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Deflections: Picking coaches: Part 2

The obverse of a coach who hasn’t played much is of course one who’s played a lot.

Let’s not dance around a key point here: there are very few coaches who, having never really played the game, can be effective, let alone great, coaches. The three mentioned in last week’s blog are anomalies.

A coach has to understand the sport and its conventions. There needs to be a “feel” for the players’ needs and a true empathy for just how complex the skills and abilities to play are. It’s analogous to a teenager first driving a car. The requisite physical skills and coordination aren’t difficult to learn. If you’ve been in a car and watched cars, you can figure it out. But the array of decisions, timing manoeuvres, distractions, and conditions actually make driving a fairly complex skill.

What then does an experienced former player bring to the coaching table?

Mostly he (and I’ll use the generic “he” for both genders—apologies, ladies) understands the sport’s conventions. His experiences allow him to realize what kinds of commitment are required, what skills lead to successful tactics, and what the realities of the game are going forward. Let’s keep in mind that any former player who has gone beyond minor to junior or higher is in a minority. Roughly 80% of all hockey players do NOT play competitive hockey. Even at the lowest levels of junior (B, C or D, depending on the region), few make it that far, which still makes junior hockey elite.

The point is, someone coming from just a junior C playing career has nevertheless attained a level the vast majority of kids won’t get to. Will that automatically translate into good coaching? No, of course not. No more than a Formula 1 driver is best suited to be the teenager’s driving school instructor.

The question about the link between playing and coaching at the minor hockey levels is frequently posed. In the pros, there’s a case to be made that someone on the bench should be an ex pro. There’s likely a credibility factor. Ken Hitchcock, Mike Keenan, Roger Neilson, Dave King - none played pro hockey but all had ex-NHLers on their staffs.

A similar ballyhoo is made in elite minor hockey, that only someone who himself has played elite hockey can do the job. What we fail to understand is that while indeed former elite athletes have unique skill sets and experiences, the art of coaching will always require its own collection of skills honed over many years.

What might set apart the ex-player from the non-player is the starting point. Someone with little or no playing experience begins with almost nothing as a foundation, not to mention a lack of credibility. Ex-players though begin coaching with a built-in “wow” factor, the reaction kids have when they learn their coach played major junior or college. How long the “wow” factor lasts and how positive an effect it has on the kids’ learning and enjoyment is an altogether different issue.


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