Dealing With The Modern Athlete

Finding Common Ground Is The Key For Coaches To Connect With Their Players
Tim Army

Whether you’re coaching a group of Peewees or a professional team, there is a common thread that runs through the coaching ranks when it comes to dealing with today’s players.

That thread is a common ground that allows you to relate to every athlete, whether he or she is a recreational player, a blue-chip college athlete or a superstar like Jaromir Jagr.
I’ve learned that along the way, from my days at Providence College playing for Lou Lamoriello and Steve Stirling, right up to today, where I am in my third season as the head coach at my alma mater.
Along the way I have coached in the NHL, the AHL, at USA Hockey Player Development Camps and even helping out with my sons’ (Derek and Travis) teams.

Coaching At The Youth Level

I grew up in the 1970s and 80s. A lot of things that worked for us back then probably wouldn’t work in this day and age. It’s a different landscape. For one thing, kids today are more worldly because they have access to more information with the Internet, satellite television and cell phones. The demands are also a lot greater than when I was growing up.

Being the parent of two teenage boys helps me relate to kids of all ages. I try to use the same principles my parents taught me but adapt them to today’s changing environment. I try to incorporate that same philosophy into coaching at the collegiate level.

Working a USA Hockey camp is a bit more challenging because you have a short period of time in which to connect with kids, usually less than a week. That’s not a lot of time to get to know the 20 kids on your team. But it is still important to try.

Every player is different. Some are more outgoing and easier to engage. Others need to be coaxed out of their shell. Depending on the age you’re working with, it may be more of a challenge. I make it a point of doing team-building exercises and spending time with every player in one-on-one situations.

Coaching In College

Coaching at the collegiate level is similar to coaching in youth hockey. Not only are you dealing with the player, you’re dealing with his parents as well.

The recruiting process allows you to be selective of the kind of student-athlete you matriculate. And don’t let anybody fool you; you’re not only recruiting the player, you’re recruiting his parents as well. Some coaches won’t integrate with their parents. I do. That way, everyone is focused on the same objectives. 

Parents are expecting us to develop their sons not only as hockey players but as people and help them mature and develop along the way. We need the parents help to accomplish these goals: Is their message at home the same message that we are establishing at Providence College?

The reality is that players competing at the Div. I level are going to have their hiccups along the way. We’ll do everything we can to keep them on the path, allowing them to grow and succeed as student-athletes.

We tell our players that if you take short cuts in school, you’ll take short cuts on the ice. That’s the reason I expect them to take full advantage of the wonderful opportunities presented to them at Providence College. That means on the ice as well as in the classroom and in the college community.

If you’re going to be successful as a student-athlete, you’re going to have to budget yourself and your time. You have to have discipline.

I don’t mandate curfews for our players. If we have to tell them when to go to bed the night before playing Boston College, then they shouldn’t be here playing and I haven’t done my job in recruiting the right student-athlete.

What I’m trying to do is to empower our players to make their own decisions. They’re going to need those skills once they leave our campus, whether they’re continuing on with their hockey careers or moving into a professional field.

Coaching In The Pros

It’s especially important if you’re moving on to a career in professional hockey. You have a lot of time on your hands, and the skills you learn early on will help you make the right decisions.

This is where some young players run into difficulty. They have time and money, and people want to be involved with professional athletes. A player can end up being around the wrong people who can be a drain on them financially, physically and mentally. In the end those wrong people will have a negative impact on their on-ice performance.

A coach may not deal with parents too much once the player reaches the professional ranks, but there are spouses and agents added to the mix.

Some pro coaches don’t want to deal with anyone but the player. I was never that way. Just like college, I would rather have everyone on the same page and doing the best for the individual. It’s a very positive learning environment allowing everyone involved to create solutions, and do what’s best for the players.

It’s a little different in the AHL because there are players who don’t want to be playing in the minors. It’s the responsibility of the minor league coach to let his players know that there are still things that need to be improved on for them to compete consistently at the NHL level.

