Enough can’t be said for seeking out different perspectives and new ideas. I often encourage coaches to read books and articles about coaching. Whether it is from your sport or not, there is always something that makes you think outside of the box when you read about sports. Some of the books that have made a difference in my coaching hockey are about rowing, basketball, football - even business. I will often put a hockey lens on whatever I might be reading at the time. (Easy right now as I am in the middle of Ken Dryden’s terrific book Game Change.)
When I was in high school, I was put in charge of a committee that was to examine our sports awards program. Those that played on Varsity teams were awarded a “colour” and over the years, each sport had kind of adopted its own criteria for awarding “colours”. It was the committee’s task to streamline and create a set of criteria that would be relevant to all the sports - team and individual - that we had at the school. When I was putting together the committee, I consulted with the principal as to what I should be looking for in committee members. Of course we had some students, the head of the physical education department, the football coach, etc. Principal Sadlier then suggested I ask the head of the art department to join the committee. I am sure the look on my teenaged face threw him a little and he quickly added, “I think you will be surprised at the insight someone from the arts will bring to your discussion.” Of course, Mr. Sadlier was absolutely correct and since, I have always respected and sought out the counsel of the poet, the writer, the artist and the musician. I have never been disappointed by soliciting the perspective outside the realm of athletics.
This summer, I managed to get 15 minutes to chat with world renowned sports photographer Dave Holland. We met in Calgary while we were both working at the National Women’s Development and U18 Teams August camp. There was some down time between games and I explained to Dave my situation: I had four video cameras to set up in the rink but, I had to leave them running for the entire game while I was busy marking the streaming video into our editing system. I asked him “where would you put the cameras if you were me to get the best footage?” His answer about camera positions (which was excellent by the way) wasn’t as important as his message. He simply said to me “take risks”.
Now, without sounding too “new age-y”, the message was simple, to the point and all encompassing - not only for shooting video, but coaching hockey and frankly, living a meaningful life.
To the hockey part:
“Risk” is one of the three words from my summer travels that I have written in big letters in the notebook that I carry with me (I will talk about the other two in the next few weeks in this space). And although I have talked about doing things differently as a coach in many posts over the years, I am going to come back to it as I believe, for many reasons, taking some risk as a coach is crucial to team success.
As coaches, it’s too easy to do things the way we always do them. And, do them in a way that no one will wonder what the heck you are doing - and then get you fired or have someone organize a team mutiny. It’s safe to play zone defence, to always have a high man in the slot, to only change when the puck is in the offensive zone, and to only play your second string goalie against the weakest teams in the league. These things are easy, safe, non-threatening, familiar - no one will criticize you for that.
The notion of “risk” reminds me of a great quote from poet Erin Hanson:
“There is freedom waiting for you, On the breezes of the sky, And you ask "What if I fall?" Oh but my darling, What if you fly?”
(See what you can learn from artists?)
I am going to take risks with my team this year. And with those risks comes the possibility of some failure but more importantly, the possibility of HUGE reward. In many ways we are going to redefine the season planning curriculum this year. We are going to take risks in the way we approach the game, the way we teach the game and the way our players look at the game.
Here is an example of how we are going to redefine. I am a big believer in trying to take as many X’s and O’s out of the game as possible. Only then can we let players truly be creative and be able to “figure it out” when it comes to “read and react”. As such, I am going to have a 30 second conversation at the beginning of the season with regards to our defensive play before we spend the next two months on finding ways to boost our offensive output. That 30 seconds will begin “when we don’t have the puck we are playing man on man all over the ice”. Then, “don’t let YOUR man score!” (so, theoretically, the opposition will never score if everyone does their job).
That’s it! That’s all for defensive zone coverage. Radical? Yup. A risk? Absolutely. Possibility of failure? Of course. Opportunity for HUGE reward? Without question!
When I watch the NHL, I see coaches and teams take small risks. New power play breakouts, penalty kill in zone play, the latest “trap”. If it works, the entire league copies and steals. And as they say, everything trickles down from the NHL to the rest of hockey as we all get busy copying and stealing.
This season, why not think about doing something different. Take a risk. Think outside the box. Have some fun.