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Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Rise of the Middle Class

Many hockey players - and many more hockey parents - get freaked out when they (or their child) are (is) not one of the better players on a given team or in a given league.

Every player wants to be one of the best. Every parent wants their child to be one of the best. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is an admirable goal, something to shoot for.

But not everybody can be the best. On any given team, in any given league, there will be exceptional players, the ones that most often really make a difference in the game.

There will also be the players on the other end of the spectrum, the ones that struggle to play at that particular level. They can also make an impact on the game but, more often than not, not in a good way.

Then there is the group in the middle, the largest of the three groups, the group whose members could go either way or stay the status quo.

But it’s also the group whose members just might have the opportunity to become the best players of all of them in due time.

The developmental process of a hockey player is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes years and years of commitment and effort to be one of the best. It’s not where you start, it’s where you end. What happens in between is what it is all about. That’s where the experience can benefit a player, or not.

Some kids start out strong and continually improve, some kids start out strong and level off, some start out dominant and fall back into the pack while others start out slower and then the light bulb goes on and at some point they rise to the top. Every player is different, every situation is different.

Size and speed
At the younger age groups, the most dominant players are usually the most dominant because of one of two reasons, size or speed, or both. The bigger, stronger, often most mature and more often than not the earlier birthdates in a calendar year, have the greatest opportunity to be the best players at the younger ages.

The players that are the fastest skaters also have a significant advantage at the younger ages.

Watch any mini mite or mite practice or game and is quickly apparent which players make the difference in the games. Those kids have the puck more, they make plays, they score goals and their confidence is sky-high. They feel good about what they can do and they love playing the game. The table is set for success moving forward.

But is it always achieved? Are the best players at mite usually the best players at midget? Sometimes, sometimes not. While they were lucky to have the advantage of nature early on, being bigger or faster skaters, nurture starts to play a much bigger role.

Over time everybody grows and matures, some sooner than others, some grow bigger than others, but every player goes through significant physical changes on the journey.

Coaching and competition become more of a factor in the journey. Both are important. It is critical for both to positively influence a player along the way. Coaches can teach skill technique, knowledge of the game and provide guidance along the way in practices and in games.

Riding their coattails
For the better players, the ones that matured earliest and were more dominant at the youngest ages, coaching is much more important. If coaches choose to just let these players play the game the same way they always have as they as they progress up through the age groups, they are doing them an incredible disservice. In fact, they are not coaching at all. Instead, they are taking advantage of the players and more or less riding their coattails to win hockey games.

But eventually it will catch up to them. What worked at mite and squirt doesn’t necessarily work at pee wee, bantam and midget. The game changes. The players change. If the better players don’t evolve, they will quickly get surpassed by the players that do. It is quite common to see players that were “can’t miss” as eight-year olds be “can’t play” as fifteen-year olds. Sorry, that might be harsh, but it’s reality. And at that point it is too late to wonder why. That is where coaches can make the difference.

But the game is also a great teacher. And in many cases it is a much better teacher than the coach. The coach wants to win so will sometimes make sacrifices to give that the best chance of happening. The game doesn’t do that. The game is always teaching if a player is willing to pay attention.

Leading the pack
The group of players that has the potential to benefit most from what the game has to teach is the middle class. These are the players who aren’t dominant at the younger ages, they don’t have the puck a lot, they don’t score many of the goals, they don’t make a lot of plays.

But if you really think about the game in terms of an individual player, most of it is played without the puck. If a player has the puck a lot of the time, it can be pretty hard to learn how to play without the puck. Don’t get me wrong, it is great to be able to have the skill set to control the play with the puck. Those skills are extremely important and can always be improved upon no matter what level a player is playing at. When you have the puck you want to make the right play and be productive with it.

The players in that middle group don’t start out with the physical advantages of size or speed that the top players have. They typically don’t have the puck a lot, might not win a lot of races to it or battles for it or have the skills to keep it once they do get it. So they need to learn to survive. That is what the game can teach.

Skating, puckhandling, passing, pass receiving and shooting are skills that can be improved immensely by coaches who teach and reinforce proper technique in practices. They are very difficult skills to improve in a game situation when there is only one puck on the ice and 10 skaters and the primary focus is on competing to win the game.

But the game creates the perfect environment for players to learn how to play the game. Defensively they learn to read the play and figure out where the puck is going before it gets there. They learn to take away time and space and cover opponents away from the puck to take away options.

Offensively they learn how to read the play, to support the puck, to get in the right place to be a passing option for a teammate, how to find open ice in the offensive zone to create scoring chances and how to interact with their teammates. They have to. If they don’t, they won’t be involved in the game.

And over time, by developing their skating and puck skill base in practice along with their hockey sense in games, by the time the race gets closer to the finish line the players from the middle class often find themselves leading the pack.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Does Competing Against Better Players Make You Better?

Being challenged is a very important part, and a very healthy part, of every sport, and of life for that matter.

Many people, when not challenged, quickly become bored and disinterested in what they are doing. Individually, most players are not capable of really challenging themselves and have to rely on their coach to put them in situations where they are challenged.

Team-wise the only way many coaches challenge their players is by whom they are competing against. Ultimately, it’s the competition that becomes the challenge. A strong opponent presents a challenge, a weak opponent probably does not.

Most parents want to make sure that their kids are challenged playing hockey. Their thinking is that if their son or daughter is on the ice with better players, they will push themselves harder to become better players themselves.

In reality, many players do play to the level of the other players on the ice. It happens all of the time. Very often, a more talented team has difficulty when playing a team that is clearly inferior in talent, yet plays up to the level of a team that is better.

Playing up
Individually as well, many players tend to step up to meet the challenge presented by stronger competition. As a result, many parents try to push their kids to play up a level, in age or classification, so they are always playing against better players, and to always be challenged. Is this a good thing?

It can be. But it can also be very counter-productive in terms of a player’s development. Year after year, if a player is always pushing just to keep up or be in the middle of the pack on a team, he or she is probably not developing as they could or should. While it is good that they are on the ice with better players, and are pushed to be better by their teammates and the competition, it can also hinder them.

Physically, if they are pushing themselves as hard as they can just to play at that level, they will sacrifice development just to survive. They won’t experiment, they won’t try new things, they will avoid their weaknesses and do only what they do best, what allows them to play.

While there is something to be said for knowing your strengths and using them to your advantage, to really develop a player also has to know his or her weaknesses and strive to make them better. If not, development will be limited.

The confidence to make mistakes
Mentally, it is a great thing to be the best, or one of the best players on the ice. It is essential to a young kid’s confidence. It allows them to be creative, to try new things, to experiment and even to work on weaknesses that they might have, knowing that if they make a mistake, they will have the opportunity to get back on the ice and make up for it.

