Coaching Female Athletes
Last weekend, I had the real pleasure of helping host a “NAPHA weekend” here at our school. NAPHA is the North American Prep Hockey Association, a league of eight prep school hockey teams located in places like Buffalo and Halifax and everywhere in between. It is a unique league, now in its 12th season, because of geography, but also because it is only for girls.
I was around 12 years ago when we embarked on putting together NAPHA. One of the tough things was to come up with a good name for the league. If memory serves correctly, we started with the “North American Girl's Prep School Hockey League (NAGPSHL)”. But Kalen Ingram, my assistant coach at the time and a captain with the Harvard University hockey team before joining our coaching staff, made the comment that "the boys/men never have "boys" or "men" in the name of their leagues, why should the girls/women? It is not the National Men’s Hockey League!"
The point was well taken and the league became the North American Prep Hockey Association (NAPHA). It even has a good acronym.
A NAPHA weekend is one where all eight teams come together to play four league games all in one place. As I sat watching the second game on Saturday morning, I was in awe of the fact that we had Northwood School from Lake Placid, NY playing King’s-Edgehill School from outside of Halifax, NS in a regular season game. The league is truly unique! And the skill level of the athletes is outstanding – something that gets better every year in the women’s game. And as I sat there, it occurred to me how much I have enjoyed being part of the this side of hockey.
In 2003, I asked our athletic director at our school if I could move from the boys’ program to the girls’. I saw real opportunity to build a program that was special on the girls’ side, and to create an athletic experience that would be meaningful and enriching to the players who came through. I have had an amazingly, enriching coaching experience working with female athletes for the past 14 years and every season ranks as a favourite.
I think there are a number of coaches who believe that coaching women is a whole lot different than coaching men. I disagree. Without question there are differences but, at the core, whether we are coaching male or female athletes, we are coaching young people who care deeply about what they are doing and accomplishing, and how they fit into a team dynamic.
At the risk of stepping into a proverbial minefield, here are some thoughts about those differences and how I approach coaching female athletes:
I have the same expectations. Working hard, competing, being a team, having fun are all elements to coaching any gender in any sport. I have run skills sessions recently with both boys and girls teams and those sessions don’t look any different. Athletes don’t get off the hook or get a pass because of gender. All athletes should always be held to high standards.
I emphasize creativity more. My experience has been that girls tend to want to be coached as to where to be on the ice all of the time. To develop players I try to keep systems to a minimum and often have to say “just go play”.
I insist on competition in practice. If we are playing a small ice 3 on 3 game, I make sure the girls are keeping score. Often female athletes aren’t comfortable with “winning”. I want to make sure it is part of their athletic experience to strive to win and compete.
I make changes to the lineup very carefully. In my experience, even a shift of one player from the third line to the second line can send negative ripples through a team – to the point that the backup goalie can feel like it was her fault that coach made the change to the lines. So, I get a little sneaky. If I want to make a lineup change, I will wait for a penalty situation where there is some line juggling shorthanded in a game. Mistakenly I get my lines mixed up to where I want them and then just go with them for the rest of the game. No one has time to think about it and often by game’s end the players are hoping that I will keep the lines that way because they worked out so well.
I make sure there is some time built in to the team schedule for the players to just hang out and be together. For example, we might have a coach led warm up but, at the end, let the players have 10 minutes before having to be in the dressing room. This can be a crucial time for organic team building and help make a more cohesive dressing room.
I rarely single anyone out in front of the whole team – whether it’s about something good or something bad. If I give individual praise or criticism I will almost always have that conversation away from team settings.
I try to have a one on one moment with every player every time we are together. It may be asking how school went today on their way into the rink or a comment about a great play during practice in the drill line. A little eye contact and the one on one moment is an important part of relationship building between coaches and athletes.
At the end of the day, instilling confidence in our athletes is paramount to success. There may be subtle differences in how we accomplish that with each gender but, confidence building is a key to developing athletes and ultimately preparing young people for life.