Good Coaching

Teaching and Coaching for Effective Practices to Promote Growth and Learning in Youth Hockey


            There certainly is debate about determining what constitutes a successful practice session. A coach needs to understand his players and establish goals for each one of them, himself, and the team, and devise or choose the drills, sessions, tactics, etc. which must be employed in order to improve upon individual and team weaknesses, while continuing to maintain excellence in other areas. Many questions arise concerning coaching and practices, such as:

1) What priority should be attached to the players “having fun?” and how is “fun” properly defined? 2) What input should the players have and does it matter what the players believe?

3) What are the best ice-time drills to be used and for what duration in order to accomplish the coach’s objectives?

4) To what extent should and can dry land training and other off-ice meetings (chalkboard sessions, discussions, lectures and questioning, etc.) be utilized?

5) What should a coach’s response be to poor effort, attitude, and/or performance by his players, especially if rules or fees mandate equal ice-time for everyone, thus hindering a coach’s ability to hold players accountable?

6) To what extent is motivation part of a coach’s job, and how should motivation be accomplished?

7) How should a coach respond when parents become improperly involved, critical, or in some way seem to be undermining his position?

Depending upon the responding individual, there will be widely varying answers to these questions. A purpose of this article is to raise these questions for contemplation and not necessarily to answer them because “different people see things differently.”

            As an educator for over thirty-five years (in addition to coaching varsity hockey and serving as an instructor at various hockey schools), I have instructed thousands of students with diverse intellectual abilities and learning styles, studied and discussed much about effective teaching, and directed young people in many different situations to achieve desired goals. When coaches conduct practices, they must understand that they are teachers whose task is not only to develop players’ physical skills but also to promote a comprehension of the game for the athletes, while avoiding being only supervisors of their personnel. For the in-charge adult to be only well-intentioned and even knowledgeable in hockey is as unacceptable as a player trying physically to backcheck without understanding its precision or his specific duties. Theoretically, the world’s greatest scientist could be its worst science teacher because he does not identify with his pupils and/or know how best to develop them by maximizing their potential.

            One player’s physical and mental talents could differ, perhaps greatly, from that of other players. Although likely impossible and/or impractical to do (just as I was encouraged to individualize instruction for all of my students), practices should theoretically have different players working on different skills, depending upon one’s abilities, while time is reserved for all athletes together to practice any teamwork parts of the game that are critical for success. When teams are chosen based upon physical abilities, conducting a proper on-ice practice should be easier, although coaches need to understand that many factors (time management, discipline, drill selection, individual relationships with players, etc.), which they can control, will enhance the opportunities to achieve proper objectives.

            Determining the drills to be used and how practice should be conducted depends upon a coach’s assessment of his players and their performance. Coaches should maximize the use of costly ice-time by reserving it only for those facets of the game (especially skating) that cannot be accommodated elsewhere or only after introducing their ideas and having players practice off the ice. For example, why use valuable ice-time to teach skaters for the first time how to win face-offs, to pass, shoot, stick-handle, block shots, etc., or to teach a goaltender how to align himself with shots? Various off-ice setups could be utilized to accomplish the beginnings of learning these skills and, when these tasks have progressed satisfactorily, the switch to the ice can be made for refinement and further growth.            

             Much can and should be done off the ice if the coach is willing to plan, has parental/ organizational support, and the players are willing to commit to the program that is devised for them. The vast majority of what is done on the ice should definitely be preceded off the ice by discussions, demonstrations, etc. that dissect the skill or strategy being advanced so that the players are not overwhelmed by the entire concept being introduced at once but, rather, they will more readily learn in smaller steps which can later be connected on the ice. Also, instead of stepping onto the ice with no experience or practice in what the coach is attempting to transmit, the players will be further advanced and better able to absorb the coach’s plan so that lecturing on the ice, although often necessary, is at a minimum and the efficient use of the valuable ice-time is maximized. However, how many coaches do you believe can and do arrange individualized instruction for each player and elaborate off-ice sessions for the team?

            The most effective and proper coaching should involve repetition and multiple approaches to teaching (and, thus, learning) in order to accommodate all intelligence levels and learning styles so that as much as possible has been done scientifically to increase greatly the percentages of transmitting knowledge and providing growth in skills because “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and a team consists of many links in different areas. A team’s likelihood for success is directly proportional to the extent that the mental and physical capabilities of EACH athlete are developed. Any coach (teacher) needs to be certain that the very clear message he believes is being communicated is indeed the one that is being received by the players (students). I have earned several college degrees but, when the TV service person explains to me the process of converting my appliance from normal viewing to recording onto a DVD, videotape, or the TV memory system and how to play the recorded material, I truthfully answer “No” when he asks me if I understand what he thinks is a marvelous explanation. For me, the material must be constantly repeated and supported by actual demonstrations. Also, I must be allowed to write the steps one by one that he has explained so that I will have them to follow and master by practicing the process repeatedly. New concepts must be properly segmented in order to facilitate learning.

