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Deflections: Practice to game: A shot in the dark

 

My math is decent. But when I tried to estimate how many practices I’ve run over my years in coaching, I failed miserably. It could be 1500, it could be over 2000. Yes, I’ve coached a lot of teams. No matter, it’s a large number with a significant caveat: I’ve never run a collection of practices for a team I wasn’t coaching.

Guest coach? Yes, often. But those have been “one-offs.” While mentoring, I’ve been asked to help with drills or run a themed practice. However, until this spring with a U18 development team, I’d never been “the practice coach” while someone else ran the team in games.

Coaching is built on communication and relationships. When you’re running a team, your personality and coaching mores, so to speak, govern your approach in practice. They may vary somewhat according to numerous variables, however, you coach to paint an overall picture, aim for a goal and develop your group.

Relationships with players carry over from practice to game and vice versa. They need to see you care about their efforts in both venues.

My role with this group was quite different and took some getting used to. I had to establish development priorities for a group I’d never seen and knew little about. The spring coach, who’d worked with me in the past in a minor hockey mentorship program, trusted me enough to say, “Do what you believe is best for them.” This meant I had to project not just to the end of their spring league in late June when they played a final tournament, but also to how the boys saw themselves improving leading to the August tryout camps.

I’m not sure what might be best for them, I took a stab at three universal skills: passing, foot speed, and shooting quickness. A fourth, how to play in small space, would be accomplished in cross-ice, small area games. Much as I wanted to spend time on angling skills and stick play, I decided the best approach, given my time constraint of 10 50-minute practices, was to incorporate them teaching into drills. A one-on-one drill where the attacker needed to use the defenceman as a screen and shoot also became a key stick and body position exercise for both.

I intentionally didn’t attend a single spring league game. I spend a lot of time teaching coaches to aim for the long term, so that occasional game application didn’t necessarily mean much. I didn’t want to be influenced by what I saw from week to week – Eyes on the prize and all that.

The team wound up finishing in the top three of the spring league. In the weekend tournament in June, of which I attended four of six games, the boys reached the championship game, losing to an older, more experienced squad.

I watched intently, focusing on which players had improved, perhaps from my practices, and if not, what had I missed. As always in coaching, I learned a great deal about the link between practices and games.

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