Playoff Hockey: Is Your Team Ready?
It’s almost playoff time - a time of heightened expectations and also heightened anxiety for both players and coaches when much more is riding on every game. This is when a team must be playing their best hockey. Team tactics and systems must be solid, and line combinations and special team units should be set and firing on all cylinders.
As coaches, we are responsible for making sure our players are playing their best at this time of year. It’s not always easy to keep everything on an even keel and keeping everyone’s anxiety level in check while at the same time keeping their compete level and intensity high. It is truly not an easy feat. Here are some things to consider going into playoff time:
1) Don’t make changes in routine for the playoffs. Things like having a different warm up, having players come to the rink earlier, having team meals, providing video sessions (or more video sessions), expecting the players to have a curfew or expecting them to change their eating habits. These are all good things to do but they are good things to do all season, not just at playoffs time. It’s important to not make the playoff games any different than the regular season with regards to routine. Players will totally understand that playoff games are more important and there is more riding on them. Changing routine can often just feed into a heightened level of anxiety.
2) The way coaches run their benches invariably changes during the playoffs. I have always been very clear with my players what the expectations for ice time will be during the regular season and how it may change for playoff games. With a minor hockey team, typically I will play equal ice time during the regular season but explain clearly that I will decide who plays the special teams and the last five minutes of a game at playoff time. And, that those players that I feel should be on the ice at any given time will be out there. (And, there may be no obviously logical reason why I am sending certain players out at certain times.)
Often, I will play a tournament before playoff time so that we can model how the playoffs will look. I tell my players beforehand that we are going to play the tournament to win and that this is “playoff hockey”. The bench therefore will be run as it will be in the playoffs. This gives everyone a chance to feel what it will be like to be in a “playoff” situation before we actually get there.
3) Don’t change the way you are on the bench. For instance, if you never yell at the referees during the regular season don’t start because it’s a playoff game. Don’t all of a sudden start benching players because their shift was a little long or they made a mistake on the ice. Don’t start changing line combinations mid game if your team isn’t used to that. Don’t all of a sudden run both ends of the bench if you have let an assistant coach run the defence all year long. Consistency goes a long way in having a settled and focused team.
4) Be careful of how you handle your goaltenders. Every goaltender tandem is different and I would suspect that most tandems split games in rotation through the regular season. The Playoffs is a time where coaches often want to play their number one goalie right through. It is crucial that it is communicated to your goalies as to how you are going to handle who is playing each game. As well, since often you have never had to let them know who is playing the next game all season it’s important to communicate to them who is playing the next game. I typically ask my goalies when they want to know who is playing. Some goalies want to know at practice before the next game, others don’t want to know until they get to the rink. Respect their wishes and you can and keep them confident and happy, not worried and anxious.
On the same note, be consider carefully before you pull a goalie in a game. It’s important to stay consistent in how you handled this through the season but, you have to balance that against winning playoff hockey games. As a coach, you need to consider where you are in a playoff series when making these decisions. Pulling a goalie in game one of a five game series might hurt confidence whereas pulling a goalie in game five is just a matter of trying to win a huge game that will lead on to the next series.
The bottom line is to be able to keep your team focused and ready to play. Distractions lead to anxiety which will in turn lead to poor performance. Coaches can be effective directors in maintaining intensity, concentration, motivation and keeping their players “in the moment”. Don’t be a distraction for your players by taking the focus away from what is important - playing your best and winning playoff games.