Coaching up.

Dave Mason

It was 92 degrees F / 33 degrees C in Toronto last weekend, so naturally hundreds of hockey coaches converged on Ryerson University to immerse themselves in three days of knowledge, insight, innovation, and storytelling at the 2019 TeamSnap Coaches Site Hockey Coaches Conference. Because of the format of the event — with various breakouts and on-ice sessions happening from time to time — it wasn’t possible to see every presentation, but as always, what I was able to take in was a wild ride. And as always, it’s taken me a few days of down time just to try to figure out what I might have learned. Here goes:

Teach your players to compete, compete, compete.
Right from the day one puck drop, Mike Kelly, assistant coach with the Vegas Golden Knights, set the tone for a theme that would be echoed by many other speakers: “Nobody holds a monopoly on competitiveness.” His talk centered on the need for coaches to understand the importance of their role in promoting the kinds of behaviors they want to see in players, not just in recognizing successful results. Using an ultimately unsuccessful but relentless Jason Spezza attempt at defending against Sidney Crosby as an example of a praise-worthy failing effort, Mike pointed out that “A positive effort is a different thing than a successful effort. It’s important for coaches to recognize and reward effort, not just the result.” And in a comment that was also reinforced by many others, and that definitely rang a loud bell for us as the creators of a coach-to-player feedback platform, Mike summed up his (and our) approach perfectly. “You want your kids to go home and say hey, coach liked my effort.” Recognize effort? Reward compete? We agree 100%!

Fun = pace.
Integral to the ‘teach them to compete’ concept, the idea of ‘practicing with pace’ was advocated by Derek Laxdal, head coach of the AHL Texas Stars and repeated by many others. How do leading coaches bring pace to practice? Mike Johnston, head coach of the Portland Winterhawks, suggested coaches remember to “Build fun into practices. We run periodic practices with all music, no instruction at all. We tell them the drills they’ll be running ahead of time so they just switch from one to the other at the sound of a horn. The players love it, but they also say it’s a really tough practice.” Mike Kelly pointed out that players need to have fun because they learn more effectively. “If you keep practices fun and challenging you’ll create a connection to competing naturally and they’ll get better almost by accident.” NCAA hockey analyst and coach Dave Starman took attendees through an on-ice small area games demo, reminding us all that for players at any age, touching the puck is always more fun than not touching it. And Greg Powers, head coach of Arizona State’s NCAA D1 men’s team knows his players benefit from fun. “If you’re having fun, you’re playing free.”

A.B.C. = Always. Be. Communicating.
Coaching is communication. Virtually every speaker at the conference touched on the importance of it, not just for teaching concepts, tactics, or techniques, but for creating positive relationships, building trust, and helping players gain confidence and resilience. Dave Starman pointed out the overall importance of being a good communicator: “When you hear people describe great coaches, communication skills are always at the forefront. Being a good x’s and o’s guy is somewhere down the list, but the ability to articulate the message is huge.” 

Mike Johnston, Mike Kelly, and Mississauga Reps Midget AAA head coach Shawn Snider shared their thoughts on the topic during a panel discussion I was asked to moderate. Dovetailing into the idea of teaching kids to compete, Mike Johnston reminded coaches to always “Reward your players’ efforts, catch them doing something good,” and pointed out that if his players don’t understand the concepts he and his coaching staff are teaching, they change the way they’re communicating, because it’s on them as coaches to reach their players, not the other way around. Mike Kelly reinforced Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Todd Woodcroft’s thoughts about the importance of communication. Todd noted that “Players have to know why they’re doing a drill. Don’t just download a random drill from the internet. Have a purpose for it and share that purpose with your players,” and Mike noted that “The more information you can provide for a player, the better. When you explain your reasoning, you show that you care.”

Shawn Snider took the topic of communication all the way from coaches to players to parents. “When you’re coaching younger kids, you can’t ignore their parents. Some coaches think they can and it doesn’t work. Parents are paying a lot of money to have their kids play hockey and be coached by us, and ducking them leads to nothing but problems. And now communication doesn’t always have to be at the rink. New technology tools are there. Use them.” ‏Don Granato, assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres, backed up Shawn’s approach, noting that “Parents are part of the equation. At the national team level I tried hard to involve parents in the program.” We agree 100% with all of these coaches when it comes to communication. Players thrive on it because it helps them improve, removes questions, and builds trust in coaches. And when coaches keep parents informed, show them that they’re seeing and teaching their kids as individuals, they’re extremely appreciative and more trusting in the teaching process.

Feedback is fuel.
As you might have guessed if you know anything about PowerPlayer, we’re all about the idea that when it comes to coaching, feedback is a tool, and positive feedback is a power tool. 

So if I could have my kids go back in time and be coached by one coach, it would have to be University of New Brunswick head coach Gardiner Macdougall. He kicked off his energizing talk by challenging every coach in the room: “Sure, the number one skill you can teach your players is work ethic. But as a coach, are you yourself just involved? Are you committed? Or are you possessed?!” 

Coach Macdougall throws a lot at you in forty-five minutes, but of course a few of my favorite takeaways from his session were related to positivity and communication in coaching. He reminded us all that “Praise is the number one thing you can use to motivate someone. But don’t just say ‘Hey good game.’ Be specific!” And a simple but huge point: “Four words that will make every player better. I. Believe. In. You. Write that down!!” Absolutely agree.

