As we reach the unofficial halfway point of the youth hockey season, coaches should realize that planning and implementing a quality practice is the one area where they have the most impact on the development of their players.
Coaching during games certainly provides many teaching moments, and is not without its merits. However, much of what happens during a game can be out of the coach’s control. The quality of one’s players vs. their opponents will generally dictate the overall outcome.
The role of a coach before and during a game is to help prepare for the competition (i.e. provide the jerseys, water, location, time, etc.) and reinforce the rules of the game. Adding a few thoughts related to tactics, as well as supporting and monitoring the temperament of the players, is also helpful.
However, planning and implementing practice sessions over the span of a season is where a coach can truly impact the development and hockey playing experience of his players. Coaches have control over what players are doing and the learning environment in which they are doing it. History suggests to us that what happens during practices and in the locker room, more than winning or losing games, dictates whether a young player may return for another season of hockey.
I recall a Swedish coach years ago suggesting that the sign of a quality youth practice is the players finishing with wet heads and a glisten in their eyes. This is an admirable goal for all coaches as they consider what they will ask the kids to do.
Thus the questions become, “How do we get the wet head and the glisten in their eyes? What do we ask our players to do during practice and why?” These are the fundamental questions for any coach or teacher: What do we do and why do we do it?
Yes, we could line up our players on the goal line and skate them from line to line and back. Or, we could do a 1-on-1 full-ice drill over and over until players collapse from exhaustion. These types of activities may very well produce a wet head but I doubt they will create a glisten in their eyes.
How does a coach achieve these results on a consistent basis? The words of legendary Russian coach Anatoli Tarasov may provide the litmus test: Are we practicing speed of hand, speed of foot and speed of mind, and often all at once. If what the kids are doing on the ice requires speed of hand, speed of foot and speed of mind it is probably time well spent.
Tarasov was ahead of his time in physiological and neurological development. His ideas and philosophies revolutionized not only the way the game is played, but also how players are taught by creating many new training techniques, both on the ice and through dryland training. The Russian game was built upon skating, passing and teamwork. The overall success, technical skill and style of play of his teams validate this approach.
If we are aspiring to create players who are energetic, creative, skilled and dynamic, then we must present practice plans that have similar characteristics.
Various small area games during practice of 1-on-1, 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 will create speed of hand, foot and mind. They will allow the players to compete in game-like conditions and deal with all of the nuances that exist. They will net the desired result of a wet head and a glisten in the eye.
Whether a coach has a vast hockey background or virtually no experience in the sport, he or she can provide quality developmental opportunities. The game itself is always the best teacher. If a coach has presented the right physical challenges, then all that really needs to be done is to stand back and monitor the action.
Envision a practice where a youth team has a half-sheet of ice. Maybe eight to 10 of the players are engaged in a 3-on-2, 2-on-2 or 2-on-1 cross-ice game with 30-second shifts using the bottom half of the zone. The remaining six to eight players can be working on a skill between the blue line and red line.
The players involved with these small games will be stickhandling, passing, pivoting, falling, getting up, skating forward, doing tight turns, stopping, starting, communicating, defending, competing, etc.
In short they will be developing speed of hand, speed of foot and speed of mind. The coach merely times the shifts, monitors the game and looks to keep players safe.
There is a Buddhist saying that suggests, “Even if one does nothing, there will be growth in the spring.”
For teams that integrate competitive games into their practices there will be wet heads and glistening eyes at the end of practice and there will be growth in the players come the spring.