Redefining the Player/Coach Relationship
I had a great day yesterday attending the TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference in Toronto. There were some terrific speakers and on-ice demonstrations. In particular, Edmonton Oilers assistant coach Jay Woodcroft presented on Inside the Mind of Elite Hockey Players and spoke about the value of connecting with athletes to learn their thoughts on the coaching process and their views on what works and what doesn’t work form a player’s perspective. Stan Butler then talked about practice planning but, as a longtime coach in the OHL, gave his perspective on coaching “millennial” athletes as well, who often learn in different ways than we did and have more distractions in their multitasking lives.
The commonality of their talks was that coaches today need to be more in tune with their athletes. No longer is it just “do this and do that” coaching communication but one where coaches need to reach out, learn from their athletes, ask them for their feedback and often include them in some of the decision making.
Now I know that sometimes it feels like an “us against them” battle when you are coaching a group of athletes but that is not always the case. Look at the player/coach relationship as a partnership, one where coaches and players can work together towards a common goal. Don’t get me wrong, the coach is still the “boss”, because in the end, it’s not a democracy. But you can certainly include players in some decision making and incorporate their feedback into how you run your program.
Ask your players occasionally how they liked practice? What did they like, what didn’t they like? You might be surprised sometimes at some of the answers you get. “Coach, we can’t hear you well when you are instructing from the other end of the ice.” “I love when we do conditioning at the end of practice - it makes me feel like I have worked REALLY hard.” “It made more sense once you demonstrated that drill instead of just explaining it on the whiteboard.” Not only will this feedback make you a better coach, it will allow your players to feel included in the way the team is run. It will also foster more trust in you as a coach in that your athletes will see you do things a little differently, for the better, with the help of their input.
My first year making the varsity hockey team in high school, I ended up playing on a line with two veteran players who had both been two year veterans on the team. My coach later commented to me that he had asked my two line-mates at tryouts who they wanted to have as their new centerman. Evidently they had asked for me. I thought this was a really curious thing that he would ask them but years later I realized that he was truly giving them the responsibility for making the line work and empowering them to help with decision making. At the same time, he was asking me indirectly to make sure I didn’t let my line-mates down.
It’s also not a bad idea to occasionally ask athletes how they like competing alongside other athletes. “How do you like your power play unit?” “Do you like being paired up with David on defence?” These are questions that again, will help you as a coach understand your team a little better, and also allow your players to gain your trust in that you are listening to their concerns and that their ideas and feelings are important to you.
Herb Brooks, famous coach of the 1980 Miracle on Ice USA Olympic Hockey victory and longtime coach of the University of Minnesota Gophers would often employ an interesting strategy when it came to practice time. Players would tell about coming back from a weekend road trip having not done very well, dreading Monday practice and figuring there would be no pucks and lots of skating. To their surprise, they would be putting their running shoes on and playing pickup basketball rather than practicing. It provided the mental break from a stressful weekend on the road. However, coming back from a great sweep of rival Wisconsin and it was back to work Monday to maintain the momentum. In many ways this would endear Brooks’ players to him and ultimately cultivated trust in him as their coach.
In his endeavour to get “inside” the mind of elite athletes, Coach Woodcroft spoke to many top hockey players to ask them about what they wanted in their coaches. San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski just wants to “hear the truth and a plan for improvement”. Former defenceman Mark Howe spoke about times when things weren’t going well. He felt an encouraging “pat on the back went a lot further than a tongue lashing”. Chris Chelios may have had the best insight in that he wanted his coaches to not always dictate everything that happened on the ice but to “let the skilled players play” - a great piece of advice for all coaches.
It truly doesn’t matter what age group or level you are working with, athlete feedback is a crucial two way communication to keeping on top of your team’s mental space and growing as a coach. Make it part of your regular daily routine to check in with your players and it will pay off in their desire to play their best.
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