Coaches need to remember that, first and foremost, we are teachers of the game. We have students. We have a classroom. We have teaching assistants. We have a “school year”. We have a curriculum to get through. We have a certain amount of classes per year, a certain amount of classes per term. We have evaluations. We have field trips. We have presentations, group projects, guest speakers.
Sometimes as coaches we get away from the notion that we are teachers of the game. We think that we need to focus on getting the most out of our players, making sure we have the right line combinations, controlling the every move our players make on the ice, winning hockey games. But really, what it all boils down to is teaching the game of hockey to our players. Making them see why they are being asked to do what they are doing and at the end of the day, understanding more about the game of hockey. My mentor and high school coach Brian Proctor, who was a geography teacher away from the ice, simply wanted his players to be able to sit down in front of Hockey Night in Canada and understand more about the game so that it was more enjoyable to watch. Don’t get me wrong - Proc was a VERY competitive coach who worked hard to get his players playing their best. But he was a teacher of the game. And I would argue that most, if not all, of the top coaches, at any level including the NHL, are first and foremost teachers of the game (think Mike Babcock).
When considering your role as a coach, think in terms of being a high school math teacher. Here are the things that you need to consider to be a great teacher:
1) Map out how you are going to teach the curriculum. In coaching terms, have a season plan. It’s crucial that you have guidelines as to when you are going to teach all of the “units” you have to teach in the season. As in the classroom, things can change and it’s a living document but, you need to go into a season with a blueprint of when curriculum will be delivered. Remembering of course that things need to be taught in a certain order to realize meaningful understanding.
2) Bring a lesson plan to every class. It’s tough to “wing it”. Taking 30 minutes to map out each lesson plan (practice) pays off in spades when it comes to execution. Personally, having coached somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1000 practices, I can wing it REALLY well. But, I know that when I take some time to plan out a practice it is always that much better.
3) There are going to be the odd review classes but, make sure every student learns something new every class. At practice, I want my players coming away with three new things they have learned every time they are at the rink. They may not all learn the same three things but, they will learn something new every day. To hold players accountable for this, I have parents of younger players ask about the three things in the car on the way home and I have older players write those things down in a journal they keep in their locker stalls.
4) Make sure your teaching assistants are helping students individually understand what’s being taught. A TA in a classroom setting will be going around the room during work periods (drills) and making sure students understand the lesson. This is the same for your assistant coaches. They need to be helping players on and off the ice understand what is expected, what was being taught, what the big picture is.
5) Real understanding comes in the form of students learning why things are the way they are, not just the facts. In the math class it’s important that a student doesn’t just know what the formula for the area of a triangle is but why the formula works. Don’t just tell your players where to be on the ice in a certain situation, make them understand why they should be there. This accomplishes two things: a) it will become more instinctual than cognitive and b) they will be able to react and think outside of the box when the flow of the game doesn’t flow exactly the way that it is expected.
6) Write report cards. Feedback and evaluation can be powerful tools to teaching and acquiring proficiency. Let your players know what they are doing well and what they need to work on. If constructive criticism doesn’t necessarily improve their game, at the very least you will be developing their resiliency and coping skills.
Coaches: be a teacher of the game. Approach your season like a school year and prepare daily. Make sure your “students” are learning the game and undoubtedly, they will improve (their marks will go up) and there will be more success at the end of the year. (They may all have better careers too!)
(A further note: I mentioned my mentor and high school coach Brian Proctor. He LOVED hockey. He was the consummate teacher of the game and, just as importantly, he was also a lifelong learner and student of the game. The picture with this post was taken in the summer of 1990 in Minsk, Belarus. At the time, Minsk was deep inside the former Soviet Union - a very foreign place to North Americans in every way. Proc (on the right in the picture), combining his love of hockey with his love of geography, led a group of hockey players from Canada and the U.S. to the Soviet Union to attend hockey school in Lenninggrad, Moscow, Minsk and Tallin. We coached alongside Russian master coaches, taught the game to our players and learned from our Russian counterparts. This was the ultimate “field trip”! I know none of our teenaged players have forgotten what a tremendous experience this was.)