You don’t improve and learn if you don’t make mistakes and if you don’t have the confidence to try things that might result in mistakes, your growth will be limited.

As I grew up playing the game, all age classifications were two years. It allowed you to play with older kids your first year, and most likely be one of the weaker kids on the team, as they were a little bigger and stronger and faster. You had to push yourself to keep up. But the next season, you played with some younger kids, which meant you were probably one of the stronger players. You were relied on by the team to be better, you felt confident, were put in different situations where you could try new things and develop new skills.

Gradual development
At the junior and college levels, my first year was a whirlwind. The game seemed so much faster, the players so much bigger, stronger and more talented. In my first few games, I always wondered how I would survive.

But you were able to develop because of the system. The first year or two you pushed yourself to keep up and just play on the third or fourth line. You learned from the juniors and seniors what it took to be the best at that level. And by the time you were a junior or senior yourself, you took on new roles, and developed the confidence to hold onto the puck longer, to play on the power play, and be on the ice in the last minute of the period.

A friend of mine, Mike Donnelly, played high school hockey in Detroit, then after a year of junior hockey walked on at Michigan State. In his first year he played minimally and scored 7 goals. His second year he played more and scored 18 goals. His third year he earned more ice time and scored 26. His senior year, he consistently played on the power play and in all key situations and scored 59 goals. That didn’t happen by accident. Over the years, he gradually improved his physical and mental skills and developed his game. There wasn’t a chance that he would have scored 59 goals as a freshman, even with twice the ice time he had as a senior. Ultimately, he played professionally for ten years. But if he hadn’t been allowed to develop gradually, over a period of years, it would never have happened.

At the professional level, each NHL team has a minor league system where they can develop their prospects at a level where they can taste success. There isn’t that much difference between a fourth line NHL’er and a first line minor leaguer.

What’s important is that they are in an environment where they can be the best, play in key situations and develop completely.

Not the way we do it
Many players have had their careers ruined by being rushed into situations where they had no chance to survive because they didn’t have the confidence or skills to compete at that level.

In terms of development, I think we make a big mistake in the way the current A, AA and AAA system is structured in Michigan. By having age groups comprise of only one birth year, we are not allowing our players to completely develop into what they could potentially be by not allowing them to play in different situations.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Line Forms Here

One of the biggest challenges for youth hockey coaches is the formation of lines.
It’s also a frequent source of heartburn for parents and one of the most common issues that can lead to a confrontation with the coaches of the team.

Who plays what position? Who plays with who? Whose line plays more? Which players play in certain situations?

If it sounds a little like an Abbott and Costello skit, that probably fits. It can be all of that at times.

Obviously, there are a lot of different variations of line set-ups and a number of different reasons that lines get formed in certain ways. The number of players on a team is an issue, as are the positions that the players are capable of playing. The skill level of the individual players is also a factor. And unfortunately the offspring of the coaches can at times be an area of concern.

Some coaches bring it on themselves. There are actually some coaches who believe that because they are volunteering to coach a team that it somehow gives their child privileges that other players on the team don’t have. Talk about a recipe for disaster. In some instances it is purely a case of having the parent goggles on in terms of assessing the ability of their child. It can be very easy to over-rate your own child and play them in positions and situations that they shouldn’t be playing in.

Of course, there are some coaches who are just the opposite and go out of their way to make sure that it doesn’t appear that their child gets anything more than the other players. In some cases, the coach’s child actually gets the short end of the stick.

Where they fit
The great thing about the game is that if you pay attention to it, over the course of time it is pretty easy to see where players fit and don’t fit. But in saying that I also know there are many parents who will never be able to properly assess the abilities of their child or the other players on the team.

So how exactly do lines get formed? What is the magical formula that coaches employ in coming up with the right combinations?

We have all seen the Rookie Coach in Mite House Hockey format at work in some form or another, sometimes at different levels and other age groups. That’s the one where one coach’s child plays center, the other coach’s child plays center and there are three set of wings (sometimes even four believe it or not) that rotate through with those centers. But that is obviously not a typical set-up. And it is never very long-term because there is nothing about it that makes any sense.

In most cases, teams will have three lines and at least five defensemen, typically six. It is virtually impossible to play the game with any pace or tempo with only two lines. The players tire much too quickly.

There are players that can go out every second shift, but without adequate rest, they can’t play to the level that they are capable of. When coaches insist on playing players when they are tired, they essentially are creating players that become slow and lazy. They can’t make decisions or execute plays at high speed. They move slowly and develop lazy playing habits.

But sometimes that can’t be helped. Sometimes teams only have ten skaters and have to go with two lines. While it is not an ideal situation, sometimes you have to work with what you have. Once you get to eleven or twelve skaters, it is pretty easy to utilize four defensemen and seven or eight forwards.

It is much easier for defensemen to go out every second shift as typically the demands of the position can be a little less than that of what the forwards are doing. When playing defense, you play your position and the play essentially comes to you. When playing forward you are the group that pushes the pace of the play. Smart defensemen can easily and efficiently play at least half of the game. That is a lot tougher to do effectively as a forward.

Getting to know them
Coaches really need to get to know their players to form effective lines and have to really good understanding of what players are capable (and just as importantly not yet capable) of doing. Chemistry among linemates doesn’t typically just happen out of dumb luck, although sometimes it does. Coaches make conscious decisions to put together a line consisting of a playmaking center capable of getting the puck to a winger with a good shot and a knack for getting open along with another winger who might be strong along the boards and in the corners.

Sometimes coaches will put together three hard workers who might not be that offensively gifted, yet can forecheck like the dickens and be disruptive in the offensive zone.

Some coaches like to operate in more of a pair format where they take two players who always seem to work well together and change up the third player from time to time to stir things up or to try something different.

Throughout the course of the season good coaches with try pretty much everybody with everybody to see what works and what doesn’t work. It is never healthy to play with the same linemates for the whole season.

While it is true that some players seem to play much better with certain players than they do with others, over time players tend to get a little stale playing together and the excitement of a new line can create some energy that might otherwise be lacking.

One other consideration for coaches is what to do with those players that seem to have the knack of making the players that they play with better. Some players can do that, but most can’t. When a player might be struggling a little and have a low confidence level, it can be a real boost to put them with a creative player who can get them the puck and involved in the game again.

Opportunity to succeed
One of the biggest challenges for youth coaches is the variance in skill level between teammates. While you want to give your team and each individual player the opportunity to succeed, you have to be careful in how the lines are put together.

It can be very difficult for a weaker player to play on the same line with two of the top players on the team, no matter how team-oriented those players might be. Sometimes it is better to put the three forwards lowest on the depth chart together on a line as they will feel more comfortable together. When you feel good, you tend to play well.

