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Coaching Spatial Intelligence and Situational Awareness

By Michael Caples, 12/23/15, 7:30PM MST

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Spatial intelligence and situational awareness: knowing where you are on the ice, being aware of your surroundings, anticipating the play and making your next move.

USA Hockey National Coach-in-Chief Mike MacMillan is currently working with the Hamline University men’s hockey team, a NCAA Division III program in Saint Paul, Minnesota. As an assistant coach, he incorporates drills and exercises necessary to teach spatial intelligence and situational awareness in almost everything he does.

“I coach the defensemen and the goalies, and one of the things we work on probably daily is knowing your area, being aware of the space, seeing it before it comes, those types of things,” MacMillan said. “I think it’s very important for defensemen, if they want to be successful – and all players – to be able to see almost two car lengths ahead. You have a visual awareness, a spatial awareness of your surroundings so that when the puck gets to you, you can make a play.”

Next-Level Hockey Sense

Having a high hockey IQ and on-ice awareness is often what helps elevate players to the next levels.

“Take Jack Eichel as an example,” said MacMillan. “As the game speeds up, why can he survive in the NHL when other players are playing at the same age at a junior level? Part of the reason is that he’s aware of his surroundings. He can see the ice. He can make plays in a very fast, timely manner under pressure.”

Thinking Big in Small Spaces

Building a player’s hockey IQ may be one of the most difficult things for a coach to accomplish, which is why MacMillan stresses the importance of small-area games in practice.

“Small-area games put them in a tight, confined area,” MacMillan said. “The speed and the competitiveness is up, and they’re forced to make decisions a lot quicker than in big open-ice areas. That will accelerate their spatial awareness, especially in goal-scoring areas, in front of the net, defensively and offensively, and making plays out of the corner. Playing game situations at a high level in practice will make players better in understanding their surroundings.”

Studying the Game at Higher Levels

MacMillan encourages his players to study while they’re away from their own team – in a fun way. It’s pretty simple: he wants his guys to watch hockey games at higher levels of play. You never know when you could learn something by watching elite players showcase their knowledge of the game.

“I encourage my defensemen not only to watch game film, but also to watch players at another level,” MacMillan said. “At the pro level, as an example, or world tournament teams, international-level stuff. If they watch that, they get a better understanding of where they belong in those situations on the ice. I think it helps them develop as a player.

“A lot of times people talk about coaches’ kids. Coaches’ kids tend to be more spatially aware, have a better understanding of the game – sometimes, not all the time – because their hockey IQ is so much higher and they’re around the rink more. They’re just more familiar with game situations because they’ve just been around more of it. I think the more players can put themselves around the game – it gives them a better understanding of the game.”

The Right Model

MacMillan believes USA Hockey’s American Development Model is helping a great deal with improving the spatial intelligence and situational awareness for players nationwide.

“From 6 and up, one of the things that we’re doing and where we’re trying to educate the coaches as well, in the coaching program, is using small areas,” MacMillan said. “Using station-based practices puts them in situations where they have to understand time and space and reading and reacting to the different situations that are happening in the game. By being in those small areas, by being in those stations, you’re getting the skill development, but you’re getting it in a more competitive environment earlier.

“The progression to their development, at the base of it, is that competitiveness, that spatial understanding and that term ‘time and space.’ It makes a big difference when you play small-area games. We’re trying to make the kids more competitive in the long-term athlete development process, and by doing that, I think you’re going to see a level of game understanding for all players in the country go up as the ADM progresses.”

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