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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.