These are the ideal steps for a coach to employ when attempting to teach his concepts and to develop physical skills:

1) The coach should have articles with diagrams (materials can be basic) made available for the players to use and retain as he reads, discusses, and explains (while allowing questions) his ideas to the athletes. This beginning step breaks down the concept or information and allows for seeing, hearing, individual questioning, and future independent review, as the players desire. The coach can determine each person’s understanding of the supposedly transmitted knowledge by questioning each athlete and should never assume that comprehension is thorough if players say they have no questions. It is possible for a player not to develop or learn adequately or at a slower rate than usual because a coach has not provided optimum instruction.

2) Chalkboard sessions are invaluable so that players can “see” and follow with their eyes what the coach desires, as he speaks.

3) Some people will have difficulty transferring whatever is learned from Steps 1 and 2 into actual performance. Therefore, this step involves walking and talking slowly through everything by using off-ice setups (gym, parking lot, playground) resembling a rink wherein the athletes can experience that which the coach expects them to demonstrate on the ice.

4) The coach now needs the team to practice under controlled conditions on the ice the ideas he has attempted to implement. Because of some player difficulties with transference of knowledge from a makeshift practice surface to the actual ice surface, the coach needs to position his athletes and have them practice (beginning in slow motion and continuing toward full speed) as they demonstrate their level of proficiency. As the coach observes his team’s performance, he should stop practice as often as he believes is necessary in order to discuss and correct mistakes.

5) If a coach can attract qualified assistants, he can establish various rotating stations for the players so that several skills (or only one) can be addressed at a more concentrated and individualized level with athletes grouped by ability. Thus, instead of one man working alone with many different players while their attention span is challenged, perhaps more could be accomplished by instructing smaller groups. The likelihood of pursuing this step depends upon the coach’s assessment of whether or not it is best to keep the players together, based upon the coach’s objectives.

6) Repetition of on-ice performance is needed until players prove that they can continually accomplish their tasks successfully at full speed.

           The best coaches are able to “read” their players, just as a parent can discern that his/her child is ill or upset, even though the child does not openly comment. When a skill, system, or procedure is either grasped adequately for that time period or practicing it has reached the “point of diminishing returns,” the coach should alter the routine. The exact ingredients (drills, demonstrations, etc.) that should be incorporated into any type of practice (on or off the ice) must be the subject of a separate article because each coach: 1) has his particular philosophy and objectives 2) must continually evaluate his players as individuals and the team as an entity and then 3) should determine the best measures to address his concerns. NO practice can ever properly be judged unless those who seek to do so understand everything that has been happening with the individual players, the team’s performance, and the conclusions the coach has reached about many matters.

            It should be noted that, until now, I have written about methods and techniques of coaching, while mentioning no particular drills or aspects of hockey which should be included in a specific practice. It is unlikely that videotaping of games is commonly done so that players might later view the action as the coach dissects all segments of individual and team play. Such sessions could be the single most important coaching tactic adopted for a practice. However, in lieu of implementing the abovementioned taping strategy, I firmly advocate that, as soon as possible after every game, a coach use ice-time to position players and explain why all goals were scored or near misses occurred against his team. (Notes from each game will help the coach later to reconstruct events).

            In a constructive manner, a coach should trace each goal scored against his team as far back into the play as can be recalled and communicate very precisely the mistakes that led to all of the opponent’s tallies. If mistakes are not specified and explained for correction so that players understand why goals occurred against them, such errors are bound to be repeated continually. A coach should not fail to include always this educational portion of practice! If the sessions are properly managed and an athlete is offended, such a player needs to “grow up,” and the coach needs to “stay the course.”  

            Each coaching situation has its own unique challenges. Whereas players and parents might tend to promote firstly their own narrow interests, a coach must understand all of his players as athletes and developing young people, be equally responsible to all of them, and consider “the bigger picture” beyond simply doing anything and everything to win the game. Or should he? Under what code should a coach operate? When should a coach risk incurring people’s displeasure in order to do something he simply deeply believes will be a magical moment in a child’s life, although the action might never be understood? I do know that coaching is teaching and leading, but that it is not easy to do if it is to be done properly. Do not coach if you are not totally dedicated and cannot withstand the intense scrutiny that is apt to be associated with this rewarding task.