For The Coaches

So far (in my 19 years of professional hockey) I have had 30 different head coaches. Some were good, some were bad. Some I couldn’t understand (Russia or Finland), and some I wish that I hadn’t been able to…A lot of good ideas, some bad ideas and several different motivational techniques. Some have given me tips for on and off the ice that have stayed with me throughout my career and I have done my best to pass them on. I’ve seen huddles, body checking, handshakes and prayer before leaving the dressing room to hit the ice. I can’t definitively say that one worked better than the other and it is up to each coach as to what he or she feels will get the most out of their team.

Coaching isn’t just systemic strategy and motivating the 20 players that are looking at you for guidance. It’s managing 20 personalities, styles and different levels of talent into a collective group that believes in what you are teaching them. Every player has his or her role and you are filling a vital role as well. You have to alter your style of coaching from day to day and not coach that day based on what happened at home prior or at the rink yesterday. A team is like a puzzle. How will you fit the 20 pieces together to make it whole?

I’ve had coaches that couldn’t design their own practice to save their life, but had the 20 players ready to skate through a wall for them. Others were the smartest in every room that they walked into, yet couldn’t bring the players together and actually seemed to enjoy belittling players. What works for some won’t work for others, and no coach can have the same systems or style year after year and not get stale. Listen to your players and sense their body language and focus in practice and games. You will be able to sense if they need a wake up call or if you should ease up on them a touch.

Most of your teaching will be done in the dressing room and during practice times. However, practice time is best used when the coach is not talking, so have a clear practice plan and use the allotted ice time for improving your players. Make corrections before or after practice so that you can be sure that the player is focused on you and can fully understand without being distracted. During games, you won’t have time to teach, as it is important to always be in control of the bench, line changes and controlling the flow and mood of your bench.

A coach in 2017/2018 has unlimited tools at his or her disposal. An NHL coach, for example, is able to watch an iPad video replay that tells him immediately which of his players made the mistake leading to a goal. He has an assistant coach wired to a coach in the press box telling him whether or not to review a goal that may have been off-side. He is able to teach systems in practice and then rely on a skills coach to develop his players while the nutritionist, masseuse and strength coach get the player ready for competition.

However, that may also make it harder. There can be a lot of conflicting voices in a player’s ear. He sees his highlights on YouTube, his personal skills coach from the summer may be telling him to try the moves they worked on in July, his agent is pushing him to shoot more to reach that number of goals to cash in on the next contract and he is fully aware of his Corsi or Fenwick data, thanks to hockey analytical Twitter.

A coach has the unenviable job of taking each player and massaging his ego just to the point where he won’t think of it during the game. Get him to mute the outside noise and only hear his teammates and coaches. Not easy, but vital. Hockey itself is too fast to worry about what your skating coach has told you to do with your hips, for example, when a 230 pound defenceman has you lined up for a big hit 5 feet from the boards.

So, as a coach, what can you do to be successful in modern hockey? I think systems are important. But tailor your systems for the team that you have. A team’s effort and willingness to work hard will have more value than the best systems. Most reading this will be in minor hockey or a lower level of amateur hockey. Keep it simple, keep the passes short and don’t be too technical. I’ve seen 9 year olds trying the NHL powerplay drop-pass breakout…I’m not saying it isn’t fun for the kids to try new things, but I doubt a 9 year old PK system is so tough to beat that you need the drop pass to disrupt the timing of the penalty killers. But, I’ve been wrong before…

If they are young kids, teach them positioning but give them freedom to be creative. Watching 6-7 year old defencemen stand on the blue line so that they are in a “safe” position is teaching them to be hesitant. Teach young wingers to not post in a stationary position in their own zone and stare at the passer. Rather, have them get used to taking a look up ice to see where their opponent is while they begin moving up ice with some speed. Centres at all levels can learn routes to have themselves facing up ice when they receive the puck, rather than heading straight towards the passing winger. Systems at a young age should always be by far secondary. Teaching young players fundamentals and repetitions of practicing them at game speed will be most important.

I have come up with a simple acronym that can apply to coaches at all levels;

C.O.A.C.H.

Clear– Everyone knows what is expected of them. They are aware of their role and what each player must do for the team to be successful. There are no questions as to what his/her responsibility is in every aspect of the game.

Optimistic– Have faith in your team. They need a leader and you are the one they are looking for. Gave up a goal? It will happen. Move on. Things will get better. Losing streak? Things could be worse, you are all still getting the chance to play (or coach) hockey. Get through it together.

Adaptive– See something that isn’t working? No chemistry in your lines or pairings tonight? Change it now. Injuries? They happen too. Roll with it. Prove to your team that the team is bigger than any one individual. They won’t quit on you.

Current– Times change. So should your systems. Players are faster nowadays, so why slow your own team down? Also, players have changed. Be aware of how you speak to players, and be cognizant of your body language on the bench and in the dressing room.

Human– Your players will make mistakes. How will you react? Will you apologize if it is you that was at fault? How well do you know your team? Speak with your players and find out things about them away from the rink. They will appreciate it. Hockey, in the end, is a game.

Lastly, be the reason that the 8 year old winger on your team wants to continue playing hockey. Be the reason that a 4th line player thinks that he is just as important to the team as the top scorer. And be the coach that can make an average team great.

Good luck this season.

Thanks for reading.

Jeff Ulmer

jeffulmer44@gmail.com

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