Coaching isn’t all about Xs and Os. It’s not all about line juggling or in-game management. Being an effective coach has a lot to do with communication.
You might understand the game at a very high level, but if you don’t know how to pass that knowledge along to an 8-year-old (or whatever age group you’re coaching), skill development, success and enjoyment are all at risk.
There are a number of lessons every coach can learn to improve communication with his or her players. Two focus areas frequently stand out more than others: praising the process and erasing the generational gap.
Players love to score goals. They’re also much younger than their coaches. But good coaches learn how to ensure that those realities don’t inhibit player development.
Praising the Process
The key points coaches want players to focus on during a game need to be emphasized – and praised – in practice. Teaching kids to be complete hockey players is perhaps the hardest part of coaching. So, when a player shows improvement away from the puck in practice, it’s important they know they’ve done something good. Only celebrating when a goal is scored sends the wrong message.
“As a coach, you set the priorities by what you emphasize,” said Christian Koelling, Minnesota Hockey coach-in-chief. “If you want your players to understand that the game and development is about more than scoring goals, you must reward other positive actions as well. Players should be praised for how they go about the process, not just the end result.”
Understand Your Age Group
Every aspect of the game needs to be developed gradually. The American Development Model’s emphasis on age-specific skill development gives coaches a clear guide to which parts of the game a player should improve and when. Making them aware of those facets of the game during practices helps establish attainable goals. Moreover, players will appreciate the significance of those skills as they emerge.
Winning is fun – and everybody wants to win – but practice is where true development occurs. According to Amber Fryklund, assistant coach at Bemidji State University, finding real-life parallels to teach players about the value of practice shows them why it’s so important.
Doing well on homework prepares a student to do well on a test. Making the right pass in practice or getting better on edges in skating drills puts a player in position to show those new skills off in games. Even when the development is a little slower than expected, a girl or boy who keeps trying deserves plaudits for consistent effort.
“When players feel they are making strides and improving their skills, it keeps them focused,” Fryklund said. “Coaches should have a consistent message of improvement and the big picture, rather than just scoring goals. Coaches should praise improvement, hard work, positive attitudes and effort.”
Keeping players engaged in practice is a major component of development. Both Koelling and Fryklund believed any drill that takes too long to explain or demonstrate isn’t going to have its desired benefits. Explaining and demonstrating drills will always be an important part of practice, but it needs to occupy as little time as possible.
Reaching Players on Their Level
Making a bunch of children understand the value of practice and repetition will always be a challenge, but young girls and boys want approval, and they want validation from their peers and coaches. One of the easiest ways to get young people engaged is, well, just to talk to them.
Learning how to play hockey is a challenging endeavor for even the most gifted player. When it’s not practice time, talk to them about school or their friends. Just make sure they understand you want to see them succeeding away from the rink, as well as on it.
“Show them you care,” Fryklund said. “When they’re learning, it’s a difficult and frustrating time for some kids. Having a positive experience, while improving skills, will lead kids to love the game. Show young players that you can work hard, be serious and have fun at the same time.”
Each age group is different. What’s important to an 8-year-old is not likely as important to a 14-year-old. Get to know them and their interests. Don’t pretend to be somebody you’re not. Just show an interest.
“I think the most important thing for coaches regarding communication with players is to make sure that they connect with each player at each and every practice,” Koelling said. “This can be asking them how they’re doing in school before practice, teaching them on the ice or something as simple as acknowledging when they get to the rink. By connecting with each player every day, the gap narrows, and the players know that you have genuine interest in them.”
Communication helps players understand the goals and the process required to reach them. Every coach has a different voice. Learn what communication techniques work best for you by keeping an eye on your players’ reaction and performance, then make adjustments to create the ideal communication environment for player development.