Monday, May 19, 2014

Development vs. Competition

Most coaches think of practice time for development and game time for competition. While I do use practice time to develop players' skills, I also spend most of my games for developing players. Players rotate positions, we experiment, we take big risks, we learn. At certain points in the season (in football its playoffs, in hockey its tournaments) we go all in to compete.

Developing Players

Kids needs reps, plain and simple. They learn by trying stuff and failing. So you need to let them fail. A bunch. And then let them fail some more. The more they fail, the better they get. While they are failing, they need fair, firm feedback. My style is to keep both positive and constructive feedback in the same tone. To my players, they are getting facts from me. "Nice hustle", "smart play", "you need to press the puck", "don't let the runner outside" all come from me in the same tone.

As I mentioned, I use games to experiment. I don't strive for perfection. I strive for creating learning experiences. Having QBs learn to time deep passes, hockey players carrying the puck vs. passing, etc. In each case, players need to fail in order to learn their boundaries. Those boundaries become their new bar, they work to surpass that bar, establish new boundaries, and the process repeats itself.


Sports are a fun opportunity for kids to learn how to handle competing. What it means to try your best. What it means to put your best foot forward. How to win with class, and how to lose with grace. As such, I use some part of the season to focus on competing, and yes, trying to win. Playing sports is fun, winning is better.

When I talk to kids about competing, I talk about the possibility of losing and what means. Specifically, I explain to them its ok to try to win and then lose. Just as you don't give up if you drop a ball (you keep trying to catch it), you don't give up if you lose.

One benefit to my approach is that by the time we start competing, I've learned more about my players and their capabilities than opposing coaches have learned about their teams. After all, I've spent more time developing, experimenting, and learning. This puts the kids in a great position to compete and allows the team to put their best foot forward. My best example of this was last year's football playoffs. Our team finished 5th out of 6 teams during the regular season, including getting mercied our last game of the season. In the playoffs, we won all three of our games by more than a touchdown each to win the championship. A season of development followed by a playoff run focused on competing. I'm convinced that one of the reasons we competed so well is that we were "fresh." We hadn't spent all season focused on winning as other teams had. When the playoffs started, we weren't worn out. We were starting fresh and played that way.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Identify and develop leaders

This is relatively new to me, as I've only done it a couple times, and the most time I spent on it was this past hockey season... with great success :) The idea started because I had a really inexperienced hockey team. 8 of our 11 players had never played mite major hockey before (for those not familiar with hockey tiers... it basically means they kinda knew how to skate but never played team hockey before). I sat down with my assistant coach at the beginning of the season, and we put together our season plan. We knew our biggest challenge was to quickly get the inexperienced players up to speed. One of our ideas was having captains. But we also set some parameters: we both had a high bar for performance and behavior on the team, so it would follow that we would have a high bar for someone to don a 'C' or an 'A' on their jersey. They had to earn being a captain. To do so, we laid out the following for the players:
  1. You had to be a model for others to follow. In the locker room, on the ice, during practice, during games, on the bench, at any team function, etc. The bar was simple: if we used a player as a consistent example for others to model, they were eligible for captaincy.
  2. You could lose it. Either of one the coaches could rip that badge of honor off the jersey at any time, at our discretion, for any reason.
  3. This was no trophy-kid award. Our plan wasn't to give every player a chance to wear a captain letter. It truly had to be earned.
It. Worked. Wonders. We actually made two players captains, talked to the team about why, and gave the players models to follow. And follow they did. The previous season we won about half of our games. This past season, with a less experienced and less talented team, we went 27-1-3. I attribute the primary reason to our captains who led the team, set a great example, and the players that followed them. For the captains, they developed their leadership skills. One example: at one practice prior to the season, one of the to-be-captains playfully slashed the other to-be-captain (dressed in goalie gear) in the leg pad. Not a big deal, it was meant in fun between two players that had played together for three years. But it set a bad example in the respect and sportsmanship department to players who had never played with a goalie on the ice. So we talked about setting priorities between having fun and being a leader. It was the player's choice what they wanted to do. We rotated captains once two-thirds of the way into the season. And we identified alternate captains throughout the season as others showed leadership qualities. Feedback from parents was that this was a good move. They liked having their kids have role models and show that hard work pays off. I have been reticent in instituting this in my current flag football season. After a blowout loss last weekend, I am correcting that oversight this coming Sunday.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Opportunties, standards, and accountability

This is a complex topic. Giving kids opportunity, holding them to high standards, and holding them accountable all create a healthy tension. It is our jobs as coaches to use this tension to help develop kids and the team.
Every pro was once a beginner.
I have high expectations of each player on my teams. But they are reasonable expectations based on the player's interest, ability, and potential. I have to get to know my players as individuals in order to put a reasonable bar that is just beyond their current reach. And that's where this conversation starts: have high - but reasonable - expectations for your players. For some reason in hockey, the coaches seem to think that 7-8 year olds should be able to do everything the pros do. Clearly such expectations are unreasonable. They are also too complex (do you really think a kid is going to understand every detail a pro does?). So recognize that there is a development curve with all players. And players will move along that curve over time. You just don't know when or where. This is truly the motivator behind my policy of equal playing time. You just don't know when you're going to see someone step up and deliver.
I remember the championship game my second year of coaching football. The previous year we went to the championship game and got blown out 28-0. So we were back, more experienced, and playing a different team for the title. We had some awesome offensive players, but the other team and coach were stronger on defense. Late in the game, we were down 12-6, and we had struggled to move the ball consistently all game. One of the players on our team was playing his first year in football and really is only football experience ever. Soccer was his game, but it was clear he had not "grown up" watching/playing football. Well, he was on offense, and even in championship games we believe in giving everyone a chance. Sure enough, he took the rock to the house on a 25 yard scamper to give us the go ahead score and winning the league title.
I have examples almost every game I've ever coached where a kid just surprises you with a great performance or raising their own back. Don't deny kids those opportunities and experiences! High expectations apply across a number of areas, including player behavior. I set high expectations for players respecting their teammates, listening to their coaches, and trying their best. I also set a minimal set of behavior standards for which there are consequences (usually talking to their parents) if they aren't met. My players know that crossing the line isn't tolerated. Having high standards means you need to let players know when they are or aren't meeting those standards (and if they meet your standards, you need to set a new bar for them!). At a USA Hockey coaches training session, one of the presenters gave the best short description of this: "Kids need and expect fair, firm feedback." Of course you need to be positive and tactful when coaching kids... but you need to coach them. I'm always surprised when coaches don't actually take the time to teach kids what they need to do to improve.