Changing On The Fly

Shifting Clinics From The Classroom TO The Computer Puts Coaches Ahead Of The Curve

Coaches spend a good portion of their practices teaching their players to read and react to different situations that may arise on the ice. 

During these uncertain times, coaches, and more specifically USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program, have been practicing what they preach as they prepare for the upcoming hockey season.

Long before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the CEP was in the process of overhauling its curriculum and how best to present that information to its 60,000 coaches. But with the season shuttered and people forced to shelter in place and practice social distancing, USA Hockey didn’t want to risk the health of coaches by staging in-person clinics.

After a series of successful webinars for women’s intern coaches, the idea came about to hold coaching clinics online as well. With the speed of a Brett Hull slapshot, a team of USA Hockey staff members, ADM regional managers and District coaches-in-chief created a blueprint for coaches to earn their certification from the comfort of their own homes.

“You look at the response of this group of people and how they were quickly able to develop online learning, it’s actually a pretty amazing story about the resilience of USA Hockey,” said Flint Doungchak, the coach-in-chief for the Pacific District and one of several driving forces behind the adoption of virtual clinics.Coming out of a breakout session, one coach shares his group's practice plan with the rest of the class.Coming out of a breakout session, one coach shares his group's practice plan with the rest of the class.

Almost immediately the program took off as coaches were eager to get back to talking hockey and preparing for the season, no matter what it looks like.

“It’s funny, you get this curve ball thrown at you while we’re in the middle of changing our curriculum and how we deliver the clinics and thinking they’re going to be in-person,” said Paul Moore, the Massachusetts District coach-in-chief who has done a number of virtual clinics so far this season."

"Then these unprecedented times get in the way, and on the fly we switched gears and said, ‘OK, we’re going to go virtual,’ and it’s been incredible."

And rather than trying to cram so much information into one long day, the clinics are broken up into a series of shorter sessions spread out over the course of several days, which has been another popular change.

Last season Katherine Walsh joined her father at a Level 1 clinic in North Salem, N.Y. 

“The clinic last year lasted from 9 in the morning until about 3 in the afternoon,” she said. “While I enjoyed the experience, it made for a pretty long day.”

This season the full-time college student at Pace University is hoping to coach a team in the New York Rangers girls program so she signed up for a Level 2 virtual clinic in May.

“I found the online clinic to be more beneficial for learning,” she said. “I thought it created more engagement and it was easier to focus because it was broken up into three-hour segments, which are as long as some of my college courses.”

Coaches also love the idea of being around coaches from across the country as opposed to attending a local clinic with coaches they may already know. This gives them a chance to share ideas and meet new people rather than sit next to their buddies in a classroom setting.

“Sometimes it can get a little stagnant because you’re with the same people all the time,” said Lanae Falls, a Level 3 coach from Junction City, Ore. “It was really nice to be with different people and people I didn’t know and conversing with them and learning how they do things.” 

USA Hockey has also worked with coach developers to make its clinics more engaging, so it’s not, as Moore put it, “death by PowerPoint.” Virtual clinics tend to be more engaging and interactive, with presenters able to see who’s paying attention and who may be drifting off into an online slumber. 

“We’ve learned some tricks how to get that out of them as well,” Moore said. “The facilitators or instructors are getting really good at creating that engagement. You call out on people and when you call out on people, there are 49 other coaches so you say, ‘Boy, I’ve got to pay attention. I might get my name called.’”While USA Hockey plans to return to in-person learning as soon as possible, virtual coaching clinics have proven to be popular with coaches around the country.While USA Hockey plans to return to in-person learning as soon as possible, virtual coaching clinics have proven to be popular with coaches around the country.

One of the most popular features of the virtual clinics is the breakout rooms, where coaches are divided up into small groups and given a project, such as creating a practice plan. Then they all return to the main session and presenters ask each group to explain what they did.

“The breakout rooms have gone great because with a class of 50 that’s 10 breakout rooms and you have five coaches in a room who are collaborating and talking hockey  with people from all over the country,” Moore said.

“One coach told me, ‘I went to breakout and it was five guys from all over the country. We shared emails and phone numbers so we could connect with each other down the road.’ You never hear that."

Going virtual also cut down on the cost of conducting clinics, and allowed organizers to pull in guest speakers without going through the logistical hassles of booking travel.

“I can pick up the phone and call [USA Hockey youth hockey director] Kenny Rausch in Colorado and ask him to present on the ADM. He doesn’t have to drive anywhere, all he has to do is jump on his computer and talk for an hour,” Moore said.

As of early July, USA Hockey has conducted 15 virtual clinics for more than 750 coaches with another 1,500 coaches registered for future clinics.

Still, that doesn’t mean that in-person clinics are going the way of the wooden stick anytime soon. There are still benefits to bringing coaches together, whether it’s for an on-ice component or being able to demonstrate a specific skill in person.

Regardless of whether coaching clinics return to a classroom setting or continue to be held online, the ability for USA Hockey to change on the fly and adapt to unforeseen challenges is going to make coaches better prepared, which will ultimately benefit players of all ages.

“Interesting enough, the Covid pandemic and our response to it is probably going to benefit coaching education in ways we just couldn’t even anticipate,” Doungchak said. “That’s pretty awesome.”

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