The Mind Game

I was always thankful that my office in Maine had a couch, and not just for the post morning practice naps. The only thing that should have changed on the door was the title from Head Coach to Head Psycho Therapist.

In recent weeks, I have several conversations and seen some face book posts about the job of a “Hockey Coach”. From the outside it looks like the greatest job ever. Dealing with hockey, the greatest game ever, 24/7/365. Almost like one of those old ESPN commercials with mascots hanging around, your house made of ice and your kids born with skates on.

The reality of the situation for coaches at the college level – especially Head Coaches, is that hockey is only a small fraction of your job. There is the paper work for budgeting, the administrative meetings, recruiting and most of all, trying to manage not only your staff and family life, but also 20-25 young women who all have different needs.

My favourite line to hear form players (and sometimes upset parents) is

“The Coach is just playing mind games with me.”

Bottom line is, after teaching individual skills, tactical play and scouting reports all that is left is the mind game. As a coach you are always searching for ways to get the most out of your players. Is it the pat on the back or the kick in the pants. And each one of those needs to be used differently with each different player at different points in the season or different points within a game. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That is the true test of a coach or as I call the, the team’s head psychologist.

The great coaches know when to push the right button for each player at the right time, but it is deeper than that. It takes time as a coach to figure players out, how they respond to not only what you say, but how you say. The thing as a coach that you can’t control (which is the hardest part for us who like to try to have as much control of the things you can control) is how the message is heard or reacted to.

This is the mind game. Can I convince Suzy that she is better than she is to get more out of her during the game, but then next week can I let Suzy know where she fits into the program and she will be out of the line up. Yes, it is a mind game and the coaches have to play it with everyone on their roster to try to get the most out of their team everyday at practice, every game, every shift and in every situation. The hard part is getting the players to accept the rules of these mind games. They want it to only work when it benefits them or when it all of the sudden helps them, but when it doesn’t work, then the coach is the problem. The mind game needs two willing combatants to be it’s most effective.

At the end of the day, coaches want every player to succeed and be a part of the game and team. All players want to succeed but sometimes have trouble looking past what is going on for them and not realizing the coach has 20+ more of you that they need to deal with and get the most out of.
Any aspiring coaches that read this, take as many Psychology courses and you can, you WILL need them as a coach. Also try to understand how tough a job your coach has to manage the needs of each individual on your team and in the organization as a whole. Understand the coach has to play “mind games” with you in order to help you perform at your highest level – that is coaching.

See you at the rink,
Coach Dan

The “I” in team: The Original

Here is what I was working on when the tragedy in Kansas City happened:

I am admittedly old school when it come to hockey for the most part having grown up in the Herb Brooks Miracle on Ice era. Work so hard in practice that is makes the games easy. Teams are not supposed to be democracies, the terms are dictated by the coach and I guess to a point back then, we just did what we were told and if we complained to our parents, they told us to shut our mouths and listen to the coach.

I am not sure when times became more complicated and everything became a “What’s in it for me” attitude, but as a coach I see more and more everyday – and surprisingly, or not, with my son’s team of 8-year-olds.

Let me set the stage for you. I took on a team of kids who made this rep hockey team because they showed up at the tryout. This is the third level team in the age group and only a couple of kids on had tried out for the level above and were cut. We have a few kids that didn’t skate all summer, 1 that didn’t even play hockey last year and the rest were house league kids which many of them had very poor skating skills.

In the 3 months since we have be together, we have mainly focused on skating – I have spent nearly 30-45 minutes of every practice working on their skating, in fact, this week (the last week of November) is the first time we worked on any breakout or 5 man team system in practice.

The kids have improved and it is a great, albeit sometimes loud, group of 8-year-old boys who are greatly entertained by any mention of a bodily function. This group has not once picked on a teammate for not being good enough, nor have they ever blamed our goalie for letting in a soft one. Our staff in general likes to refer to the team as the players from the land of misfit hockey players.

However, I have one situation that I have found very troubling. Again, being old school, I tend to build from the back out. We had a goalie(one, he has only missed once being sick and we had to press someone else into goalie duty for a game on short notice), so day 1 of practice I looked at who could be my defensemen. Either who had more of a stay at home mindset balanced with kids who were our strongest skaters. Remember that even old school hockey had Bobby Orr, so I am all for a kid having the freedom to jump in the rush, as long as they start to learn when to go and when not to. All part of teaching.

Well, I have one defenseman that believes it is a punishment to play D. This player also, is arguably the best D on the team and a kid whose skill set right now could lead him to become a decent hockey player. Here is where times have changed. The father emailed me after a close loss saying that I should really think about moving his son to forward, that could really help our team. Mind you, I have been doing this for 20+ years and the family has been involved in hockey for less than 3. I replied very nicely that I felt his sons skill set was best suited for that position at this stage, we will be moving kids around, but I want them to have a full understanding of what they are doing in the position they are in before making moves. It will only make them better at their next position if they have a full understanding of their job at this position. I then sat down with the family and discussed the situation so we were all on the same page. Problem solved, right?

This week, the kid had a great practice and was rewarded with our Practice Player Award. The next morning I get a message saying how excited he was to get the award, but wasn’t sure why I don’t like him, because if I did, I would have him play forward. In the games on the weekend, the kid played pretty well the first day, but in game 2, it seemed like he played the game like he was trying to prove that he could be a forward all the while make the game very difficult for the other 4 on the ice to do their jobs.