Forming defensive pairings also takes a little thought but with only two players it is a little less complex than with three forwards. Most times coaches will put a good puck-mover or offensive oriented defenseman with a solid stay-at-home defender for balance.

Playing defense is all about positioning, reading and reacting and some players just tend to really click together to work in unison.

Good coaches will ultimately take their cues from their players as to how their lines are formed. Every player deserves an opportunity to play with every other player on the team and in all situations. You never know what someone is capable of until given a chance.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Trying Out

The month of March might be one of the most interesting and entertaining times of the year to be in a hockey rink. Not necessarily just because of what is happening on the ice either. It’s tryout time and the arena lobbies are filled with kids, hockey bags, registration tables and anxious, coffee-sipping parents looking to find a home. At least until next March.

It’s a little like spring training in baseball and draft day for the Lions. Hope springs eternal. The slate has been wiped clean and everything starts anew. There are no losing streaks or last place in the standings. Only promise and promises, some kept, some not.

The cast of characters is the same at virtually every tryout. The players come in all shapes and sizes and mental states. Many of them are nervous, although some are over-confident with a dash of cocky mixed in. Some look downright overwhelmed or intimidated, appearing like they would rather be anywhere but there at that moment.

The parents are always interesting to observe. It’s not that easy to spot the Negotiator, that guy who is always working the best deal for his player. His work is done long before the tryouts. But it is easy to pick out the Mr. Inquisitive, who starts out with one question for the coach that quickly turns into ten. Then there is Stat, who can recite his player’s statistics in every offensive and defensive category since birth. Typically surrounded by the lobby’s largest crowd of parents will be Scoop, who knows everything that you need to know (and plenty that you don’t) about every team and every player and who is playing where and why.

Then there are the coaches. Some are all business, standoffish from the parents, checking the lobby only periodically to see who is there and who is not. Others will work the room like Bill Clinton.

Sixty kids and four skates
If you really think about it, the actual tryout process is inherently inefficient. We start with as many as sixty or seventy kids. We put them on the ice for 80 minutes and try to keep them all active and involved. We do that three or four times, hopefully with less kids each time. From that, we pick a team that we will have for the next year.

Is it really realistic to think that coaches can make a fair and complete evaluation of a player in three or four tryout skates? Can a coach really select a team with all of that going on with all of those players on the ice at the same time?

The answer to both is probably not. But in reality, it is the best we’ve got. That being said, the evaluation process really doesn’t happen that way. Everybody does not start with a fresh sheet of ice and a clean comment section next to their name on the tryout list. The past is very much factored into the tryout present. It has to be. Coaches have opinions and have made judgments on players long before the tryout happens. They have formed those thoughts and impressions based on what they have seen in games and practices and previous tryouts. They have to use every bit of information that they have in making a decision.

The players on the previous season’s team will typically always have an advantage over the other players on the ice. That advantage is familiarity for the coach. The coach has the most information to work with on those players having seen them in practices and games and other situations for at least the previous year, maybe even longer.

I say typically because that familiarity might be a disadvantage to some players who might not have made a favorable impression with the coach. Or maybe the player was fine, but the parents didn’t do the kid any favors with the way they handled themselves throughout the year.

In any event, coaches have had a birds-eye view for a year and all of the warts have been exposed. The challenge for a coach sometimes can be to not factor in those negatives too heavily. Who knows what lurks beneath the new stars that shine so brightly in the tryouts, players that look pretty darn good but that we don’t know a whole lot about?

It can be pretty easy for a coach to cut the cord and continually bring in new blood year after year, but what does that really say about you as a coach? Ultimately, what you see is what you coached.

The Crystal Ball
Essentially, whether they are up-front and tell you or not, most coaches have a pretty good idea of what their team will look like before the tryout even starts. They have to. They know which players from the previous team they want to keep, the ones that they might look to replace and they have a good idea who will be coming to try out.

Some coaches have gone so far as to recruit players from other teams to come play for them, a practice that I find kind of repulsive when it comes to youth hockey, but hey I guess coaches gotta do what they gotta do. Those who can’t coach recruit and replace.

The actual tryout is really when the cards get dealt. People can talk all they want ahead of time about where they are going to try out and what they are doing, but until they actually do or don’t show up at a tryout it really means nothing. Even then, it might not mean anything because there are some parents who run their kids around checking out tryouts to see if the team will be good enough for their player.

But attendance is the first step. Then it is up to the coach to determine whether to offer the spot or not and then up to the player again to determine if they will accept. While honesty is always the best policy on both sides of the equation it is always good practice not to take anything for granted or as the gospel until it actually happens.

Getting noticed
So how do players get noticed at a tryout if they didn’t play on the previous team or the coach is not familiar with them in some other way? Is it even worth trying out? Absolutely it is. You never know where you fit or how you will do until you try it.

To get noticed players should do what they do best. Something “extraordinary” will typically get a player noticed in a large group during tryouts. Size is one of those things but that is the easy part. Then a big player needs to demonstrate that they can skate and handle the puck to play effectively at that size. Speed is another noticeable element. That will get you noticed, but you also need to show that you have the intelligence to use that speed to your advantage. There are plenty of players that skate like the wind and can cover a lot of ice but accomplish nothing.

To me skating is probably the most important skill, especially for younger players, but hockey sense is right there and becomes increasingly important as players get older. The game happens really fast and those players that make the best decisions are the ones that make the greatest positive impact for a team. Those are the players I want on my team. But they also need to have the desire to compete and they have to truly enjoy playing the game.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Penalty Time

Serving a penalty in hockey could quite possibility be one of the most-unique actions in all of sports.

Think about it for a second. In basketball, when someone commits a foul the other team gets possession of the ball or free throws. When a player reaches the foul limit they are excused from the game. In football a team is penalized by losing yardage and in rare cases of excess violence players are thrown out of the game. Baseball really doesn’t have any penalties as the result of actual plays that happen, although pitchers sometimes get tossed for throwing at batters and players and managers get booted for abusing umpires.

Soccer might have the most confusing system of yellow cards and red cards and in my opinion the only players who should be kicked out of the game are the ones that do the worst job of acting when they are flopping around like a fish trying to draw a penalty.

Completely different
Hockey, on the other hand, is completely different. Not only is an individual penalized by having to go for a timeout in a tiny box for two minutes or more, but in most cases the team is also penalized by having to play short-handed for that time. Penalties can impact a game and swing momentum in every sport, but hockey might be the one where they have the potential to have the greatest impact.

