“This drill should work,” I say to myself, “and so should that”. I draw up each practice as I’ve always done: Create a theme and a few sub-themes then rough out some drills. Whiteboard in hand, I diagram them, erase, restart, tweak, refer to the theme, tweak some more. About an hour later, my practice is ready. I’m confident I’ve balanced the players’ needs with the levels with what I figure is appropriate.
On it goes for all 10 U18 development practices. Hey, look, I’m an experienced guy. I know (or think I do) what kinds of approaches work or don’t. I’m comfortable with the age group and this particular collection of players. I’m pretty sure I’m doing the right thing. I guess I’ll know better when I see them play the end of spring tournament.
Over the three days, I watch four of the team’s six games. By the second one, I’m beginning to wonder about everything I did in those practices. By the third game, my question morphs into, “Good grief, Richard, what on earth were you thinking?”
Every shift, I peer intently at the boys for evidence of my training. Are they quicker on their feet? Are they making faster and better decisions? Are they releasing their shots earlier, on the move? Are the passes crisp, especially the “cross-court” ones, and through seams, not players?
An important caveat: the games were non-checking. Contact was allowed, but it became obvious early on that a few boys developed courage in the corners they might not have had in a full checking situation. As well, the checking rule created some artificial situations I hadn’t accounted for in practice planning. In attacks, the players had more space to carry the puck, so they did. This eliminated any chance for quick shooting. Why bother when you can carry it deeper?
You don’t need quick feet to escape or beat someone who can’t lay a finger on you. They got away with coasting. With no tight checking, passing seams were unusually wide. This produced too many wussy passes because there was no urgency to do otherwise. And with such wide spaces everywhere, they didn’t need to think fast. Sometimes it seemed like they weren’t thinking much at all.
The chasm between what I’d run them through in practice and game application became wider still, because I was unable to remind them in games of certain little things I’d shown them on the ice. Even though the team played well enough to reach the final, I had the disturbing sensation I’d somehow let them down.
Another lesson learned. To bridge that chasm, one has to be in the room and on the bench. Reminder to self: don’t just be a practice development drill coach ever again.
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