Are You Coaching with Too Many X's and O's?
I had the great fortune to work as an assistant coach with Stan Butler, current coach of the North Bay Battalion. We worked together in the early 90’s with a Junior A team in the Toronto Area. At the time, I was a young coach who “knew everything”. It wasn’t until I coached with Stan that I came to realize that there was a lot more to coaching than X’s and O’s, and that season was my first real look at what true coaching was.
There are a number of things that Coach Butler passed on to me that season but one of the things that came to mind this past week was a discussion we had about system play. He said “Rick, we aren’t going to do anything different than anyone else BUT, we are going to do it better than anyone else!” To me, that spoke to skill development and making sure you did things correctly. If the team had a set power play breakout to execute, they had to be executing it properly.
So clearly, there was a lot of time devoted to skill development that season. There were ten players who went on to play NCAA Division 1 hockey from that team and two very good OHL players - so it was not a team you would normally think would need a lot of skill development. But in hindsight, maybe the reason each player had such a good playing career after graduating the program was because of the focus on skill development. And, I believe that running simple systems extremely well contributed to the individual and team success that we had.
Further, I am a firm believer that the system play that we employ as coaches should help develop our player’s skill level and improve individual tactics. For example, I always implement a strict man on man defensive zone coverage at the start of every season - regardless of age and level. First and foremost, it forces players to learn how to effectively play a one on one in the zone against the puck carrier. Second, it forces players to learn how to cover an opposing player when they don’t have the puck. And third, it forces players to be able to cover a player and, at the same time, read and react to any breakdowns that needs support. All of these skills/individual tactics are essential to play any kind of defensive zone coverage system (box plus one, etc.) so forcing players to learn these skills through system play is essential for individual skill development.
Another example would be on the forecheck. I use what I call the 1-2-3 forecheck. The numbers don’t refer to the number of players but the first, second and third player across the opposing blue line. Each player has a job to do and each job develops good individual skill and tactics. The first player (1) has to pressure the puck carrier and try to get separate the player from the puck developing read and react, angling and checking skills. The second player (2) has to get the puck. This forechecker has to read and react in order to gain possession. That read might be picking up the puck on the separation in the strong corner, it might be going to the winger on the strong side boards, it might be going to a D to D pass to the weak side corner - ultimately become the number 1 on a “second” forecheck. The third player into the zone (3) simply stays high - some safety coverage for a quick breakout to prevent a 3v2 rush or, a perfect scoring spot on a turnover in the slot. All three positions (1, 2, 3) will develop skills and tactical play while also reinforcing the read and react mental skills that our players often have difficulty grasping.
Keeping system play simple and with development in mind helps at practice as well. Coaches will use less time teaching system play on the ice and have more time for skill development. Consequently, there will be more skill development happening while practicing system play if the systems are designed with development in mind. For instance, practicing man on man defensive zone coverage will ultimately develop the skills of all of your players. Practicing a 1-2-3 type forecheck will certainly develop your player’s read and react mindset.
Additionally, simple system play will allow players to do more “creating” and not have to do so much thinking. There is nothing worse than players being confused as to where they are supposed to be on the ice at a given moment because they can’t remember which one of four neutral zone forechecks the team is implementing in this particular game (of even period). I would prefer my players reading and reacting to an opposing regroup within a framework of a system rather than trying to remember where they are supposed to be if the puck is passed D to D twice on a hinge.
I have learned over the years that for the most part, the most skilled team is going to win at the end of the season. As a coach, our responsibility is to grow that skill level as much as we can with our teams each year.