There are a plethora of different penalty types in hockey, some that cause coaches to go insane and others that already insane coaches actually promote and encourage. Lazy penalties like hooking or tripping, especially in situations that are in the offensive zone or do not prevent a scoring chance, are ones that make coaches crazy. So too can aggressive type penalties like charging, elbowing, roughing, slashing and boarding that border on stupid and selfish. Or undisciplined retaliation penalties. Yet some penalties are totally worth it, ones that take away a scoring chance or save a goal.

And while there are some “good” penalties, it is important to note that too many penalties and too many minutes playing short-handed hockey are more often than not a recipe for disaster.

But it’s never the team or coach’s responsibility, right? It’s always the stupid refs who don’t know what they are doing isn’t it? Maybe. In some cases. But in most cases, most refs get it right. Not saying they don’t make mistakes. They do. But when they are wrong, they typically share the mistakes with both teams and it usually evens out, if not over the course of a game, then definitely over the course of a season.

On and over the edge
Penalty minute totals usually don’t lie though. Over a period of games or months or a whole season, it is pretty easy to see which teams play on and over the edge of the rules and which ones don’t.

Not only can you get a pretty good picture of the personality of a team by their penalty minutes, but probably a good indication of the style of the coach and whether or not he or she has respect for the game, the officials and the opponents and has the ability to instill discipline in the players on the team.

As an aside, with it being “tryout time”, it is always a good idea to factor the penalty minute stats of teams into your evaluation of the coach of the team your player is trying out for.

If you look at penalty minutes in all levels of hockey, you will typically see that the majority of teams at the professional, college and junior hockey levels average between 12-18 penalty minutes per game. Some teams fall outside of that grouping, maybe as low as 8 on the low end or as high as 20 or 22 on the high end. The average is probably around 12-15 minutes per game, or 20-25% of the game length.

In college hockey, where there is very little fighting because of strict rules against it, you might expect there to be less penalty minutes. However the season is a little shorter and with teams playing fewer games, the pace and intensity of those games is high, which can result in some higher penalty totals.

Penalty minute numbers in pro hockey today pale in comparison to the way the game was played in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. It is definitely a cleaner, more highly skilled brand of hockey today than the butchery and barbarianism of the ‘70’s that provided the inspiration for Slapshot. The movie actually wasn’t that far off of how the game was played then.

At the NHL and college level, penalty minutes are deemed to be so unimportant they aren’t even listed in the team standings. In looking through the division standings in some youth hockey leagues, most of teams fall within the normal range of penalty minutes, but some of them are alarmingly high. A Midget Minor team with 949 PIM’s in 34 league games, an average of 28 minutes per game. Seriously? A Midget Major team averaging 23.5 PIM’s per game? Pee Wee Minors (11-year olds) averaging 18 PIM’s a game? Keep in mind these are shorter games than the 60-minute pro and college games. Keep in mind we are talking “average” here, which means some games are actually higher than that.

Up to the coaches
Some people will say “that’s good tough hockey” and intimidation is part of the game. In my opinion it is undisciplined, idiocy and is an embarrassment to the game. The players are not to blame. It’s up to the coaches to create the culture and demand the discipline of the players to play the game properly.

If a team is consistently playing more than 20% of every game short-handed they are obviously coached (poorly) to play that way. It’s a coach’s obligation to teach the players how to play tough and play hard, but also play within the spirit of the rules of the game.

Fighting in youth hockey is also something that always amazes me. First of all I find it hard to believe that the penalty is only a five minute major and game misconduct. What is the purpose of fighting in a game where the players have full face-masks anyway? Oddly enough, it would make more sense to me to allow fighting (to the extent the current rule does) if there were no facemasks. But how senseless is pounding someone’s facemask with your gloved hand? It might be only somewhat smarter than a bare hand.

Why is fighting even considered to be “part of the game” at the youth level? They are kids. Receive a major penalty for fighting in college hockey and sit out the next game too. Pretty simple and, not surprisingly, there are virtually no fights. Fighting major penalties in youth hockey should result in removal from that game and sitting out the next game as well. At a minimum.

Toughness is an interesting word. For some it conjures up images of Joey Kocur and Bob Probert pounding on an opponent. Absolutely those guys were tough, but so is the current version of the Detroit Red Wings, which averages less than 10 penalty minutes a game and never gets intimidated. When you have the puck most of the time you don’t take penalties.

Winning puck battles and having the discipline and tenacity to maintain possession of it to control the game is a different, more important kind of toughness.
There is a fine line between toughness and stupidity. Sometimes it gets crossed.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Don't Blame the Parents

It’s that time of year again. Playoff time, state tournament time, championship time.

And, while those things definitely make for a fun and exciting time of year, they sometimes can play second fiddle to the other important activity that occurs at this time of year: team-building for next season. For teams that lose and fall out of the hunt for championship hardware, that suddenly becomes the most important task. Oddly enough, even some teams still in the running spend a substantial amount of time looking to make changes for next year.

That one always puzzles me somewhat. You work all year long to prepare as a team to have a chance to win a championship and then at what might be the most important and most fun time of the year you suddenly become pre-occupied with what will happen next.

I guess it is inevitable that people will start to look ahead. Especially those that have little or no playoff hockey remaining this year. But while I do agree that it is time to start putting some plans in place for next year’s team, the focus should still very much be on this year until the season is over. To me, the extent of planning for next year should be limited to setting the tryout dates for next year’s team. Anything beyond that is an unneeded distraction.

But many people take it further than that. For weeks now, there have been e-mails and phone calls flying back and forth between coaches and parents looking to negotiate spots for next season, a flurry of activity that might rival the final 48 hours leading up to the NHL trade deadline before the salary cap era began. Deals get made, positions are taken and current players on some teams are already cut, although they don’t know it yet, from next year’s team long before the first tryouts are advertised.

It’s not right. But it happens.

Against the rules
So who is to blame? The kids? Definitely not. They are typically not even involved. The parents. Possibly and probably. They definitely are catalysts in the equation. The coaches? Absolutely. They are the ones who have the ability to stop it before it starts.

According to Section XVI, #5 of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association Rules and Regulations, “No coach, manager, or other team official, connected with a rostered team may directly or indirectly entice, influence or contact a player on a rostered team without the written approval of the coach and/or manager of that team. Violation of this rule will result in a recommended suspension of not less than one year.”

Additionally, according to the USA Hockey Coaching Ethics Code, “Coaches will not recruit a participant who is already a member of another USA Hockey team. Direct contact by a coach or his / her staff or indirect contact through an agent or parent during the playing season with a participant who is a member of another USA Hockey team is considered tampering and is prohibited.”

And the final piece of the puzzle from the MAHA Rules and Regulations, “A player’s obligation to his/her regular season team ends on April 30th of the current season, or when his/her regular season team becomes inactive prior to that date.”

