of hand and have to be reminded of what exactly this stuff is really all about.

One such reminder occurred this past spring. It was one of those beautiful spring nights in mid-May, warm enough yet cool enough to make for a great night for a game. And there were plenty of games going on at the Northville Community Park that night. Three soccer games on adjacent fields back-to-back-to-back with a lacrosse game just a Chuck Stevens 5-iron to the south.

Plenty of action and plenty of excitement. And as could be expected, plenty of noise. Much of it coming from the parents and coaches on the sidelines of the soccer fields, shouting, among other things, encouragement and directions to their young stars and starlets on the field.

As much as I have grown to have an appreciation for “the beautiful game” (although it is not even close to hockey in terms of being a sport) the one thing that I will never quite accept is the fact that the parents and spectators are right there with the team on the sidelines. If not “right there” then just down the way.

And with that closeness comes the noise, the encouragement and cheering part of it good, some of the directions and sideline coaching, not so much.

On this particular night what caught my attention, somehow rising up and standing out above the din that is the sidelines, was an exchange from the field directly behind us. Two teams of what looked like nine-year olds were squaring off in a hotly contested match. Two athletic looking, athletically dressed alpha male coaches prowled the sidelines, toting clipboards and barking orders non-stop to their young charges on the field.

Suddenly one of the coaches, a little angered by something he saw on the field by an opposing player, blurted out something to the effect of, “Hey #7, keep your hands to yourself or I’ll show you what to do with them!” But apparently it was unheard or ignored because it was soon followed up with a “Hey #7, I told you to watch it or we’ll take care of you!”

That apparently caught the kid’s attention because his response was something that everybody heard, not just on their field but for three fields over. Not so much because of how loud he said it, but what he said.

“Hey Mr. I’m just a little kid!” was his response. I happened to turn in that direction just as the words were coming out of his mouth. Seeing the confrontation was interesting. A barely four-foot tall nine-year-old standing up to and staring up at a six-foot-three, two hundred and twenty five pound thirty-something coach. The coach’s reaction was priceless. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t respond. How do you respond to that? He turned, put his hands in his pockets and slinked down the sidelines, head down. Lesson learned. Maybe. At least for that night. The silence was deafening.

The coach probably wasn’t a bad guy. Most coaches aren’t. It’s tough to call anybody a bad guy for devoting the kind of time, energy and commitment it takes to coach a team in any sport. Most coaches mean well. As do most parents. Sometimes we just get caught up in the emotions of the moment and need a little dose of reality to set us straight.

That scene is sure to get repeated over and over and over this hockey season as it does every hockey season. Not the response from the player, but the over-exuberant yelling from the coach. Many coaches do it. Many parents do it. If not at the field or the rink, then probably on the way to the rink. Or worse yet on the way home after a tough game where the kid didn’t play quite up to expectations.

They already know
Here’s a little news for you if you weren’t aware. The kids already know when they don’t play that well. It’s not that difficult for them to figure out. They know what they did wrong and what they can try to do better next time. And rest assured, if they didn’t know during the game, at some point they were told about it by their coaches. More often than not they are told more times than they need to be.

That’s sort of the nature of coaching. It’s about correcting mistakes and trying to right wrongs. But obviously it is much, much more than that. About teaching the game, allowing players to learn the game, building skills and inspiring confidence.

All too often we coaches spend too much time on the correcting and not enough time on the inspiring. I know I am guilty as charged on that one. It’s something I try to remind myself about every time I go to the rink or soccer field.

What is a little sadly humorous is that while the players already know where they stand and what they did wrong well before any of us adults unnecessarily drill it into them again and again, is that they really don’t care as much about it as we adults do. It’s not that they don’t care about doing well and playing their best and winning and losing. They really do. But it’s just not as important to them as it is to the adults. They are kids. They move on to other things in their kid lives. It’s not that they don’t care. They do. But sometimes they do a much better job of keeping it in perspective than some of the adults do.

Something to think about on your way to the rink this season. They’re just kids.

Friday, September 3, 2010

So Much To Do, So Little Time

For many people it often seems like there are just never enough hours in the day to get accomplished what needs to get done. So much to do, so little time.

The same can be said when it comes to coaching a hockey team, no matter the age or ability level of the players on the team. There is always so much that can be done and so much that needs to be done. But it never seems like there is ever enough time to do it.

