Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
For many people, it often seems like there are just never enough hours in the day to get accomplished what needs to get done. So much to do, so little time.
The same is true when coaching a hockey team, no matter the age or ability level of the players. There is always so much that can be done and so much that needs to be done. But it never seems like there is enough time to do it.
For hockey coaches, the beginning of a new season can sometimes feel like standing at the foot of Mt. Everest, looking up to the summit and wondering how in the heck you are ever going to get there. It can be very easy to get overwhelmed. And, just like journeying to the top of a mountain, it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the destination on a cloudy day. But it can be just as easy to lose sight of the base as well. And that might be a more important target to keep an eye on than the top.
Hockey is a very complex sport involving some intricate individual skill sets and some complicated interaction among teammates, all performed at maximum speed while attempting to overcome resistance from the opposing team. It’s not an easy game to play, not an easy game to coach and not an easy game to watch and understand. It has a lot of moving parts, parts that are very much dependent on one another.
The biggest error in judgment that many coaches make is focusing on what they think will get their team to the top fastest. And, while that is nowhere near as dangerous or potentially deadly, like a bad decision might be on the ascent to the top of Mt. Everest, it can have the same impact in terms of failing to reach the destination.
Hockey-wise, what that means is that coaches often tend to spend an inordinate amount of time on team-related strategies that will allow their players to work together as a unit. Short-term, this is not really a bad strategy. More often than not it will even result in success.
For example, a team might spend a good deal of practice time working on a power play set-up or some breakouts or a forechecking strategy. Those types of elements take a lot of time to teach and to implement to get everyone on the same page. Therefore, they take up a lot of practice time.
Early in the season, there are pretty good odds for a payoff. Depending on the opponent (whether you want to believe it or not, much of a team’s “success” in youth hockey depends on the quality of the opponent), teams that play with a lot of structure will have an advantage over teams that are more or less figuring it out as they go. On-the-job training takes a while and there will be some bumps in the road along the way.
But in my opinion, there is no more effective way to get players to learn and understand the game and how to play it than to actually let them experience it. By spending a lot of time on systems and structure early in the season, the players might know where to go. But they might not have an understanding of when to be there. Or, worse yet, they might not have the skating skills to get there when they need to, or the stick skills to do what they need to do if and when they do get there.
What should a coach spend time on in practice to maximize the benefit to the players and the team? The team is really all about the players. They are the parts. And the better the parts are, the better the team can become once they learn to work together. But before that happens, they have to have the individual skills to be productive parts.
There is no mountain if there is no base. There has to be a foundation. For hockey, the foundation is the fundamental skills necessary to play the game, a very complex set of skills. A set of skills that requires hours and hours and hours of practice time to improve and perfect.
So, which is it? Work on skills that might not have a recognizable immediate payoff? Or work on structure, which likely will have a payoff, and will probably even evoke a few “that’s a well-coached team” comments, but might not be in the best interest of the players in the long run?
Over time, a system and structure are only as good as the players executing it. Execution involves making the right decision at the right time, and having the skating and puck skill sets to be able to do it. If those skill sets are not being constantly practiced and improved, at some point the system and structure will be irrelevant.
Practice time is clearly best spent on developing a skill base. If you want to have a good team and do what is best for your players, then spend at least 1/3 of the time practicing skating skills, the most important skill set for players. Not for conditioning, but for improving skating technique, which means not doing it when the players are tired or distracted by worrying about getting the puck or scoring a goal.
Another 1/3 of the time should be spent on fundamental puck skills, including stick-handing, passing and receiving (which are the most important individual skills as it relates to the team), shooting and stick-checking. The last third should be spent on competitive situations that simulate game conditions as closely as possible.
A team that can skate, handle the puck and competes hard will be prepared both as individuals and as a team to have the best opportunity to ultimately get to the top.
Lyle Phair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org