What all of that really means is that coaches are not to talk to parents of players on other teams until the other team’s season is over. Coach your current team. You chose those players to be on it and it is your obligation to coach them all season long. Don’t worry so much about your next team.

When the season is over
The definition of what is the end of that team’s season is sometimes up for debate, although I have been advised that it means any scheduled activities that the team has up through the end of March or April if the team happens to be going to a national tournament.

So if a team has practices or games scheduled through the end of March, technically the players on that team are not to be tampered with unless the coach of that team gives written permission or that team’s season is declared complete and the ice is allocated to the next season’s team activities. Before that occurs, players from an “active” team can attend tryouts for other teams but are supposed to have written permission from the coach of their current team.

Good luck with that. While the intent of the rules make sense, it is virtually impossible to police.

Coaches abuse it. I am sure that there are many who don’t even know what the rule is, although they should. Oddly enough they would be the first to cry foul if they found out their best player was skating with another team.

Yet at this time of year players routinely skate with other teams under the guise of “skating with friends” or “a birthday party hockey practice skate”, whatever that might be. While some coaches will directly contact players they want on their team for next year, others will be a little more sly and have parents from their current team do the deed for them, which of course is not within the intent of the policy.

Here’s a plan
Let’s face it. Everybody loves to be wanted and wooed. What parent can’t help but feel good about themselves when their offspring is being asked to go and play for another team? Why would you turn in a coach who was recruiting your child to play on his team? Why would the majority of parents even know the rules? And in that rare case when a parent objects to the unwanted advances, the offending coach is never reported because of that perpetual parental angst of “not wanting to have their child black-listed”, which really means that the parent doesn’t want to be labeled as a squealer or trouble-maker and have it hurt the player’s opportunities.

At the end of the day, the parents and players are out to cut the best deal that they can for themselves. And why not? They have choices. They should. If they are happy with the situation with their current team and coach, they can choose to stay. If not, they can test the waters and enjoy or suffer the consequences. Ultimately, they live with their decisions.

Coaches, on the other hand, are the ones that have the opportunity to control or abuse this situation. It’s not on the parents. It’s on them. They are obligated to know the rules and they are obligated to follow the rules. They are also obligated to the players on their current team.

So coaches, here is a plan. Schedule your tryouts. Advertise them however you choose. Pick your team from the players that show up. Coach them all season long. If parents call, you tell them when your tryouts are and if there might be any openings on the team. If you feel the need to go out and recruit players, you might want to re-think why you are coaching in the first place. If parents on your current team are pressuring you to recruit players from other teams, you might want to educate them on the rules.

I get the “competition” thing and striving to make your team better. Every team should try to get better. But in my opinion that is the coaches’ role throughout the season. Do a good job coaching and if people like what they see and want to make a change, they can attend your tryouts. If you have to sell out and break rules to make your team better, maybe you are not really a coach.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Bag Skate

In mid-winter of 1980, as he prepared his team for the Olympics ahead, Herb Brooks had his players muttering his name in vain under their breath as he skated them endlessly and mercilessly up and down the ice at the end of a practice session.

Every winter since then, probably more frequently since the release of the movie Miracle which depicted the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team and glorified what has become known as “Herbies”, an endless number of players have muttered the name of their coach under their breath as well. At least as much as they could while trying to catch their breath.

Every hockey player knows about the Bag Skate. Every hockey player hates the Bag Skate. If you have ever bore witness to one or have been on the business end of one you know why. There really is not a whole lot good about them.

If you happened to be in the inner sanctum of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, or if you were paying the slightest bit of attention during Miracle, you would know that there was a method to Brooks’ madness. He was not trying to physically condition his players, although they probably did get a little benefit in that regard. But he was trying to psychologically condition his players, to develop their mental toughness and get them to work harder than they believed possible. Most importantly, he was trying to bring them together, to get them to understand that they were a team, and all in it together representing their country, not just a group of individual stars from all over the country. If that team cohesiveness was spawned predominantly through a universal, temporary hatred of its head coach, then so be it.

That’s all we’ve got?
Unfortunately, most Bag Skates are a little light on the method and a lot overboard on the madness. And even more unfortunate is the fact that many youth hockey coaches tend to view the Bag Skate as a beneficial coaching tactic and a positive experience for their players. In my opinion that couldn’t be further from the truth.

As a player, I hated the Bag Skate and thought they were stupid. As a coach, I still hate the Bag Skate and still think they are stupid. I also think it is a waste of valuable ice time and causes more harm to youth hockey players than benefit. On the very rare occasions that I have resorted to it, I am much more upset at myself than I am at the players because I have failed them in my role as a coach.

At the higher levels of the game, junior, college and above, where the players are pretty much physically (and maybe or maybe not mentally) mature, the Bag Skate might serve a little bit of a purpose in terms of getting a team’s attention when all else fails.

But the concept is really quite Neanderthal if you really think about it. A team is not performing as well or working as hard as a coach thinks that it should. So the solution is to put them on the goal line and have them skate to the blue line and back, red line and back, far blue and back, far end and back. That usually takes anywhere from 45 seconds to a minute the first time around and then increasingly longer with each subsequent repetition.

And that’s the best we’ve got? That is supposed to somehow make them play better or harder? Seriously?

Players should love to skate
The actual physical demands of the Bag Skate really don’t do anything but tire the players out and possibly make them mad either at the coach or at the teammates who they believe were the cause of the Bag Skate in the first place.

Mentally, the fear of the Bag Skate might get players to work hard in the short term when threatened with it or it could get them to play harder in the next game or few games after the Bag Skate. But the effects are always only temporary. Fear of the Bag Skate should not be relied on as any kind of motivator for a team or players. All it really does is get their attention when all else fails. The reality is that it is a desperate and short-term move.

In youth hockey, where the players are neither physically or mentally mature, the effects of the Bag Skate have more serious negative consequences.

In a game where skating is arguably the most important skill set, using that skill as a punishment makes very little sense. Why would we want there to be any sort of negative connotation toward skating? Players should love to skate. They should feel good about skating. They should want to skate. As fast as they can for as long as they can. Associating skating with punishment or using the threat of it as fear to motivate players can’t be a productive strategy in the long run.

Bad, then worse
From a technical standpoint, the Bag Skate does nothing to help players improve their skating technique. In fact, it actually makes them worse. For the first 15 seconds of a hard skate a player can maintain good skating technique, good knee bend and body posture with a long, powerful stride, returning the skate completely back underneath the body before taking the next stride. After that, it is a complete train wreck. The legs straighten, the base widens, the stride shortens, and the result bears very little resemblance to efficient and powerful skating technique.

But this doesn’t just occur for 15 seconds, it goes on for the 45 seconds or longer that it takes for the repetition to be completed. And then it just gets worse for each subsequent go around. In effect we are training our players to be poor skaters. And then we wonder why they can’t skate fast?