For hockey coaches, the beginning of the season can sometimes be a lot like standing at the foot of Mt. Everest, looking up to the summit and wondering how in the heck they are ever going to get there. It can be very easy to get overwhelmed. On a journey to the top of a mountain it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the destination on a cloudy day. But it can be just as easy to lose sight of the base as well. And to me, that might be a more important target to keep an eye on than the top.

Getting to where we want to be

Quite often when we are on a journey we tend to get so focused on where we want to go that we lose sight of where we are and what we have to do to give us the best chance to get to where we want to be.

That can happen a lot in the hockey world. And not just with coaches and their teams over the course of a season. But also with parents and their players over the course of their “career”. It’s common to want to get to the finish line first. It’s not so common to focus on what needs to be done to get to that objective. The old tortoise and hare fable is very much applicable.

Two or three fifty minute practice sessions a week are not a lot of time to work with a team. Add another half hour to each of those and I would bet most coaches would think that still wasn’t enough time.

Hockey is a very complex sport involving some intricate individual skill sets and some complicated interaction among teammates all done at maximum speed while attempting to overcome resistance from the opposing team.

It’s not an easy game to play, not an easy game to coach and not an easy game to watch and understand. It has a lot of moving parts. Parts that are very much dependent on one another.

The biggest error in judgment that many coaches tend to make is focusing on what they think will get their team to the top fastest. And while that is nowhere near as dangerous or potentially deadly, like a bad decision might be on the ascent to the top of Mt. Everest, it can have the same impact in terms of not allowing an opportunity to reach the destination.

Hockey-wise what that means is that coaches often tend to spend an inordinate amount of time on team-related strategies that will allow their players to work together as a unit. Short term, this is not really a bad strategy. More often than not it will even result in success.

For example, a team might spend a good deal of practice time working on a powerplay set-up or some breakouts or a forechecking strategy. Those type of elements take a lot of time to teach and to implement to get everyone on the team on the same page. So obviously they take up a lot of practice time. Early in the season there is a pretty good chance that there will be a payoff.

On-the-job training
Depending on the opponent (and whether you want to believe it or not, much of “success” in youth hockey depends on the quality of the opponent), teams that play with a lot of structure will have an advantage over teams that are more or less figuring it out as they go. On-the-job training takes a while and there will be some bumps in the road along the way.

But in my opinion, there is no more effective way of allowing players to learn and understand the game and how to play it than to actually let them experience it.

By spending a lot of time on systems and structure early in the season, the players might know where to go. But they might not have an understanding of when to be there. Or worse yet, might not have the skating skills to get there when they need to. Or the stick skills to do what they need to do if and when they do get there.

Which brings us back to the so little time and so much to do problem. What should a coach spend time on in practice to maximize the benefit to the players and the team? It can be easier and more productive in the short-term to “coach” the team by implementing some team structure or strategy that allows the team to as a whole to compensate for the lack of individual skills of the players. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts is somewhat true.

But at the same time the team is really all about the players. They are the parts. And the better the parts are, the better the team can become once they learn to work together. But before that happens they have to have the individual skills to be productive parts.

Building the foundation
Which brings us back to not losing sight of the base when looking upward to the peak. There is no mountain if there is no base. There has to be a foundation. And for hockey, the foundation is the fundamental skills necessary to play the game. And they are a very complex set of skills. A set of skills that requires hours and hours and hours of practice time to improve and perfect.

So which is it? Work on skills that might not have a recognizable immediate payoff? Or on structure that definitely will offer short-term gain, and will probably even evoke a few “that’s a well-coached team” comments, but might not be in the best interest of the players in the long run?

Over time a system and structure is only as good as the players executing it. Execution involves making the right decision at the right time and having the skating and puck skill sets to be able to do it. If those skill sets are not being constantly practiced and improved, at some point the system and structure will be irrelevant.

Practice time is clearly best spent on developing a skill base. If you want to have a good team and do what is best for your players, then spend at least 1/3 of the time practicing skating skills, the most important skill set for players. Not for conditioning. But for improving skating technique, which means not doing it when the players are tired or distracted by worrying about getting the puck or scoring a goal.

Another 1/3 of the time should be spent on fundamental puck skills including stickhanding, passing and receiving (which are the most important individual skills as it relates to the team), shooting and stick checking.

The last third should be spent on competitive situations that simulate game conditions as closely as possible.

A team that can skate, handle the puck and competes hard will be prepared both as individuals and as a team to have the best opportunity to get to the top. And that is a productive use of what little time we have.