Now I like to think I try to put kids in the best situations for not only their personal development, but also for WHAT IS BEST FOR THE TEAM. I could not imagine asking a coach during my youth “Can I play this?” We played where the coach told us to go. I started as a forward, was moved to D, then to wing, then to centre, played D on the power play and penalty kill when needed. Never asked, was told. The only conversation I ever remember having about positions was the first year we had a spring league in our town. This was not an all-star spring league, but just the players in my community. All the kids from the different level teams in the age group were split up onto the different teams. The coaches made a decision that the top forwards from our highest level team would play D for the spring. Since my dad was helping coach, he asked my input, we talked about it, and it was one of the best things for my development as a player. Also, I was 12, not 8.

The hardest part of coaching is managing what is best for each player within the concept of what is best for the team. Sometimes we have to make a sacrifice that is not in our own best interest, but makes sense for all 16 of us. I am not sure why there are more and more parents that don’t understand that learning to do your part, do what is needed instead of wanted and looking at the interest of 16 people rather than 1 is such a problem and why multiple conversations need to be had over the same subject.

Coaching this age and this level, I truly don’t care if we win or lose. I want us to compete hard, do our best and learn something each time on the ice. Most importantly at this level of hockey is the other things you learn, being a good teammate, learning how to give you best, even learning the skill of sitting still and listening. It is not always ADD, sitting still and listening is a skill that can be learned. Is it harder for some than others, absolutely.

Of course this is not the only time that I have come across a selfish player(parent), but I am astounded that I am seeing it in a player so young and inexperienced.

So for you players out there, the only thing coaches are out to get is the best out of their team and you as an individual. Sometimes those two things do not move in the same direction at the same time. For you parents (now or later), remember that the coach needs your support away from the rink. If there is an issue, talk about it, but try to understand the coaches point of view and 99.9% of us are not there to make a child miserable, but to try to get 16 kids to learn to work together and do the jobs necessary for success.

See you at the rink,
Coach Dan

Slump Busting: Less Is more

It is inevitable that at some point during the season you will find yourself or your team embedded in a slump. We’ve all been there. Whether you can’t find the back of the net, stop a beachball, or seem to be on the never ending quest to find the elusive W, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

The simple answer: Less Is More. There is a natural reaction from players and coaches that when the slump strikes, we have to do more to get out of it. This strategy may put added pressure on you as individual or your team. The best way to beat the slump (other than the sacrifice of a live rooster) is to simplify the game and get back to making sure you are taking care of the little things.

When players try to do more than their part, they can take their teammates out of the game and in fact make the game harder for everyone. It is not the responsibility of one player to end a slump, but each player does need to take responsibility in their game and do the little things right. All of this starts in your own zone where one goal against can mean the difference between 2 points or hanging your head at the final buzzer. Making sure you get back and make solid defensive plays may keep a goal off the board for your opponents meaning you have one less to get in the other end to win. Also, making the sacrifice in your own end often times leads to an opportunity for a linemate in the other.

Sacrifices not only have to be made in your end, but in the offensive zone as well. A good drive to the net to push a D back on the rush to create space for a trailer, a finished check in the corner to loosen a puck for a teammate or having the determination to win a puck battle in front of their net can all mean the difference between making the playoffs and a quiet bus ride home.

Some other areas where less can be more and make a big difference in your game are taking notice of your shift length and changes. You may think you are helping by trying to make that one more play, but then your good 50 second shift turns into a tired 100 second with a turnover at the blueline, a slow backcheck or poor change, and BLAMO – the red light above your net is one, leaving one more that your team needs to catch up.

The final piece of the puzzle in slump busting is looking in the mirror and reflecting on what you can control. Did I prepare myself to perform at my best? Am I going to let little mistakes bother me? What attitude am I going to take into the game, each shift and after something bad happens? You can only control your effort and your attitude. You may have to step up at times, but no one player needs to do it by themselves all the time. Players need to elevate their commitment to the basics which will in turn elevate their game and the game of those around them.

For coaches, this is time to reinforce playing the game the right way. Your team is what it is at this point in the season, so now you need to enhance what your team does well and help them shore up the weaknesses. A full out overhaul of the way you play the game is too late. Teams can sometimes be successful without complete buy in to the system and each other, but not during a slump. Every little piece will can magnified, and usually when the chips are down, we magnify the negative tenfold. Find and celebrate the positives. During a slump it will take buy-in from all of your players to get on the winning side. Try not to overcoach and players need to try to not to be the coach. If everyone trusts that everyone else will do their jobs, then a team can pull out of a slump together. Just like when you are winning it is seldom because of one individual, but the sum of all of the parts working in perfect harmony together.

Just like Santa, the Hockey Gods know when you’ve been bad or good, so don’t try to cheat the game. Doing the right thing, no matter how small and simple it may seem will get the Hockey Gods on your side and before you know it, you will be riding high down the stretch and heading into the playoffs feeling like a team that can’t be beat.

Remember to take some time during the Holiday Season to get your mind off of hockey and focus on your friends and family. It will make you that much more excited when it is time to get back to the rink and back to work for the 2nd half sprint.

See you at the rink,
Coach Dan