If that is not bad enough, it can actually get worse depending on when the Bag Skate occurs in a practice. Some coaches like to send the message right from the get-go. Before a puck ever hits the ice, the players are on the goal line getting ready for misery. Down and back they go, over and over again. The ice gets bad. Their skating technique gets worse. They get tired. They get angry. If and when the torture ever stops before practice is scheduled to end, there really is no sense in doing anything else. For all intent and purpose, practice is over. The ice is bad. The players are physically and mentally spent. Anything done from that point on in terms of trying to practice to improve is nothing but a greater waste of time and an even greater waste of the money that paid for the ice time.

Yet the Bag Skate is pretty much accepted as a time-tested staple of pretty much every coach’s repertoire, which is really kind of sad when you think about it. That’s all we’ve got? Just because it was something that was forced on us at players doesn’t make it right.

Times have changed. Most areas of coaching have improved. The use of the Bag Skate confirms one of three things, the coach doesn’t know any better, he saw Miracle too many times or there’s nothing else left in the coaching bag.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Playing Time

As the second season of the hockey season begins to ramp up so does the intensity surrounding each and every game.

The regular season is the regular season. A time to work things out. A time to sort things out. A time to see what you have. A time to see who can do what. While the games matter, compared to the second season, they really don’t matter all that much in the eyes of many people.

League playoffs, district playoffs, state tournaments, national tournaments. Those kinds of events have a little more luster to them than your average run of the mill regular season game. The players get amped up, the parents get fired up and the coaches get tensed up. All of which can make for a cocktail of controversy in certain situations. And those certain situations get very much magnified in the most important games of the year.

One of the most common of those certain situations is playing time. Who gets it, who doesn’t, when they get or don’t get it and why they get or don’t get it. In any youth sport, playing time is probably the most volatile element that can spark some fireworks within a team.

From a coach’s perspective, I can somewhat understand the mindset of shortening the bench or playing certain players in certain situations. But only somewhat. I can’t understand at all how any coach could not play one or some of the players on a team for most or all of a period or game. I really don’t get that.

Their fair share
First of all, if the team is to play with any pace and intensity in the game, it is unrealistic to think that the best players can go out on the ice every second shift and perform at a high level. At least not for very long. They might be able to handle it for a period or half of a game, but it is pretty easy to see how they wear down over the course of the game.

From a productivity standpoint, do you really want your best players, the ones that have the ability to make the plays and be difference makers in the game to be deprived of that opportunity? It can be easy to think that getting them on the ice more often gives the opportunity to do more. But, at the same time, there is a point of diminishing return where they are unable to perform at the level that they are capable of because they are tired.

Secondly, does it make any sense at all for players to be on a team and not participate? I can’t understand that at all. At every level of youth hockey the players (actually their parents do it for them) pay to play. With that comes the right to play. There shouldn’t be any questions about that. If a coach has a problem with that, then they definitely shouldn’t be coaching. If other parents on a team have a problem with that, then they should stay at home. They don’t understand youth sports and the team would be much better off without them around.

Thirdly, I have no idea how anyone could feel good about themselves as a coach, let along as a human being, by not playing every kid their fair share of a game. Yes, the hard part might be determining what exactly “fair share” means, but every kid deserves an opportunity. I don’t know how coaches can look a kid in the eye after a game where they didn’t give them a chance to be a part of the game.

The whole team
A coach’s job is to coach all of the players on the team. Not just the better players. In fact, the better players are the ones that might need the least coaching. They often have the natural athletic ability, the skills, the drive and the confidence to be difference makers for their team. It’s pretty easy to coach those kinds of players.

But a team is much more than just its better players. The best coaches understand that every player on the team is important. The best teams are comprised of players that feel that they are valuable, contributing members of that team.

Coaching all of the players on the team takes effort, commitment and determination. No different than playing the game if you really think about it.

Being in the position of a leader it would be pretty difficult to ask the players to give something that the coach is not willing to give. Some players present more difficult challenges than others when it comes to coaching. But they all deserve the same effort and commitment from their coaches.

There is no cookie-cutter approach to coaching each individual on a team. All players are unique individuals with different personalities, strengths, weaknesses and skill sets. No two players are alike and it is unrealistic to think that they all can be coached exactly the same.

Just as it is unrealistic to think that they all could be or should be played the same amount or in all situations in a game. Playing time will never be equal. That is impossible. But it should be fair.

Each player should get what they deserve. It is not a bad thing for players to be rewarded for great effort or an exceptional accomplishment. From a coaching perspective you get way more mileage out of rewarding good behavior or accomplishments than by taking away ice time as a punishment for lack of effort, or worse yet, lack of ability or skill.

It’s a fact that some players aren’t as good as others and might not even feel comfortable on the ice in certain situations. That in itself is a challenge for a coach. You want every player to feel comfortable and feel like they are a valuable contributor in every situation. But how can they do that if they never get a chance to kill penalties or play on the power play or get on the ice at the end of a game when pressing for or defending against a game-tying goal?

Chicken and the egg
That might be the biggest challenge for a coach. You want your team to be successful and winning games is obviously a part of that. But to win games, all of your players need to learn and improve and be counted on to contribute in all situations. It’s a little like the chicken and the egg. Which comes first?

It can be very easy to be a sell-out coach and play the best players far more than the weaker players in games. But with a little effort, commitment and determination, it can be just as easy to give every player their fair share of opportunity to see what they can do.

Ultimately, what a coach sees on the ice is what they coached.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

ADM: A DEEP MYSTERY

Every January at the MAHA Winter Meeting there are several rule change proposals that are voted on to determine whether they will move forward to the Summer Meeting in July for a final vote.

New rule proposals need to be submitted by December 15th to get on the agenda for the January meeting. A majority vote at that meeting keeps the proposal alive and allows for six months of discussion and debate among the membership of the youth hockey community before the final determination in July.

If the early going is any indication, we can be assured of some serious discussion and debate in the coming months. There was plenty of that this past Saturday at this year’s Winter Meeting, along with some gnashing of teeth, some anger and some angst. A little bit of an emotional issue for some for sure. The ADM, the American Development Model. Some think its great and are completely on board. Others, not so much.

This past July a rule change was instituted that established that all mini mite or 6 & Under games would be played on a more age-appropriate ice surface. No more full-ice games for mini mites. If you have ever had a chance to watch a mini mite game, you shouldn’t have to ask why. It looked a little bit like ants sliding around the deck of an aircraft carrier. A little too much space. Not that much action. Nobody in the youth hockey community really seemed to have a problem with the change.

