For the last 19 years, I was a competitive hockey player, so I haven’t really looked at the sport through a purely coaching lens too often.
But I’ve seen a lot of coaches.
From mites in Chicago, through Junior A in Canada, and ACHA D1 back in the U.S., I’ve had my fair share of them, some I really loved and benefited from, and equally as many that I’d just as soon forget. Most were somewhere in the middle. So as far as coaching goes, I know what worked for me as a player, and I know what didn’t. While the old school ‘tough love / yell every time a player makes a mistake’ method may work for some, in my personal experience, far fewer players today respect and respond to that kind of coaching, and I can tell you that it never, ever worked for me.
Now, as a Demonstration Coach for PowerPlayer, I’m much more attentive to the coaching side of the game, and I had the opportunity to attend a couple of coaching conferences this summer. At both conferences, I was curious to see if the way coaches are approaching today’s game was changing to fit with my perception of what young players respond to, or if the same old outdated coaching methods were being pushed. The first one, in Toronto, was covered earlier in this blog, so I’m going to focus on the most recent — The Hockey Think Tank Chicago Hockey Development Conference held at the Chicago Blackhawks training facility at Fifth Third Arena. The one-day event was loaded with good coaching insights, but here are a few of the highlights from my perspective.
The first presenter of the day was Hockey Think Tank creator and conference host, Topher Scott. He kicked things off by reminding attendees that “successful coaches put value in and build relationships. When you see a kid at the rink you see very little. Invest time and energy into knowing your players.” His talk centered on the simple idea that taking the time to get to know your players and making a personal connection shows them that you care about them, and that consequently they’ll want to work harder for you before you’ve even stepped on the ice. Yes! I had a coach late in my career who wouldn’t even respond to me saying hello to him off the ice. I can tell you I definitely didn’t want to go to the rink every day and work hard for that guy.
Jeff Lovecchio, owner of RIPT fitness, is the kind of coach that made me want to go to university to become a strength and conditioning coach. In his talk, Jeff noted that, as a player, he didn’t respond well to the old school style of coaching, a point he kept in mind when deciding what type of coach he wanted to be. His approach is clear: “Provide constant feedback. Kids always want to know how they are doing.” Focusing on feedback doesn’t mean Jeff doesn’t believe in telling an athlete when they’ve made a mistake or when they need to step up and work harder, but he takes care to do it in a way that doesn’t publicly shame the athlete, something that has for some reason become the normal thing to do for a lot of coaches. I was also struck by the fact that Jeff does a lot of exercises with his kids that many might find odd or unconventional, such as having them do everything with their non-dominant hand. If you’ve ever tried to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand you know how goofy you feel! Creating games and exercises that help players work their non dominant side not only helps them in hockey — a sport that forces you into dominant and non-dominant situations all the time — but it’s training in a way that encourages fun. As Jeff pointed out, if you’re getting kids to have fun they’ll work harder for you without even noticing they’re doing it.
Another speaker who lit the light for me was Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde. This is a guy who coaches players at the highest levels, and his emphasis was on the importance of providing feedback to players, especially positive feedback. “Communication is key, and a lot of times it’s positive feedback they need.” It was refreshing to hear him remind attendees to communicate with players when they’re doing things right, not just when they make mistakes. And during the players panel discussion, New Jersey Devils player Connor Carrick backed up Coach Lalonde’s approach by telling us about his own preference for that coaching style, “I’m a highly visual learner, and I do great with positive feedback.” If positive communication is what works for players at the highest level of hockey, imagine what it can do for young, developing players.
So my feedback on the Hockey Think Tank event is all positive!
I’m happy to say that from what I heard, there are a lot of coaches looking to improve on what they already know, and the underlying messages I picked up on were the need for better coach-to-player communication, and how much positive feedback can help players improve. And I’m optimistic about the future for the next generation of players, because it looks like the next generation of coaches is looking to change the game for the better.
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