Like most anything in minor hockey, trying to strategize with bantams who aren’t elite players is tricky. Plenty of coaches would like to think they know what constitutes a certain kind of playing system and how to present it. This may be true with higher level or older athletes. It’s an altogether different challenge with a group like mine this season.
I know of a few coaches who take pride in stating how they’ve taught their kids a couple of different types of forecheck patterns and even breakouts. How much they work is quite another matter. Besides, what do we use to measure their success? And if we need to measure such things, are we in danger of overusing stats for basically straightforward things?
Most of my coaching years have been with older, elite level teams. The “hockey IQ” gap between 18-year-old juniors and these kids is huge. In fact, while working with our regional under 14s last spring, I noticed a similar problem. Those boys had great skill but their ability to grasp and apply strategies over an entire rink was a challenge for some. They just didn’t have the experience, the long-term exposure to complex playing systems. Some came from teams where they had almost nothing of it. So, while the team succeeded mostly on the basis of superior skill and a handful of truly terrific competitors, a few kids really struggled with what their responsibilities were in each zone.
Same idea with my bantams. Sure, I could show them a simple forecheck setup, but what does it lead to? What becomes of their roles coming back into the neutral zone? Can my defencemen read what their forwards are doing and act accordingly? Those are two very different issues. They may know what they should do but their skill might hinder accomplishing it.
There’s another key factor to consider. Impressing kids with fancy terminology and cool diagrams will win them over only until they get on the ice and discover the opposition is just not being cooperative. What seemed pretty simple in practice or on the whiteboard has now dashed their hopes for success. Therein lies the key to whatever I needed to devise. They absolutely must feel like it’s working, even if in just one or two zones. The success of a playing system also has to seamlessly link with their current skills, ability to apply key individual tactics and knowledge of what to do and when. At the heart of it is giving the kids confidence they could succeed strategically. Not so easy when the boys only have a couple of years of competitive experience.
What I came up with was pretty simple. Like any playing system, you give up something to achieve a certain result. Some shifts it worked. Others, not so much. But the point was that on the bench they were helping each other out and recognizing what needed fixing. And when it worked, they were proud of themselves. Step one achieved.
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