Once you reach the NHL, the variables may be slightly different, but the dynamic is still the same. I believe it is critical to relate to each other as not only player-coach but also as people. It’s not much different dealing with Mites and NHL players. It still revolves around playing a game.

Players in the NHL are obviously better, more mature, and more intuitive. You have to know what you’re talking about because they’re very intelligent people. They have skills but also have the mind to compliment that whole package. If you want to move somebody in a certain direction, a coach must have concrete suggestions. You can’t fudge it or you’ll lose all credibility.

Dealing With People

A coach has to find a way to connect with players individually and within the team dynamic. Finding workable solutions allows a player to improve individually, but yet that improvement fits into the collective whole.

You have 20 players on your team, which means 20 different personalities, and you as a coach have to find out what makes each of them tick. The quicker you do that, whether it’s at a weeklong player development camp or over the course of an NHL season, the more successful your team will be.

Some players are maintenance-free hockey players. There are other players that you have to find a connection to help them improve. Everybody’s different. Some guys have more rope than other guys. If anyone tells you differently, it’s just rhetoric.

I was an assistant coach with the Washington Capitals in 2001 when Jaromir Jagr came to us from the Pittsburgh Penguins where he had great success. He was used to a different environment from what we had with the Capitals. And culturally he was different. Not good or bad, just different.

I had coached European players before, including Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne in Anaheim, and Peter Bondra in Washington. But with Jagr, we had a world-class player who had some pretty strong opinions on how things should be done. He felt that he had some good ideas and wanted us to listen.

At first, head coach Ron Wilson and the rest of the coaching staff tried to put everything into black and white. We soon learned that we had to deal with gray when it came to Jagr.

We were searching for solutions and eventually found that niche. It evolved more quickly as we became open to some of his opinions instead of being closed off by his thoughts. 

It was a great learning experience for me because it helped me become a better coach when it comes to interacting with players. I use all those tools on a daily basis.

The longer you coach, the more experiences you gain, and those experiences are the foundation for dealing with different circumstances. The toughest moments are when something is  new and you can’t fall back on previous situations. Although you still use some of your old experiences to deal with these new situations, a coach still ends up flying by the seat of his or her pants and relying on instincts.
It’s like that old expression: “You learn something new every day.” And that’s why I love coaching.


Hall Inductees Recall Favorite Coaches

Three newly inducted members of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame made sure to give credit where credit is due as they talked about this latest honor in their storied careers.

In addition to thanking their parents, spouses and teammates, Aaron Broten, John Vanbiesbrouck and Bobby Carpenter made sure to give a special shout out to their youth hockey coaches who planted the seed of passion that bloomed into great NHL careers.

“My coaches Joe Yannetti, Eddie Rossi and “Doc” Rossi [at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass.] were instrumental in getting me to think to a new level,” said Carpenter, who made the jump to the NHL out of high school.

“They taught me that I had a future in the game. They were the first ones who got me to think about how this could be.”

Broten, a native of Roseau, Minn., said that Peewee coach Dick Johnson and high school coach Gary Hokanson, were instrumental in his development as a hockey player.

“I had a lot of good coaches in the professional ranks but none of them for too long of a time because we weren’t on top of the league so it seemed like we got a new coach every year and a half,” said Broten, who will join his brother, Neal, in the Hall.

And for Vanbiesbrouck, the all-time winningest American goalie, working with coach Herb Brooks when he was just an 18-year-old with the New York Rangers, set him off on the right path.

“There’s so much that can be said for Herb, but he left an impact on me, just the way that he challenged me as an athlete. That’s what he was there to do. He wasn’t there to be my friend, he was there to be my coach and my mentor,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “That had a lasting effect.”

Legendary Michigan Tech coach John MacInnes, who influenced more than his fair share of hockey players over his 26-year college career, will also be inducted during the Oct. 12 ceremony in Grand Forks, N.D.



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