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Deflections: Corollary to nature vs. nurture

If you splice together all the best kids in an age group, you’re likely going to have a pretty strong group. Whether or not they gel into a formidable team is quite another matter. We’ve seen plenty of all-star teams at even the highest elite levels not succeed despite having the finest talent at their beck and call.

Or, as the late U.S. Olympic gold medal coach Herb Brooks implored in 1980, “I don’t want the best players. I want the right players.”

Picking a group of the best and trying to mould them into a single unit for a short-term event may be toying with the nature vs. nurture debate a little bit. We did that here in Ottawa recently when we cobbled together our regional under-14 team for the first step in the Hockey Canada Program of Excellence. The team was to play in a tournament and the coaches were to assess and teach through six practices and then see how the boys did.

First the result. The team won its four tournament games 4-0, 3-0, 7-1, and 8-1. In only two of the games were we tested, so one could make a case that the opposition was weak. We taught virtually no team or group tactical play. Nearly everything was in 2s and 3s with about an even split between no resistance and some resistance activities.

What was interesting though had to do not with the results but who stood out. Four of the absolute top kids did not participate. Three would be out of town for parts of the event with their spring teams and one chose not to participate because the family doesn’t believe in spring hockey (the father is an ex-NHL player).

The kids who took their places were not of the same calibre and likely would not have been with us otherwise. Yet, they played terrific, confident hockey.

Was it because this was their chance to shine? Had they been buried on weak teams and now, playing with top players, they were pulled up to a different skill level? Had the coaching approach of no team play, emotional control, game readiness, and focus on individual skill and support played a role?

Using nine forwards and six defenceman, lines and pairings were constructed according to on-ice personae, not stats. Would kid A who is quiet and laid back be able to play with kid B who likes to jump into the play? It wasn’t until the fourth game when these were all jumbled a bit to give the kids chances to play with others.

While the players and parents expressed great appreciation for the quality of the staff, the coaches admitted a bit of surprise at which individuals elevated their games, and it wasn’t the stars.

Makes you think.

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