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Friday, October 15, 2010

The Problem With Playing To Win

The ultimate goal of any competition is to win. It’s doubtful that there would be any debating that statement.

Some games or events are bigger or more significant than others so winning might seem more important in those cases, but in the end it all comes down to which team comes out on top in any game that is played.

Oddly enough a team could play poorly and still win on the scoreboard and the perception by most people would be that everything is peaches and cream. Winning will do that.

Conversely, a team could play unquestionably its best game of the season yet come out on the wrong end on the scoreboard and the consensus would probably still be that they came up short. Losing will do that.

Obviously, winning is important. We always play to win. The more wins we get the better. The more wins we get the higher in the standings we finish.

What happens if we don’t?
But what if we don’t win? What if the team has little or no chance of winning, because of circumstances beyond their control, like when their coach enters them at a level where they are over-matched and have no chance of success? And what if a team is so good that it never loses or is never challenged and wins every game with little effort? Are those wins really that important? Are they even really wins if the outcome was never ever in doubt?

Ultimately wins are nothing more than units of measure, like markings on a ruler or mileage on the odometer of a vehicle. The difference is that some of those miles are on a much better trip than others. Some are of a much higher quality than others.

The concept of winning and losing in youth sports is a bird of a different feather than at the professional level. And by professional level I mean the levels of play where people’s jobs are at stake. That is definitely not the case, or if it is it shouldn’t be, at the youth level. It would be pretty sad that someone’s livelihood was determined by the ability or inability of the performance of kids in a recreational sport.

Way too serious
Even so, there are many coaches and parents who take winning way more seriously than they should. They get far too excited and feeling good about themselves (even though they were not involved in the outcome) when their child’s team wins and far too upset after a loss.

At the end of the day, the outcome of a single game or a team’s position in the standings really shouldn’t have that much of a positive or negative impact on any adult’s life. Other than we should be proud and supportive of our kids’ efforts and glad that they have the opportunity to compete and realize the benefits derived from participating in a team sport.

But all too often we lose sight of the process and get fixated on the outcome. We are so worried about our objective that we don’t take the opportunity to enjoy the ride.

If we really opened our eyes we would see that there is way more to the journey than there is to the destination. The problem is that it is much more difficult to gauge where you stand without a unit of measure like winning a game or sitting on top of the standings. Can we really determine that our team played well if they lost the game? How can we really tell if there was any improvement or growth by the players? Can we really call ourselves a good team if we are sitting at or near the bottom of the standings?

Short-term solution
And that is where we often get into trouble as it relates to playing to win. Getting the win becomes all too important because it is the only way we can assess where we stand. The measurement becomes way more important than anything else. Way more important than it should be.

In youth sports, when coaches make decisions based on the scoreboard in a game or the team’s position in the standings, the results are typically more negative than positive. The short-term solution to winning a game is to play the better players more and the weaker players less or not at all.

If you really think about it, there really is not much in the way of “coaching” involved in that decision. There is no opportunity for the players that are perceived to not be able to get it done to actually get it done. It’s tough to do anything sitting on the bench. How does a coach really know what they can or can’t do if they never have the chance? How do those players improve and learn how to compete and get experience in different situations if they never have the opportunity?

Worse yet, all too often the better players get over-played, even to the point where it is detrimental to their performance because they are too worn out to be able to compete to the level that they should and could if they were getting a proper amount of time. So nobody wins in that scenario. At least not from the players’ standpoint.

Skill development takes time
When the scoreboard and the standings influence decision-making too much, coaches tend to get impatient in practice planning and begin to spend a disproportionate amount of time attempting to teach their team concepts that they think might give their team a better chance of winning. Typically coaches will spend a great deal of time working on organizational and strategic things like breakouts and power plays.

The problem is that to execute breakouts and power plays and offensive zone cycling and neutral zone forechecking, players need to have the technical skills to skate and be in the right position, handle the puck, pass, receive and shoot with their heads up and have a sense of positioning, timing and the decision-making ability to do the right thing at the right time.

Without the technical skill sets that require hours and hours of proper repetition in practice, the execution of breakouts and power plays is virtually impossible and the practice time wasted.

Probably the most frustrating feeling as a coach is when it seems like you aren’t making a difference. Skill development can be time-consuming and tedious and improvement never seems to come fast enough. It can be easy to think that you are going nowhere. Especially when the only quantifiable unit of measure for most people is wins and losses and the team’s position in the standings. Especially when you are doing more losing and winning and the team is closer to the bottom of the standings than the top.

Probably the worst mistake a coach can make is to coach by the scoreboard and the standings. More often than not, bad short-term decisions translate into worse long-term results for the players.