This year there is a proposal on the table to make all Mite or 8 & Under hockey in Michigan be on a smaller ice surface. No more full-ice games. Except for Mite AA hockey, with teams of 8-year olds formed via tryouts, but only if the association had a team at the Mite A or 7-year old level the year prior. The theory being that those kids had played full-ice and it would be unfair for them to “step back” to a smaller ice surface. Ultimately an amendment was made to the proposal to allow all 8-year olds to be able to participate in full-ice games for the coming year only. After that, all 8 & under hockey would be played on a smaller surface.

Consternation and anguish
I completely understand the positions and concerns of the various groups as it relates to this proposal. Change is never easy. It is all that much more difficult if one doesn’t understand it or care to look at it from a different perspective.

Some parents are downright angry about a potential change. They really think that their kids are losing out on something. I get that. But I also can see the other side, where there is an opportunity for the players to get more out of the game.

I guess it really depends on the parent and what they value most and why. I think much of the consternation from parents has to do with the “look” of the game. They think it really doesn’t “look like hockey”. I think that the case could be made, depending on your definition of what hockey looks like, that all Mite hockey doesn’t really look like hockey.

Most parents don’t spend a lot of time watching practices. But they love to watch the games. They love to see their children compete and some really love (maybe too much) when their child’s team wins and get a little too unhappy when the team loses. Maybe they get a little too much into it. That’s not necessarily all that bad. But I do think that some parents think of this potential change more in terms of how it might affect them than how it might affect their child.

The other issue some parents have is that their child is being held back, forced to play with the weaker kids and ultimately having their potential stunted. While I understand that, I also know that there are very few “exceptional” players.

The current system provides a huge potential advantage to the early-maturers and a significant potential disadvantage to kids born later in the year. The bigger, stronger kids get picked at tryouts and given more ice time and the more experienced coaching while the leftovers get what is leftover.

I can really see how a parent of a “pretty good mite player” might have some anguish over what is believed to be a missed opportunity for that child. But I also have been around long enough to know that there are just as many or more early-maturers who flame out when puberty hits. At the end of the day, in terms of “development” for the future, nothing really matters until the kids are in their mid-teens.

All the kids
Some coaches are upset about it. I can understand that viewpoint as well. But I also have a hard time believing someone is coaching “for the right reasons” if they are getting that upset about it. Coaches should be coaching to help out all of the kids. Not just the ones that might show the most potential at 7 or 8 years old mainly because they happened to be the biggest and most mature 7 or 8 year olds.

The coaches who are upset about it are more concerned about the loss of control of their coaching career. A bad coach’s reputation is made or lost based on the players they get to pick at the youngest ages. A good coach will find a way to make all of the players better.

Having coached youth hockey and soccer teams for over ten years and having instructed kids in power skating and hockey skills for over 25 years I can assure parents and coaches that from the players’ perspective a more age-appropriate sized playing surface has significantly more benefits than negatives.

I have seen first-hand the differences in development and enjoyment of the game for the players when they have played on a full-size playing surface at 7 and 8 years old and younger and when they played on a smaller, age-appropriate field. From a developmental standpoint, if that is important to you, a smaller ice surface is definitely a plus.

The unknowns
Some hockey association administrators and rink operators are wondering whether it will be a good thing. Less ice time will be used by the 8 & Under age group. So who will use it? Will more kids participate in the game because the cost to play will be less because more kids are on the ice at the same time? That is one of the tenets of the ADM and if it holds true then in the long run it should pay off. But in the meantime, there is a definitely some risk involved, some unknown, and that is never easy to stomach.

Being familiar with the ADM program and the Long Term Athlete Development concepts, I have a good understanding of what it is all about but I still have questions. And I also wonder whether long-term athletic development should be the greatest priority of a youth sport. Or is it the recreational experience itself? Can we have both?

Which brings me to the players, whose opinion probably matters the most but whose voice is heard the least. But are they in a position to have an opinion at 7 and 8 years old? They don’t know what they don’t know.

Frankly I don’t know that many people really have a good understanding of what the ADM really is, what it really is supposed to look like and what it really is supposed to accomplish. And that is the greatest challenge in all of it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Too Much Too Soon

Hockey, like many but not all sports, is very competitive. Hockey players typically, by nature, are very competitive. They pretty much have to be. Hockey coaches and hockey parents are as well. Competition is good. It’s healthy. In most cases.

Sometimes our competitive nature gets the best of us and we go too far too fast. In striving to jump out to a lead or to win the race we get caught up in the short-term and lose sight of the big picture.

Girls hockey in Michigan is a perfect example of that. In an effort to get ahead or stay ahead we often tend to make poor short-term decisions that don’t pay off in the long run. Not because we want to, but more likely because we don’t know any better or we have pressure that forces us to bite off more than we can chew.

If Tier II hockey is good, then Tier I hockey must be better, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on how you choose to look at it. And it depends on when you look at it. And it depends on from whose perspective you choose to look at it.

Its human nature for players to want to play at the highest level and for parents to feel proud about their children being able to play at the highest level. I see plenty of SUV window stickers with “Such and Such” Travel Hockey or AAA Hockey on them but I don’t recall ever seeing one that said “Such and Such” House Hockey.

Just a middle and a top
In Michigan we pretty much have two levels of girls hockey, Tier I and Tier II. Unfortunately for girls there are really no other levels besides those even though there is a classification called Tier II House/Rec, but it has very few teams.

It really is very much different than boys hockey where there are three very different levels: house or B hockey with teams formed by draft, A/AA hockey with teams formed by tryouts and limited to a maximum of three out of district players and AAA hockey with teams formed by tryouts and no restrictions on where the players come from.

There is very much a base on which the boys hockey structure is built. There are typically more house or B teams at each age group than there are A/AA teams and there are more A/AA teams in each age group than there are AAA teams. The top level is fed from the middle level which is fed from the bottom level. While it is definitely not a perfect system, it does at least work to a certain degree.

The girls world is much different. There is essentially no house hockey for girls. There is a Tier II or “travel” level of play with teams formed by tryouts. There is a Tier I level of play with teams formed by tryouts. There really is not any difference between Tier I and Tier II other than what the teams choose to call themselves. And there are no district restrictions in girls hockey.

But worst of all, there are not the number of players that there are in boys hockey. There is no structure in place for the bottom to feed the middle to feed the top. In fact there is no bottom. Just a middle and top. With nothing underneath to support it.

Girls essentially start as Tier II players and more often than not they are in a hurry to get to Tier I as quickly as they can. While that is not a bad thing for them as individuals, it is not necessarily a good thing for girls hockey in Michigan.

