For the past two springs I have had an overwhelming response to my “reader survey”. The answers I receive help guide me on where, when and how to post, as well as giving me great ideas as to what to write about each week. The question I get the most interesting responses to is “Finish the sentence, my biggest challenge as a coach is…” The answers are hugely varied - everything from “selecting the right players” to “getting female players to take risks” to “dealing with today’s players”. But one theme comes through on many of the answers: there is not enough time. Not enough time to teach everything, not enough time to get everyone on the same page, not enough time to help each player individually improve, not enough time to explain a drill properly, not enough time to teach skills and team systems.
One of the responses to this question was “focusing on the most important (things) rather than doing a bit of everything”. This sums up what all of us as coaches feel, and it doesn’t matter what level or age group we are working with. In our season plans we will all have the same teaching points. Skill development will always be there and then every system from defensive zone coverage to power play - all neatly written on a big calendar (and maybe even colour coded). But we all know what happens as the season progresses. We get away from that season plan because we haven’t had the “time” to be really good on, say, the forecheck - so we spend another week at that. And it’s always one thing or another: offensive zone entry, penalty killing, reading the rush. Something.
Let’s all just understand that there is simply not going to be enough time to do everything you want to do. It’s a given. So, here are the more thematic things that you need to consider and work on through the season if you want to make sure your team is playing their best hockey at playoff time:
1) Skill development. The most skilled team will win the championship 90% of the time. Skill development ranges from simple skills (passing, shooting, skating, puck handling) to individual tactics (getting the puck out at the blue line, shooting with purpose, one on one defensive coverage, screening the goalie, etc.). Working on these “little things” will make your team comparatively much better than if you are working primarily on systems.
2) Mental preparation. There is nothing better than having a team that comes ready to play every game. Find ways that your group will be more mentally prepared. That could be any or all of pre-game warm up routines, team meals, motivational visualization or pep talks, and creating an environment where players can focus on the task at hand.
3) Playing full speed. Instill in your players a “heat seeking missile” approach to playing the game. Full out, full speed, short shifts, “never give up”, strong, relentless - get your entire team playing like it is the Stanley Cup final every time they are on the ice (in practices too!).
4) Scoring goals. This seems to be self-evident but I truly believe, as coaches, we don’t talk about and don’t work on simply scoring goals enough. We should all be striving to create teams with players who can put up six, seven, eight goals a game. It doesn’t matter how bad your defensive zone coverage is when you are scoring a basket full of goals every game. Skill development, mental prep and full speed all play into your offensive capabilities but there should be continued, daily work on scoring goals.
Is your team play (systems) unimportant? Of course not. But remember, your team can always play their first exhibition game of the season with no problems after only three practices. Your players don’t need to know every system to be able to play a game. They have played before and they can bring their natural ability to the ice any day.
So, don’t sweat it if you haven’t taught your third look on the penalty kill forecheck or fourth variation of the faceoff play on their goalie’s left side. These things, in the long run, won’t be as important as making sure your players are mentally ready to play every day. Remember too that players who are good at these four elements will be better players moving forward and will be sought by teams and coaches at the next level. Every coach wants the players who can put the puck in the net and the player who is a “water bug” all over the ice, pressuring the opposition at full speed. Make sure your athletes become those types of players.