You’ve got your team. Practices begin soon. What do you start with?
Not a drill. Not even a type of drill. Not a particular skill or tactic either. While those will come into play, the number one place to begin is with establishing (pick whichever ones apply): tone, work ethic, routine, teaching approach.
Some years back, the coach of a junior club – his only year with the team – wanted to clean up the players’ previously slovenly (according to the GM) approach to practice. So he told the players that when they went on the ice for practice, they had to first take five full speed running steps going through the door. His thinking was this would get them into “work mode” straight off. He was right. It did and the practice effort was terrific.
I stole the idea from him and used it three years ago with a bantam team. Before our first practice, I told them to take three running strides onto the ice first. When I caught someone not doing it, they were sent back off the ice to try again. After a few practices, even the players were telling each other to do it when they forgot. So the tone was set from the get-go.
Back to the classroom analogy. Experienced teachers know that effective classroom management is essential to the education process, that without it, learning (and, of course, teaching) is next to impossible. It must then be the same for coaching hockey, which, admittedly is a more challenging environment.
Even with skills or drills that aren’t relevant, if you structure your early practices properly, things will begin as they should. I know of one coach who insists good practices begin not on the ice but in the dressing room. It’s an interesting viewpoint. If the team is well organized in the room and exits in a controlled manner (not so easy with young ones), is it more likely you’ll have decent group control on the ice? He claims yes. I agree.
Teachers are also aware they need to keep the reins, so to speak, tighter at the beginning of the year and gradually loosen them as needed. The problem with minor hockey coaches is that they tend to translate this into needing to be autocratic. Not true. Just well organized. The assistants have to know what to do. How the players move from one activity to the next, when feedback interventions occur, how drills are constructed to maximize participation, when to bring them to the board are all key ingredients that should appear in practice #1.
An observer should be able to see this first practice as being well organized with players under control, even if what’s being taught is questionable. Manage this well and working with the team will be easier and more fun for coaches and players.
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