Checking the numbers
Let’s look at some numbers. In the current hockey season in the LCAHL and TOEHL there are sixteen 12U girls teams in Michigan with five of them being Tier I and eleven Tier II. At 14U there are four Tier I teams and seven Tier II, five Tier I and five Tier II at 16U and five Tier II and four Tier I at 19U. There are also fourteen girls high school teams in the Metro Detroit area. Additionally there are a few girls teams sprinkled around throughout the state, but they are few and far between and it is difficult for them to find teams to play against.

I have coached girls Tier II hockey for seven years and girls Tier I hockey for two. At the risk of hurting anyone’s feelings I can tell you that for the most part there is not a whole lot of difference between the two in terms of the majority of the players. I have seen girls who have played Tier I drop back into Tier II and be average players. The majority of girls in each age group would fit into the large part of the bell in a bell curve if you combined the two Tiers. There are exceptional players on the top end of Tier I and there are extremely inexperienced players on the bottom end of Tier II. But the vast majority of players in between could easily be either average to above average Tier II players or average to below average Tier I players.

For some perspective, let’s look at girls hockey numbers in Minnesota where they do not have Tier I girls hockey. In the girls 12U A classification in Minnesota there are 58 teams and there are 42 teams in the 14U A division. At the High School level there are 57 Class A teams and 68 Class B teams. Some pretty impressive numbers. Not surprisingly if you look at the USA Hockey national team rosters you will find Minnesota well represented. More players playing always results in more better players as they mature. It’s that simple.

Only a label
So what’s the difference in the two states? We both like to think of ourselves as the Mecca of Hockey. Minnesota has more community-owned arenas with stipulations that females receive their fair share of ice time. That is a factor. There is more opportunity for girls to get started playing in Minnesota. Plus there is the opportunity for girls to represent their high school on the ice.

But the other main difference is that there is not the Tier I status that we are so enamored with here in Michigan. I coach in a Tier I program but I will be the first to tell you that the Tier I programs are Takers. We add little or nothing to the game but reap the benefits from it. Why? Because we can. Players want to play for us and parents want their players to play for us. Whether the players really are of Tier I caliber or not. If you are playing in a Tier I league you must be a Tier I player, right?

But the label really means nothing. The majority of the players fit into the middle with extremes at either end. However, our tiering structure forces an upward sucking of players with the Tier I programs benefitting from the spadework of the Tier II programs.

Unlike boys hockey, there is no B or house hockey to feed Tier II girls. As a result they sputter and spin their wheels and each year there might or might not be a team in a given association. Which means there might or might not be a place for girls to play and that ultimately means less girls playing.

In our quest to get to the top, to achieve so much so soon, we are mortgaging the future of girls hockey in our state.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Comfort Zone

If you want to find out how hard a player is willing and able to work, watch that player during a tryout.

At no time throughout the year will you see a player work harder than they do when they are trying out for a team. If in fact they really want to play on that team. Not during practices, not during regular season games, not during playoff games.
So why is that? Is it because they want to make the team so badly? Or is it because they so badly fear not making the team?

I guess that could be open for debate. Just like what motivates people when they compete. Some people say they are motivated because they love winning. Others say they hate to lose. But is it hate or is it fear?

Fear can be an extremely powerful motivating force. Although many people don’t like to admit that they are motivated by fear. They are more likely to say they are motivated by something else. But I think in reality it is fear that drives them and here is why.

That sense of desperation
In youth hockey, it is virtually impossible to re-create a tryout environment. In a tryout, you either make it or not. There is no in between. You can’t be half pregnant. You are or you aren’t. There is a definite finality there which in turn spawns a sense of desperation.

But once the season starts and you are on the team, is there anything that is that powerful of a motivating force? The player is on the team. Can’t get cut at that point, right? Well maybe, in some circumstances they can, but in most cases, probably not. They are there for the season. And oftentimes they don’t think far enough ahead to think about next season. What they fail to realize is that in the mind of a coach every game and every shift is in essence a tryout.

So its human nature to let down your guard once you make the team, isn’t it? Many players do, but there are some who don’t, or at least appear like they don’t. There are still many motivating factors for players once the team is made. It could be wanting to win, wanting to score, or wanting to play on the power play or in key situations. Or it could be the fear of not achieving any of those things, couldn’t it?

Bottle that intensity
In any event, most coaches will tell you it is tough to re-create Tryout Intensity. I wish I could. I wish I could find a way to bottle it and feed it to the players at certain points throughout the season. I wish I could get them to understand how hard they had competed to earn a spot on the team. And get them to compete like that all of the time. In every game and practice.

But I know that I can’t. It is unrealistic to expect that players can sustain Tryout Intensity all season long. There is nothing that I can do that can manufacture the desperation that players feel when they really want to make a team or not be cut from a team. Once they are on they are on it’s easy for them to start to settle into a comfort zone for the season.

At some levels of hockey the threat is always there. National Hockey League players can get sent to the minor leagues. Junior players can get cut or sent to a lower level league. At those levels, and also in college or high school hockey, while players might still be on the team, there is always the threat that they might not get to dress for a particular game. That’s when the coach rolls out the old “It might be a good time to step back and watch the game to learn from it” but what he usually really means is “you are not working hard enough to deserve to be in the line-up, maybe this will get your butt in gear.”

The desperation for border line players is omnipresent. It never goes away. That is why you will often hear of players having a “sophomore slump” after a strong rookie season. They start to feel like they belong and get comfortable. Which could be good in terms of confidence, but could also be a problem if they stop doing the things that allowed them to be successful in the first place.

Finding that balance
But in youth hockey, once the team is formed and the season starts to unfold there can be times that coaches wonder how they can get their individual players to compete as hard as they did when their position on the team was in jeopardy? How do you push them to be as good as they can be, yet at the same time put them into situations where they have the opportunity to succeed, gain confidence and grow without being paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes?

So in essence, a coach’s job is to resolve conflict as much as possible and at the same time create some conflict. While you want your players to be comfortable and play with confidence, you also have to constantly have the whip at the ready. The reality is that you want your players to be uncomfortable being comfortable and at the same time comfortable being uncomfortable.

To be successful, players need to feel good about themselves and be comfortable in all situations. To be on top of their game they have to play with confidence and poise, assessing situations, weighing risks and making the right play, unafraid of making a mistake. While they have to be in a comfort zone, at the same time they can’t get too comfortable and not strive to push harder and achieve more. In other words, uncomfortable being comfortable.

On the flip side, when things aren’t going as they would like them to during games they need to understand not to panic, but to dig down for that little extra. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Good coaches will try to create uncomfortable situations for players in practices. If the practices are tougher to handle than the games then the players will be much better prepared to compete in the games. While they have to be able to handle pressure situations, they can’t be overwhelmed by them. In other words, comfortable being uncomfortable.

If a coach can hit both ends of the spectrum with his or her players, then they have found the true comfort zone.