Coachability and the "1997 Team"
When you coach in one place for a long time you start to refer to your teams by their year. It’s a little easier in a high school setting because the year is also a graduation year for many of your players. This past weekend was the 20th high school reunion of my “1997 team”. And this group of players was, if not THE best “team” I have ever coached, pretty close to the best “team”. I put team in quotations because over the years I have certainly had more talented teams playing at a higher level, but I am not sure I have had a more coachable team than that 1997 team.
Over the course of the weekend we talked a lot of hockey. Every player has fond memories of playing on that team. Almost all of them continue to play in a “beer league” and many are beginning to coach their own kids at hockey and other sports. There is a little bit of grey hair creeping in on many of them but when we chat they all become the 18 year olds that I remember coaching on the ice. What I found extremely interesting is what the players remembered about the season. Almost every player has some story about that made such an impression on them - always different and often something that I simply don’t recall because it was a small sliver of my year as a coach. Sometimes they were on-the-ice stories and sometimes off-the-ice, but all significant to the individual.
The most outstanding thing about this team was their collective coachability. I have written before about how to create more coachability in your athletes and your teams, but this weekend has given me a somewhat different perspective on why it develops in some teams and often doesn’t in others. I am convinced that every key player on that 1997 team was metaphorically playing the game for the name on the front of the jersey rather than the name on the back. They were proud to pull on those sweaters and to play for the school. To them, it truly was a “big deal” to be part of the program and be a member of the team.
I think this is an important piece of the puzzle when coaches are putting their teams together at the start of the year. “Signing” or recruiting players who genuinely want to play for a team will always be better teammates than those players who are worrying about who they will play for next season. I realize in many instances the pool of players is simply not big enough to make decisions based on commitment to a team but, if players are becoming a little self-serving, then there needs to be some discussion about what coachability looks like, how a good teammate contributes to the team and why focusing on the “now” will always be more beneficial than focusing on the “future”.
Here are my five pieces to developing coachability:
1) Talk about coachability to your players and what that means. Talk about what a coachable team looks like. This message can be delivered to all age groups at all levels in an age appropriate way.
2) Share your vision. Make sure your team understands your expectations and where your season plan will take them. Make sure they know their responsibility in the success of the season plan. It doesn't just happen on its own.
3) If you are coaching minor hockey, make sure you have parental buy in. I don't think anything can be more damaging to a team than having parents not supporting what you as a coach are trying to accomplish.
4) Chunk all teaching into bite sized pieces. For example, when teaching offensive zone entry, I start with taking the puck wide, then add a player going hard to the net, then add a player driving the far dot line, finally, add a fourth player coming into the zone late for a drop pass. This all may take two or three weeks to get through but hopefully, the most important bits stick and the tactic is executed with some sort of regularity and competence.
5) Don't settle for "kind of" correct. Insist that players are executing properly. Sometimes players just don't have the skill level to execute some things well all of the time but players need to understand that there are parts of the game that can't just be going out and playing shinny type hockey. Players need to really understand that it is crucial to team success to play as a team.
The three most successful teams I have been involved with (in 29 years of coaching) were also what I would consider the most coachable. Players knew they had a responsibility to their teammates to execute tactics and systems as a team and not as individuals. Instilling that understanding and it will go a long way to team success and the future success of your players. I was lucky with my 1997 team. They came to me already a very coachable group of athletes.