Former NHL and KHL coach Mike Keenan once said “the most important job we have as coaches is to get the right players on the ice at the right time.” Without question, this is crucial to team success - not only in the short term but in the long term as well. In the same presentation, Keenan talked about how preparation for the next game started as soon as the buzzer sounded in the last game.
When it comes to game preparation, nothing is as important as the few hours leading up to a competition. This is key coaching time to get a team mentally and physically ready for playing their best. Here is a checklist of things to consider in your season plan when it comes to pre-game routine:
1) Fueling the engine. Nutrition and hydration are crucial parts of being able to compete and perform at a top level. All players are different when it comes to their preferences about when to eat but as coaches, we need to give some guidelines. There are lots of resources online on this topic for all age groups. In a perfect world you will be able to have your team eat as a group before a game with a set menu. As well, encourage players to have some healthy snacks close to game time and even between periods. You must make sure your athletes are not playing below potential because they are not fueled properly.
2) Create pre-game rituals. It’s important for players to understand the timing of pre-game. In other words, make a schedule for what the hour or hour and half before the game looks like. Arrival time, pre-game talk, off-ice warm up, “dressed and ready” time, on-ice warm up, pre-game speech, are all pieces of the pre-game ritual that need to be scheduled and routine. One thing I would caution about: players don’t like downtime that is created by arriving too early. Don’t make players be at the rink fifteen minutes before needed just in case someone is going to be late. Just make sure everyone is on time.
3) Communicate key points early. I always get the team and staff into the dressing room at the beginning of the pre-game routine to talk about what is most important about that game. These might be things we need to focus on in our team play, opposition players we need to pay attention to, really anything that will contribute to our success that day. Whenever I talk to a team I do my very best to limit my points to three. I might expand on those three points but players can digest and continue to focus on three. Communicating these points early allows players to think about them during the rest of the pre-game routine.
4) Make off-ice warm up a coaching staff led activity. I never feel like players can truly run their own off-ice warm up appropriately. For it to be done well you have to have the right team leaders. Best to have a staff member run the off-ice warm up. Designate one coach to be in charge of the warm up. This is a key time for mental focus and as such should not be a goof around, run in the parking lot dodging cars time.
5) Turn off the music! Music blaring in a dressing room setting only contributes to lack of focus. It simply raises the volume of everything in a small space. This does two things: it gets the energy level cranked up to a point where it is not productive and, it creates an environment that is distracting and unfocussed. I always set a time when the stereo needs to be shut off - typically 15 or 20 minutes before I come into the room to talk. If players absolutely need music to prepare mentally then they can use a set of headphones (preferably ones that don’t leak music to everyone around them).
6) Communicate a countdown. Make sure all players know when they have to be finished dressing. I will make sure I announce “dressed in 30 minutes”, “dressed in 15 minutes”, “dressed in 5 minutes”. This accomplishes two things: players aren’t panicked to get dressed at the last minute and they are ready for the coaches to come in to say some final words before the game.
7) Being “Knute Rockne”. Coach Rockne was the coach at the beginning of the 1900’s with the University of Notre Dame football team. He was famous for his rousing pregame speeches and his “win one for the Gipper” halftime speech during the 1928 Army game is one of coaching lore. As a coach, you don’t have to be a perfectionist when it comes to your pre-game speeches. First, every game isn’t a critical one, so don’t feel like you have to be awesome every time you send your team out to battle. Sometimes just a smile, a quick joke, an instruction and a “let’s go!” is all that is needed. But, this is also a great time to review the three points you made earlier. Second, when it comes to the “big game”, your athletes will know the magnitude of the competition. Truly, as a coach, you don’t have to remind them that it is a championship game. They will be getting themselves ready without having the big “rah rah” speech from the coach. Often, it is in these games, that athletes need more of the settling speech than the motivational speech. The “Knute Rockne” speech usually needs to come at a time when you don’t think your athletes are as prepared, motivated and focused as you would like them to be.
Pre-season is a terrific time to put in place a pre-game routine schedule for your team. Occasionally there needs to be some modification but sticking to rituals like this pay dividends throughout the season.
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