Peter deBoer, head coach of the San Jose Sharks, took us through that wild 2019 Stanley Cup playoff game seven vs Las Vegas. (Note: Mike Kelly had earlier commented that he’d “rather volunteer for a root canal than relive that event” but he still sat through Peter’s talk like a consummate pro!) A number of comments Peter made during that incredible talk (watch that video for sure) fit into the feedback bucket, but one came through especially loud and clear. Although he’d essentially sat the eventual overtime goal scorer, Barclay Goodrow, after a particularly rough patch earlier in the game, he pointed out that he always wants his players to trust him, and that he goes out of his way to communicate in ways that reinforce that. “Players always have to know they’ll get another chance after a mistake. Sometimes they just need a pat on the back.” Love it!

Don Granato shared a lot of incredible insights about his experiences with young players, not the least of which was his comment on the power of communication and positive feedback that perfectly echoed Pete deBoer. “Players need to know why they’re playing where they are. I had Kevin Labanc on the fourth line, but he knew I believed in him. Why shouldn’t a fourth line guy feel good about himself?” Yes!

Players are changing = the game is changing.
Former NHL General Manager of the Year Mike Gillis shared his thoughts about the game as it was, is, and could be. Like so many of the speakers at the conference, he touched on a ton of subjects, but from my perspective his comments on topics such as data-driven player development and positivity as a performance enhancer were particularly interesting. Mike talked about the fact that the tools are there now to help players, advocating that coaches “Collect the data then work backwards. The answer to the problem for each player is in there.” He talked about the pitfalls of what he feels is an outdated scouting model that doesn’t factor in enough of the right kinds of long-term prospect data (agree!) and, in discussing issues such as anxiety in professional athletes, he referenced the same professional rugby study that points to the performance-enhancing effects of positive feedback that I referenced in my brief talk at the 2018 conference. You can read a post-conference SportsNet interview with Mike here, but I definitely suggest you watch the video of his presentation when it’s released. 

Don Granato also challenged all coaches to move forward, because the young players they’re working with already are. “Most hockey conventions are decades old. We do things the old way, but why? It’s all changing because the players today won’t tolerate the old. They’re changing the game and we as coaches need to change with them. I look at our game, it’s a race to see what’s next, what’s new, and how we can innovate. We have to keep up. Twenty years ago the players needed to get on the coach’s page. Not now. It’s the other way around.”

Pursuant to that, I was honored to be part of a panel on technology hosted by Ken McDonald of TeamSnap that also featured former NHL player Mike Weaver of CoachThem, and Ryan Smyth of Kinduct. Asked about the growing use of data in sports, Mike pointed out that “Back in my day, the money players in the NHL were pushing back against data, but today, stats bring visibility.” And Ryan noted that while “Some players think data is going to be used against them, we test and monitor athletes to help them optimize their performance.” My comments centered around the use of data in the form of feedback derived from a coaching staff’s ratings for things such as practice effort and attention level, and in-game demeanor and compete as a motivational force, especially for young, developing players. “Kids know instinctively that we measure what matters. So what does a game-centric goals and assists-driven data model tell a kid who’s a third or fourth line player whose name rarely shows up on the scoresheet? What does it tell kids about the importance of practice? We want to help coaches reward everyone through feedback. Why not show every player that you value their effort and contribution at practice, in games, on the bus?”

Mike Weaver also echoed an earlier comment by Don Granato noting that technology can help coaches extend their ability to connect with players. Don had commented that “Players are at the rink for two hours. There are twenty-two other hours in a day. Make it fun when they come to the rink but get them excited when they’re not there. Get them pumped for the next session.” Mike’s comment: “Like school, practice doesn’t end when it’s over. Give kids homework, share new drills, video clips, feedback, etc. Technology is there to help reach them and teach them.”

Asked about value vs cost, and the future of tech in sports, the panelists agreed that tech is here to stay, and that its value lies in its effectiveness. Ryan Smyth noted that “If technology saves you time, or makes you a better coach, or helps you help your players, the value should outweigh the cost.” Mike Weaver pointed out that he never dreamed he’d be spending thousands of dollars on a phone, for example, but that the value that tool provides makes it worth it. My comments on that subject centered around the reality of the contemporary world, echoing a little of Don Granato’s thoughts about kids changing the game. “I watch what kids are doing and follow their lead. They’re glued to their phones because we told them to be. So we as adults need to live in their world — the one we created before they got here.”

Coaches need coaching too.
There was so much more to learn at the event that it’s just not possible to summarize it here. But whether you attended the conference, or you subscribe to the Coaches Site to watch the videos, or you take advantage of other educational opportunities, Dave Starman was talking about coaches like you when he commended the attendees at the conference by reminding them that “You cannot do player development unless you do coaching development.” And Swedish National Team Coach Rikard Grönborg may have summed up the importance of coaching education best in the final session of the weekend. “The coaches make the difference in the players’ lives.”

Hope that was informative. 

Now, nap time.

PS Kudos to the coaches who pushed forward with their on-ice demos during the unfortunately-timed power outage at Mattamy Center. Not the best scenario for teaching, but got to admit the candle-lit type atmosphere in the arena was memorable!

PPS High ratings for the entire team at The Coaches Site for putting together another incredible event. 

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