Managing Focus on the Bench
It was always a cardinal rule of writing report cards comments to go with the “sandwich” technique. By that I mean start with something the student has done well at, then write something the student should improve on (hasn’t done well) and finish with something positive. This would produce comments like:
“David has submitted some excellent written work this term. At times, he would do well to concentrate and focus more during class time. Overall, David has had a terrific start to the school year.”
In this model, our ratio of positives to negatives is 2:1. I read an interesting article this week that suggests this is way off for dealing with young athletes. That in fact, we should as coaches, be striving for a 5:1 ratio of positives to negatives.
Let’s be honest, this is really easy to achieve when your team is playing great. All you have to do on the bench is keep rolling the lines and be a cheerleader. All your athletes will be doing good things in those types of games and it’s easy to praise them for what they are doing well. It’s not so easy to do when your athletes are not performing well and struggling. Maybe because they are being somewhat overmatched by the opposition, or maybe it’s one of those days where collectively the team just is having difficulty putting it all together.
As a coach, your messaging is the key to keeping your athletes focused. For me, key messaging needs to always be in threes. Any more than three messages and players start to both tune out and, very often, get confused. I will typically start with three focal points for a game in the dressing room when players get to the rink. As example, my three focus messages might be: “shoot every chance we get”, “take the puck wide into the offensive zone” and “go to the net hard with your stick on the ice”. These are three straight forward, simple tactics that maybe we had been working on in practice that week and the team needs to execute in the game.
To continue the messaging, I will talk through these points before we go on the ice for the first period. Again, repetitive reinforcement is the key to keeping young athletes focused and I make sure that the dressing room is still while I am talking (no equipment adjustments, etc.). I want to make sure that every athlete in the room is on the same page with regards to the three messages for that game. (I will also talk, again, about the six most important words in hockey: “Skate! Skate! Skate! Pressure! Pressure! Pressure!” I believe that the most important things we can do in games is to skate full speed and pressure the puck carrier.)
On the bench for the first part of the game, my coaches and I will primarily only communicate about the three messages from the dressing room. What we really want to do is to see our players doing these three things well and to provide positive reinforcement to keep those things happening. Tony DiCicco in his book Catch Them Being Good writes about just that: catch your athletes doing good things and make sure you tell them they have done something well. (By the way, Tony was the coach of the US women’s soccer team through the 1990’s. This book may be the best ever written about coaching female athletes.)
When a team is struggling in a game, it is much easier to focus on a few key things rather than telling all your players what they are doing wrong every shift. This will narrow your athlete’s focus and keep them engaged in a game where it might be easy to lose them mentally. Start doing a few little things well and the big things tend to take care of themselves.
There is still room to tell players how to make small adjustments to their game to be better outside of the three focus points, but the bulk of the messaging on the bench should focus on those three things. In general, Coaches need to stop over-communicating and let their athletes just play the game. Ultimately, you want the three focal points for a given game to become the norm for your team to execute. This allows you as a coaching staff to move onto focusing on new things in subsequent games. In other words, if you team does a terrific job of going to the net hard with their stick on the ice then you can stop focusing on that and move to something else.
Keep your athletes focused. Keep your bench positive. Be a cheerleader.