How to Find a Mentor and Develop a Coaching Network
I have had a lot of discussion surrounding mentorship away from the rink in my "real" job. I am in charge of alumni programs at a Canadian prep school and one of my responsibilities is to connect young alumni with older alumni in a mentorship role. Many of our grads have terrific stories of how someone took them under their wing and "showed them the ropes" so to speak. It is a powerful relationship but one that is often overlooked and undervalued by young people today.
I have had a number of mentors, and from each I have learned different things as a coach. None of my mentors were formally set up but the relationships all resonated well and I came away changed in the way I approached the craft of coaching.
Three coaches literally changed the way I looked at coaching and all took the time to be my mentor (even if I didn't see it that way at the time). Here are the things I learned from Brian Proctor, Jim Gregory and Stan Butler.
Brian was my high school hockey coach and we later coached together and spent three summers teaching and coaching hockey school in the Soviet Union. "Proc" taught me how to build a hockey program. To him it was all sales and marketing and that you had to have your players buy into what you were teaching. He used to say "if there is nothing exciting on the horizon then you better create something". We spent a lot of time coming up with ways to make the season, and even every game, fun for the players - whether it be inviting the top ranked team from Toronto down for an exhibition game or taking the team to Maple Leaf Gardens at 6:00am for a practice.
Jim Gregory was my Junior baseball coach in Leaside. He is a really cerebral guy and we would spend literally hours discussing/arguing about statistics, strategy and just about anything to do with baseball. It was in those "discussions" that I truly learned how to think critically and to always be careful before opening my mouth. He was quick to tell you to "have it your own ignorant way" if he knew he was right and you were wrong. Part of his ethos was to put together a team of individuals that would complement and contrast each other well. He knew how to relate to all his players - even with a fifteen to twenty year age difference - and he knew the power of bringing teams together on a personal level. I don't find this is as crucial with younger athletes because they tend to get along well just being together. But for older athletes, where divides can fester quickly, it is critical.
I didn't coach with Stan Butler until I was in my mid-20's. I was his assistant with a Tier 2 Junior team in Toronto that had been and was that year very successful. Working with Stan I realized how little I truly knew about coaching hockey. The team worked on skills continually and Coach Butler used to say "the most skilled team will win in the end and we are going to be the most skilled team". He was right (although we had an awful lot of talent too). We ran simple systems but we ran them perfectly. We always concentrated on being the best we could be rather than worrying about what the other team was doing. These were all crucial lessons for a young coach. I came away from that season a different coach and many of the things I learned that year (1994) I bring to the rink every day today.
Now, I take advantage of creating a network of coaches that I can rely on to talk through ideas and ask for advice. There are so many opportunities to learn from other coaches locally - both in your own organization and others. Here are some ideas to broaden your knowledge base and your coaching network (and maybe find a good mentor):
1) Take a year or two to work with an established coach who you respect and can learn from. Sometimes not being a head coach can be a very valuable season or two.
2) Ask another coach if you can shadow for a practice. Go through the practice plan before hand and discuss the practice afterward.
3) Do the same thing on a game day.
4) Read a coaching book and connect with the author afterwards to discuss some of the ideas in his/her book.
5) Take a coaching course and make sure you connect and stay in touch with some of the coaches that also attend.
Cultivating these relationships can be hugely beneficial. Having a network of coaches to be able to call for help and advice can be a tremendous personal development tool. Don't reinvent the wheel and take advantage of those around you.