Developing Hockey Sense
Many coaches will know what team and group of players they will have already for next season and as such, this is a great time to start putting together a season plan. This plan should include many things and I have written about good season planning in an earlier blog post.
One of the things that sometimes gets overlooked is having a coaching philosophy when doing season planning. I think we all intuitively have a coaching philosophy but it is a great idea to sometimes jot these things down so that you can share with your coaching team as well as refer back to it as the season progresses and see if you are still on track or if your philosophy needs some tweaking.
One of the great challenges we have as coaches is to foster in our players the notion of hockey sense. I believe we start very early in player's careers (like at the Novice and Atom level) teaching the game with no real thought to promoting the development of hockey sense. I continually saw more hockey sense being developed when my son and his buddies were out on the rink with no adults just playing shinny for an hour than I did in a month of team practices.
The problem arises from our need as coaches to control everything that happens on the ice, and because of this, we are trying to make our players only think in terms of how we want the team tactics and strategies to work. Instead, we should be finding ways to let the game flow more and let our players make critical decisions on their own rather than making decisions based on what they learned at practice or in the dressing room before the game.
As coaches, we also have to get away from thinking that we can "teach" hockey sense but instead, we need to find ways to help our players "develop" hockey sense. I like to think of this as teaching concepts rather than plays or systems. I try to give my players simple "guidelines" within which they can be creative and play intuitively.
Here is an example. On a neutral ice regroup, some coaches will teach a system that has the strong side winger posting up at the far blue line, the weak side winger curling through the center of the ice and the center swinging towards the weak side boards. Then, if the puck goes D to D then the post up player skates across the blue line...etc., etc.
What we create by teaching a system this way are players who become more focused on where they are supposed to be rather than "reading and reacting" to the situation and subsequently developing their hockey sense.
Here is how I begin teaching a neutral ice regroup. I tell my players that they have to do three things on every regroup: 1) skate full speed, 2) be available for a pass and 3) fill all three lanes back down the ice. I tell them "if you can do all those every time then every regroup will be good. Fitting this into my coaching philosophy, I believe that players can more easily do those three things instinctively and develop more hockey sense than if I am only giving them "X's and O's" to follow. (Two other points. First, skating full speed fits into the most important part of my coaching philosophy in that my teams are going to play full speed all of the time. Second, I do believe that there are important pieces to regroups that need to be taught but, I don't believe those are important pieces until players get to a higher and older level of play.)
So, keeping the game simple and teaching concepts rather than X's and O's will undoubtedly foster the development of hockey sense. Let your players "feel" the game rather than always having to "think" the game. Players will be able to play faster and stronger when they are unburdened with the "where am I supposed to go now" mentality on the ice.
Finally, build in time in practice to just let players play for fun and not be under the microscope to perform certain tasks and skills. I am a big fan of playing full or half ice three on three at the end of almost every practice. I allow players to shut off their hockey brains and just play and have fun. It develops skills, hockey sense, teamwork and conditioning.
So, when putting together your coaching philosophy this spring, remember to give thought to how you might develop hockey sense. It is crucial to the long term development and success of your players and your team.
(P.S. A little bit of a shameless plug here but, one of the things that came out of playing the Torpedo System this season with my Bantam team was the simplicity of the system that I felt allowed my players to develop hockey sense. When they were able to get over the "outside the box" thinking of differently named positions, they became a free flowing, read and react, offensively minded group of players who will ultimately benefit immensely as individuals as they move up through their minor hockey careers. You can read more about the Torpedo System by clicking here or the graphic below.)