I have never played or coached football but I would expect that as a coach, “in game” decision are more important than almost any other sport. Baseball would be a close second with managers calling steals, bunts, hit and runs and often pitches from the dugout.
As hockey coaches, we all strive to be good “bench coaches”. In many ways, running the bench is one of the most fun things to do as a coach. We look forward to games and the excitement of being part of competition. We relish the pre-game talk and getting our players ready to go out and play their best.
Here are nine traits of great hockey benches:
1) All staff members know what their roles are. Who is opening and closing doors? Who is calling the forward lines and the defence pairs? Who is giving feedback at both ends of the bench? All of these responsibilities need to be defined before a team’s first game.
2) Players always know who’s up next. I try to call my next line up about 10 to 15 seconds into a shift. Sometimes though, it gets a little late into a shift and players start to wonder who is up. I make sure players are OK with asking me who’s up next if it’s getting late into a shift. Often, I am trying to figure out who the other team is sending out before I call a line but, this is the classic time for a Too Many Men on the ice penalty. Keep players in the know as soon as possible.
As an aside, I will often say “Dave’s line is up on the fly only.” That means that if there is a whistle, I don’t want them to go until I say “Let’s go!” I want to be able to see what line goes out for the opposing team before I commit my players to go to. Even if I am not matching lines I like players to get in the habit of waiting when there is a whistle.
3) Everyone on the bench is focused and alert. Nothing bothers me more than players not getting out on the ice on time. Good changes are crucial to team success. Those who are opening and closing doors need to be alert and focused on who is coming off and players need to be aware of the player they are replacing on the ice. Not being aware always contributes to confusion and often chaos. One of the worst times for losing focus is when there is a breakaway - either way. Everyone gets so fixated on the play that they forget to get on the ice when a player has come to the bench.
4) Coaches are game aware. It’s important that coaches are very aware of what is going on in the game. Some NHL coaches are known for never taking their eyes of the ice. Coaches should know who’s up for the opposition, whether they are trying to match lines, who they are using on special teams - not to mention watching both system play and opposing players for ways to exploit weaknesses.
5) Coaches write things down. Good coaches always have a “game card” that they write their lines on, who they are using on special teams, who is on the ice for crucial faceoffs, some scouting on the other opposition, etc. These are all things that, in the heat of battle, when so much is going on, can slip a coaches mind and needs to be referenced quickly. The game card can also serve as a place to write down some post game observations and evaluation that can be referenced later - especially before the next game against that opponent.
6) Players are sitting down. I know this can be a tough one with young players and some bench set ups where players can’t see over the boards. But, there is huge energy saving to having players sitting on the bench. Once players are old enough, I actually will have a “jumping over the boards” practice so that players can get off the bench quicker. I show players how to jump effectively and often, after a few tries, they get the hang of it very quickly. This allows for players to change from the middle of the bench rather than through the door all of the time as well.
7) There are no distractions. Yelling at referees, “chirping” the other team, injured players being treated on the bench, players upset with each other, parents too close to the bench and empty water bottles are all distractions. Keep the distractions to a minimum. It will make a huge difference in both player and coach focus levels.
8) Coaches are always positive. Players feel and play better when they are being praised rather than being berated. That’s not to say that sometimes you have to get angry with your team but, for the most part, players will respond much better to compliments and pats on the back than worrying about every mistake they make on the ice.
9) Short shifts. These are 30-45 seconds in length. Period. Players simply can’t go full speed for any longer than that. Short shifts keeps players fresh, focused, engaged and “into it!” Long shifts create strife on the bench - for everyone. Coaches need to be constantly reminding players to not stay out too long and if some reinforcement needs to be done, then some players can sit on the bench if they don’t get the message.
Good bench management turns into more success on the scoreboard and in game results. It doesn’t come naturally and coaches need to be constantly working on improving the bench with their team during the season.
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