Coaches are one of the most important pieces of a successful hockey team. They must know the strengths and weaknesses of each player, be able to teach and strengthen systems, abilities and principles and to be able to adapt the team’s play style to different situations. In short, they must always be analysing the performance of their team and players and finding ways to improve their performance.
Abilities, Principles and Strategies
Traditionally, coaches use their practise time to improve the abilities of their players while implementing various strategies (called a system). However, team performance is largely based on the adoption of a number of principles that take advantage of the players abilities and upon which the strategies are based.
Abilities – ie. skating, puck handling, shooting, passing
Principles – ie. headman the puck, don’t pass in front of the net in the defensive zone, push attackers to the outside
Strategies – ie. set-up transition game, 1-3-1, umbrella formation
The relation between strategy, principles and ability can be represented by a pyramid. The pyramid relies on base abilities, upon which principles are built, finally the strategy forms the top of the pyramid relying on the underlying principles and abilities.
It is therefore important for coaches to ensure players have a strong ability base, usually acquired during practises and games in the first years of playing the game and can be reinforced with off-ice training and conditioning. Once the abilities are at a sufficient level, the focus should shift to teaching the hockey principles. These principles should be reinforced through practises and reviews using whiteboards or video for players at all levels of play. Finally, a strategy should be implemented that takes into account player ability and acquired principles.
Beyond, player abilities, principles and strategies, coaches also need to encourage their players and keep them motivated. Setting high but achievable goals (personal and team), keeping the game fun and allowing players enough leeway to execute the strategies as to not feel too constrained in their play style. Player buy-in can take some time and certain strategies only work when all players are executing them. Gaining that trust and buy-in from players can be extremely difficult so aim to introduce strategies gradually enough so they can be effective and not discourage players.
Evaluation and Teaching
Coaches should be constantly evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of their teams and individual players. This allows them to not only match their system to their team’s abilities, use their players strengths to gain advantages in certain situations but also to identify areas that need to be worked on.
When a particular weakness is identified, the coach has to determine how best to reinforce or improve that weakness. This can be done through discussions, video reviews, using whiteboard, on or off-ice training or simply by placing the player with certain line mates or in certain situations. The same technique may not work for every player and the coach must monitor progress and modify accordingly.
The one thing to keep in mind during evaluations is that most drills don’t translate well to how a hockey player will perform. Some players are very fast or have a very accurate shot but they lack some other skills that are difficult to evaluate such as:
- “Hockey sense” – being able to adapt, anticipate and react to the play/opponents positioning
- Positioning – playing within the system, being at the right place at the right time
- “Heart” – a player’s willingness to push, give it their all and elevate their game.
- Team player – a player that supports teammates and acts for the good of the team vs good of the individual
Many coaches also evaluate players as they are, not as they will develop. Typically, players with “Heart” will improve much more and will give a consistent effort throughout the year while others may just coast or rely on their talent rather than develop. They can often motivate others to keep pushing.
I have seen (and been on) a few teams which were evaluated as weaker at the beginning of the year (based on skills) but the coach had picked those players who were willing to play, learn and support each other. We won quite a few championships where on paper, we were supposed to be last place. A good coach makes a huge difference in each player’s development and in the team performance.