There’s something about tournament time that tempts many coaches to change their formula. Playoffs and tournaments can be an enticing time to roll with your top players while sitting the others. All of this, of course, is done with the hope that it gives your team a better chance to win. But by shortening the bench in youth hockey, you’re actually shorting the team. Player development suffers and the players’ overall enjoyment is diminished.
Instead of surrendering to the bench-shortening temptation, top coaches recommend believing in your season-long process and the foundation that was set at the beginning of the year.
Playing the Best
At the end of the season, you want to be the best, but at the youth hockey levels, the trophy shouldn’t be more important than player development.
So how do you define “the best” – is it winning a trophy, or is it your entire team reaching it’s full potential?
“The team has managed through highs and lows in the season, with lessons learned along the way,” said Rick Trupp, Alaska District coach-in-chief. “Through that, kids should be playing their best hockey with a lot of success, win or loss, because they reached their goals of improvement every step of the way.”
As a youth hockey coach, the common goal for you and your team should be to grow and progress throughout the season. The true reward isn’t the trophy or the final standings, but in the product on the ice at the end of the year.
“At the end of the season, as a coach, you want to stand on the end of the bench and see players do things they haven’t before,” said Bob Mancini, USA Hockey ADM regional manager for Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Missouri. “You want to see them being successful in situations that they hadn’t succeeded in before. Maybe they’ve improved on individual moves, group play, or maybe it might be just the way they handle the games as a team.
“Come playoff time, if you’ve done the right things all year long with your team, you won’t need to shorten the bench.”
Kids can be nervous and make mistakes because they succumb to increased pressure that often comes with end-of-season tournaments. One way coaches can help prepare kids to shine under the intense light of tournament hockey is by maintaining a high level of intensity during practices, scrimmages and games throughout the season. By preparing your players with intense, fast-paced game action, small-area games and station-based practices all season, you can help them progressively build themselves into tournament-ready competitors.
“Whether it’s overtime, a one-goal game with a pulled goalie, or penalty situations, players should have learned from those opportunities throughout the year so they know about it and know how to keep their composure rather than panic when a championship is on the line,” Trupp said.
Playing as a Team
Hockey is a team sport. Late-season tournaments, championship games and postseason play deserve to be finished as a team.
Especially at the younger levels, let all of your players have the opportunity to thrive in big games. It’s in those situations where a substantial amount of their development occurs. And remember – just because a kid is a fourth-liner now doesn’t mean that he or she will always be a fourth-liner. Give them the opportunity to learn, mature and improve. The results can be surprising, though they might take a few years to materialize.
“You’re compromising that learning just because you’re trying to win, which isn’t fair,” said Trupp. “At the end, you owe it to your players to bring them all along as a team.”
It’s no fun to sit on the bench. That’s not why kids signed up to play this year. Pulling the plug on players late in the season will leave a bad taste in their mouth heading into summer. If they don’t come back next year, that’s a greater loss than any tournament game.