April 1, 2014

The Goalie Guru: Coaches must be teachers

By Brion O'Connor

Mom always used to say, “There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things.” Pretty simple advice, which is often the best advice. There’s definitely a right way, and a wrong way, to coach young hockey players, and especially goalies. For the most part, it boils down to communication.

With the explosion of youth hockey, there are more and more teams, and subsequently the need for more and more coaches. Many are qualified.

Many aren’t. To some degree, it’s a numbers game. But I’ve seen a raft of former players filling these spots, with mixed results. Just because you could play doesn’t automatically mean you can coach.

The best case I can recall comes from the National Basketball Association, with Larry Bird. Even though Bird was successful, it was painfully obvious that he didn’t always have the patience necessary to deal with players who didn’t grasp the game as quickly as he did.

The same disconnect frustrated Wayne Gretzky during his tenure in Phoenix.

Obviously, it’s one thing to be able to do something, and another thing to be able to convey how to do that particular something to someone else.

The key is being able to communicate.

Sadly, though, communication has become something of a lost art. I’ve seen it repeatedly, observing countless youth hockey and high school games.

Coaches, arms crossed, exhorting their players without actually taking the time and effort to teach them. It makes me wonder why they’re coaching.

Remember why you took the job (realizing, for most of us, it’s not a “job” as much as a calling). Was it all about wins and losses, or was it about helping kids improve? That’s what you need to focus on. If you do that, the wins and losses will take care of themselves. But player development has to be your No. 1 priority.

Think about this scenario. I’ve watched a coach leave the rink following a loss without saying a word to a team of 13- and 14-year-olds. This is not coaching. It’s pouting. What does this “teach” your players?

Instead, you run the risk of a bunch of boys or girls looking around at each other and thinking, “Well, I guess Coach doesn’t care.” Now, I understand, and even appreciate, that the coach might be upset, but the coach also has to remember who the adult is in this equation.

Likewise, screaming at your players from the bench to “work harder” has a limited application. Even if you’re right, there’s usually more at issue than just effort. Often at the Squirt, Peewee and Bantam levels, the players need instruction.

You need to be able to explain, in the moment, what happened, what a player did wrong, and what that player should have done instead. You need to teach. And you need to do it right then and there, when the play is still fresh in the player’s mind. In many ways, it’s the coach who has to “work harder.” In the same vein, telling the goalie to “stop the puck” is meaningless.

Every goalie I’ve ever worked with, over nearly two decades of coaching, knows that’s the job. Stop the puck.

But as young goalies develop, they’re going to make mistakes, and it’s the coaches’ job to catalog those mistakes and help them correct mistakes.

This is the teaching component. Firing a ton of pucks at your goalies isn’t going to improve their technique. In fact, it’s likely to increase the number of flaws in their game. If you don’t have a goaltending background, learn the basics, and be able to demonstrate.

There are a number of first-rate instructional books on the market (the more current, the better) that will provide this working knowledge.

If you juggle the lineup, or replace the starting goalie, explain to your players about why you made that decision. Don’t make them guess. Whether your team is playing at the Squirt level, high school, or above, players deserve to know.

Asking a child to interpret why they were demoted is just unfair.

That’s when a lot of wayward notions can come into play, things like, “The coach doesn’t like me,” or “The coach is playing favorites.” That’s not cultivating team chemistry.

Finally, some coaches implement a “no parents” rule, meaning any communication has to come from the kids.

I understand why, especially in this day and age of helicopter parents. But I don’t agree.

First, the coach/player dynamic is completely skewed against the child. Second, coaches ought to be able to discuss the rationale behind their decisions with another adult. Coaches who are unwilling to talk to a parent are shirking their duty. Period. Whether a paid position or volunteer, coaching is a privilege and carries certain responsibilities.

And if your players are high school age or younger, you need to engage the parents.

How do you make your players better? You need to teach.

Goalie Guru mail bag

One of the best parts of my work, as a coach and columnist, is being able to help out parents, coaches and their goalies.

Here’s a recent letter that depicts a classic dilemma for many goalie parents.

The letter: My 11-year-old son is a strong AAA goalie on a mediocre team. He averages approximately 20-25 shots a game, and over 30 shots when he plays against the two top teams. He is currently a difference maker in his games, but they tend to lose more than win and can’t really compete with top teams in the area. Lately he has been receiving a lot of serious interest from these top teams who think he could be the missing piece to their already powerhouse organizations. These teams are claiming he will develop into a better goaltender through practice, training and competing against the other top-level teams. However, these teams don’t allow many shots in a game, as they are so structured defensively. My question is, should I leave him where he is or take him to one of these top teams? Where will he develop the most?

My reply: This is a great question. Your son is lucky that you’re advocating on his behalf. The answer, though, is complicated. Many teams just want a better goalie because they want to win, and aren’t genuinely concerned about goalie “development.” I’m not saying that’s the case here, but you want to be aware of the possibility. Getting more shots in a game is a good thing, provided your son isn’t getting discouraged.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • What is the quality of practice/ coaching he’s getting now? Will it improve with another team? It’s been my experience that select teams don’t automatically mean better coaching, though many select teams will bring in goalie coaches, which is a plus.
  • What is the quality of shots he’s seeing now? Will he see better shots with a select team? Better shots, not necessarily more, make a better goalie.
  • A better team will arguably provide better shots in practice. And practice is really where ALL players, including the goalies, improve.

Bottom line, it’s not just the number of shots in a game. It’s the quality of shots in games and practices, and the quality of coaching. I’d take all of those into account before making your decision.

Good luck!

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a longtime hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com.

Email: feedback@hockeyjournal.com