It’s not that winning is not important. It is. But it should be the by-product of good coaching decisions, not the driving force for bad ones.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Where do you fit?

Tier I, Tier II, AAA, AA, A, BB, B, A, House, Travel, TOEHL, Adray, LCAHL, Yzerman, Lidstrom, Howe, Mite, Squirt, Pee Wee, Bantam, Midgets, Minor, Major.

So many classifications and so many monikers. What does it all mean? And more importantly where do you fit into the equation? Where should you be? Where should you aspire to be? How do you know when you are ready? How do you know when you aren’t?

Those are some very tough questions. And they apply both to individuals and to teams.

For individual players and their families it can often be very difficult to navigate their way through the hockey world. Especially for those who are new to a sport that has its own unique culture and language. But it can also be very confusing for those who grew up playing the game because so much changes over time. What once was might no longer be.

House hockey? At one time “house league hockey” was a description for teams that played their league games at one facility, in-house. Players in each age group were divided up evenly onto teams so that there was parity within the league and opportunity for all of the teams and players to have success. A wonderful concept, if you really think about it, when it comes to youth sports.

Travel hockey? Those teams were formed by tryouts and because the better players in a given age group were on the team, those teams would “travel” to play similar teams from other areas. Another wonderful concept, if you really think about it, because it allowed for the better players to play at a higher competitive level. They had to travel to find that competitive level, but it provided that opportunity for those players and teams, and it also provided more opportunity for the players and teams in the house league because those games were no longer dominated by the better players.

Shades of gray
What started out as black and white as house and travel has now morphed into gray. A lot of different shades of gray.

There are very few facilities or associations that actually have true “house” hockey anymore. Most places don’t have enough teams at a given age group to have their own in-house league. So those teams end up traveling to other facilities to play what is still called house hockey by many. Confused yet? There are also some places that do have enough teams to have their own in-house league at their facility, but still choose to play in a league with teams from other facilities because they don’t want to just play “house hockey”. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Playing house hockey, I mean. While it still is “house level” hockey, with teams formed by a draft, I really do think that there is a perception that because teams actually have to (or get to) travel to play games, that the hockey is somehow better. It might be. But it just as easily might not. It also appears to be that the farther that a team travels to play a game that the level of play will be that much better. Again, it might be. But just as easily it might not.

Multiple levels
In theory, “all house hockey teams are created equally.” Well at least with equality, or parity, in mind. But that is not necessarily the case. Player pools in each area are very much different. While one association or arena might have enough players for ten 10 & under teams, another place might only have enough for one.

Some of them might be very good players. Good enough to play travel hockey, but for one reason or another (can’t afford to, don’t have the time, there is no team at that level in their area) they do not. So is that team really the same level as a team from an arena or association that divides up the players to form ten equal teams? Definitely not. In essence, there are multiple levels of house or B hockey.

And travel hockey is no different. There are multiple levels there as well, but for a different reason. Travel teams are formed by tryouts with minimal restrictions on where the players can come from. The better the team, the more players who will want to play on that team. Some teams get close to 100 players trying out. Others barely get enough to field a team. Yet these teams might end up playing each other. Does that seem right? Definitely not.

So to resolve that issue we create multiple levels of play, Tier I, Tier II (also known as AAA and A/AA) and even within the A/AA or “regular travel” category leagues have created various levels to try to create a more competitive environment. Also a wonderful concept.

The problem is that there is often more competition created off the ice (for players) than there is on the ice when the teams play each other. Do the teams fit into the level or does the level define the team and their ability to attract players? Ultimately the level of play very much defines how good a team will be or won’t be and how big its potential player pool will be.

How to decide?
So how do families and players decide what level is best for them to play?

How do teams decide what is the best competitive level? Where do you fit?

The good news is that there are a multitude of choices. The bad news is that many people have no idea what the consequences of those choices might or might not be.

In theory you would think that the principles of supply and demand would help guide people to their level. Players that don’t make a Tier I team would then attempt to make a Tier II team and failing to make that would play B or house hockey. The problem with that is there are multiple levels of all of those levels of teams. Some house teams are better than some A or AA teams. Some Tier II teams (A/AA) are better than some Tier I (AAA) teams in the same age group.

If a player wants (or his or her parents want) to play at a certain level of play, it can be achieved. There are always teams looking for players. It just depends on how far you want to travel and how much you want to pay.

Somehow within this system, the majority of teams and players actually do find the right competitive level to play. But some don’t. And for them, the season can be long and miserable.

There is nothing worse for a team than not being competitive with the teams it plays against. There is nothing worse for individual players than not being able to contribute as part of a team.

There has to be a balance of success and failure throughout the year. Too much of either is never a good thing. The beauty of competition is that, if you pay attention at all, it will let you know where you fit.