Coaching Elite Hockey Players
For coaches who are keen to move “up through the ranks”, there is going to come a day when you have a team of elite or high performance athletes. They are going to be highly skilled, big, strong, mentally tough with lots of hockey sense - all the things you have hoped to have one day in your coaching career. It’s thrilling to coach a group of players like this, and it can be a little daunting. You know as a coach you have to be on your game every day in order to make sure your team is well coached, challenged and handled properly. It is a little intimidating.
But here is an important thing to remember when dealing with elite hockey players - they are just hockey players. By that I mean as coaches, it is a pitfall to assume that the top players in a given age group will be better coached and know more about the game than their less skilled counterparts. In fact, it might be better to assume that elite players are less coached than the typically third line player.
Why is this? Although these are sweeping generalizations, three things often happen:
1) Coaches tend not to do much coaching of their elite players through minor hockey. They let their top players just go out and play and do their thing, even while they are sometimes over-coaching their third line players.
2) Coaches will often overlook and not correct mistakes that their elite players make in the course of a game. Again, this comes back to the “let them play” attitude and coaches certainly don’t want to “stifle” their best players from doing their thing or, heaven forbid, upset them constructive criticism.
3) Elite players, just because they are skilled and have a lot of hockey sense, will be able to get away will doing things incorrectly. A simple example, an elite player will come down the ice on a two on one and chose to go and beat the defenceman one on one rather than play a smart two on one with their teammate. Not a good hockey decision but when they actually beat the defenceman and score, then somehow it becomes OK.
Whether you have a team of elite players, or a few, or just one on your team, you absolutely need to hold them accountable to play inside the parameters of your systems. Here are four reasons why it’s crucial to do this:
1) Your elite players will not become better hockey players if they don’t learn how to play within a system properly. There will undoubtedly come a day as they move up through the hockey ranks where they will have to be able to do that - or maybe not make the team. It is your responsibility to help them be better by holding them accountable.
2) If your best players don’t play within your system parameters then your non-elite players will feel it’s not a mandatory thing as well. As coaches we can’t have what will appear to be a different set of expectations for the top players. This is a slippery slope to losing the trust of your entire team.
3) Conversely, the more your top players buy into your system play the more your entire team will buy into it.
4) Elite players need to be leaders on your team and that includes being leaders on the ice. Good captains follow the coach’s instructions.
So when dealing with your top players, you must:
1) Make sure you are making corrections in practices and games and don’t just “let things go”.
2) Treat all of your players the same and have the same expectations for all. This is especially important with respect to discipline.
3) Don’t be scared to sit an elite player. There are occasions that it is warranted, and explain to them why they are sitting immediately so there is a clear message.
4) You should expect the best from all of your players. This expectation should not lessen because you are dealing with your top players.
Your team will be better when everyone improves. Don’t let up on your top players. Show them how they too can be better and insist on their improvement.