When you’re coaching a team in a game, you get caught up in the moments. The shift changes, the missed plays, the whines on the bench, the reactions and overreactions, the uncalled calls… It’s an immersion in kid management while still trying to balance ice time and give feedback which you pray will be useful then applied.
There are few opportunities to sort of sit back and observe exactly what your players are or aren’t doing. So when I was asked to be a guest coach for a weekend with my buddy’s AAA minor bantam squad, I was afforded a chance that’s probably rare.
He and I talked before and after games about the nature of his kids, what their skills were like, and where this team was heading. I wanted to see it for myself. No matter how many hockey games I’ve coached, every one is a new learning experience, as this was as well.
As the late great Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Here’s what I observed:
• The kids are in grade 8. Ask anyone who teaches that level about the wildly disparate levels of understanding and communication skills. It’s the same in hockey. We get caught up in their obvious technical skills and, at our peril as coaches, ignore the mental part of teaching the game
• Pre-game reminders and speeches don’t carry much weight unless the content is directly connected to what’s been taught before. And, as I’ve often stated, just because it’s been taught doesn’t mean it’s been learned. I asked the defencemen before one game about what they been told their defensive zone responsibilities were. Only a couple had a handle on it. I found myself asking pointed questions to get them closer to the answers.
• Situational awareness. I’m not sure what else to call it. Tactical understanding? Hockey IQ? What I saw were situations where options were presented and kids either didn’t see those options or chose the least effective ones, often ones that were easiest. It’s hard to say over my short stay if that was because of a lack of confidence or skill deficiency or poor training. The simplest example: offensive support. This was sorely lacking. Throughout the games, I witnessed kids (from all teams) trying to do things alone because there was no help available. Also, kids sometimes sort of wandered around the ice not knowing where to go to help the puck carrier. Where does this lack of situational awareness come from? Should it be taught in its most basic form at the youngest ages? Indeed.
• I’d forgotten just how easily dismayed or buoyed these kids can become. Most of my time in recent years has been with older players. At 13, children (yes, they’re still children, something else we tend to forget) are not quite sure what to make of themselves. They react, overreact, show confusion, unbridled joy and enthusiasm at once, and mostly want to have fun.
It was a valuable learning experience for this fellow.
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