For Mike Lehto, good game management for a head coach starts well before puck drop.
Lehto, USA Hockey’s coach-in-chief for the Rocky Mountain District, said that a prepared coach makes for a good game manager.
“It really starts with the preparation,” Lehto said. “Coaches, they have to know and understand what they’re coaching, whether it’s high-end hockey or club/rec hockey or somewhere in between. Based on the team you’re coaching, and what the composition of the team is, then you have to take that graded approach. My advice in talking to coaches is know the capabilities of your players, know what you’re coaching and be honest with where you’re at.
“We all want to play at a higher level, but sometimes, the kids are just out there to have fun. If it’s that, you have to coach within that game of having fun.”
Knowing the players and the level of play is crucial for a coach to properly manage the next game on the schedule. Are you coaching an 8U team with players more likely to be discussing video games on the bench than the last shift, or are you coaching an 18U team that’s focused on making it to the state tournament?
How you approach the situation will vary greatly depending on those circumstances.
“As I move up the ladder, your 8U, it’s just a game to the kids, so very few corrections, very few adjustments – you might change a kid here or there,” Lehto said. “At 10U, 12U, as you move up, you might be moving players, you might be moving players back to defense, maybe moving a better skater up to a wing, depending on what you’re seeing. Certainly when you get to 16U and 18U, then those adjustments in the game are period-by-period, and a lot of times, at the higher level, we’re making those adjustments every five minutes of a period, maybe every couple of line shifts, just looking at that.”
Keep It Short and Sweet
As Lehto points out, there’s a big difference between coaching a practice and coaching a game. In practice, a coach has the ability to blow his or her whistle immediately to stop play and instruct the players. A game doesn’t lend itself to the same opportunity. Lehto emphasizes that, after having a firm grasp on your individual players’ psyches and tendencies, you keep your messages short and positive with your players regardless of their age.
“Graded approach – know what you’re coaching and what their capabilities and what they’re understanding,” Lehto said. “Everything on the younger level is a positive reinforcement. ‘That was a great play down there.’”
And it’s important to remain positive even at the older levels.
“As you move up through the age brackets, I think it still remains a mostly positive type of reinforcement or critiquing. ‘That was something really good, but maybe you could do this better to break that puck out or to provide us with a better scoring opportunity.’ Short messaging seems to work best – just keywords. I advise coaches to be consistent with their teams. If their messaging is consistent throughout the year, the kids will get it. They will respond to what you’re talking about.”
Long, drawn-out lessons are less effective, and quite honestly, can be boring for a kid.
“You can reinforce that short messaging in the practice sessions. So it’s a short message on the bench, and everybody knows what we’re talking about because we’re on the same page. That’s reinforced in practices. Definitely long conversations, I try to avoid those. Those aren’t productive. We have to be mindful of the situation. The games are competitive; they are stressful for some of the players at best. They don’t need a long dissertation on what they did right or wrong. Just short messaging, short corrections, seem to work best.”
Use Your Entire Coaching Staff
Having the coaching staff on the same page makes in-game coaching and lineup changes much easier.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I think that’s hugely important,” Lehto said. “Why have the coaches there if they don’t have some defined roles and be able to work with the kids and the game? When I’m up top running the bench, I have the assistant coaches taking the forwards and the defense and they’re making little corrections. They have to have a defined role, and I think more importantly, thinking about game management, it’s the conversations with the coaches before you get with the team on what we’re going to do, what team you’re playing, what the capabilities are and what they’re going to be throwing at you. I spend a lot of time with the coaches, days and hours before a game.”
Another crucial aspect of in-game management is how to handle referees. Lehto reminds coaches that players feed off the interactions a head coach has with the striped ones.
“Your team will read and react off of you,” he added. “I watch a lot of hockey when I’m not coaching, and I see coaches out of line with the officials, and the team reacts to that. The team feels like maybe they’re getting shortchanged, getting the short end of the stick, and then penalties happen on penalties. Usually it escalates for a coach. My approach is really to downplay that with the team. If there is a problem with the officials, it can be addressed with the tournament or the league afterward.”
Know Your Players
Nothing is more important to in-game management than understanding your players, however.
“The mental toughness of the players – you have to spend time talking to your players and understand what they are capable of,” Lehto said. “In-game communications – if they’re just not able to handle that because of where they are mentally and developmentally, it’s probably best to defer those conversations [until postgame]. Some teams get right into it, they’re very focused, and mentally tough on the game, then they can handle critique in the game, and if you’ve got a team like that, you certainly ought to be recognizing the types of players you have. I think a lot of coaches come out to coach and they don’t spend the necessary time to do their own preparation and go through some of the things that we teach at USA Hockey with regards to game prep and practice and understanding teams and players.”