So, the puck has dropped. Now what? Once a game or scrimmage begins, much of everything said beforehand is left to chance. The ebb and flow of action is largely left to players on the ice, some more talented than others, and the question of what coaches can do to make order out of chaos confronts every one of them.
USA Hockey sat down with Guy Gadowsky, the head coach at Penn State University and 2014-15 Big Ten Coach of the Year, to discuss his in-game coaching strategies and philosophies.
Gadowsky says a good place to start is with a coach’s behavior on the bench.
"You can't expect your bench to be organized and calm and focused if you're running up and down, yelling at refs and throwing water bottles," says Gadowsky. "I really think that, with the way you act, a byproduct is the demeanor your team is going to have. I think that's very important.”
Read and React
While Gadowsky’s players are among a sliver of the most talented players in North America, much of his philosophy on in-game management is relevant at any age. He admits it’s not always an easy job, either, and it’s one that favors art over science. Often, it favors getting out of the way.
“Keep in mind, you’re in a development level,” says Gadowsky, who also learned a great deal from NHL head coach Ken Hitchcock when “Hitch” made himself a regular at Princeton University practices during the lockout. “I'm in a development level. It's extremely important to remember, for example, if you’re a peewee coach. One of the things I like to see is coaches who allow their players to play and aren’t constantly yelling directions at them. It’s part of development. This is a read-and-react game, not a listen-and-do game.”
Beware of Over-Coaching
In Gadowsky’s estimation, a coach can fiddle too much in the pursuit of success.
“A lot of coaches think that their role is to try to move the pieces on a chess board, to yell, ‘Pass to Johnny! Stand here! Shoot it! Dump it in! Chip it!’” he added. “I think they're really taking away the opportunity to develop players mentally, and I think they have to keep in mind that they’re in a development level. If you continually yell directions at your players, you are really stealing that opportunity for growth. And I hope that it’s one thing that they would remember.”
Mistakes happen on the ice, and sometimes those mistakes warrant a conversation about correcting them. It may be making a cross-ice pass deep in your own zone, or choosing to shoot instead of pass, or making one too many passes, or even something as simple as playing unsportsmanlike hockey.
“It depends on where you are in the game,” Gadowsky says of timing when to step in to affect change. “I think it can be very effective, but there are times it depends on what’s going on in the game. I think it's like a puppy: The sooner you can catch someone in the act, I think it helps.”
Focus on Your Delivery
Perhaps more important than when a coach steps in is how he or she steps in. Course correction can come in many forms, and that delivery can be more about the player than the coach.
“When you yell directions at a young boy or girl, you can't assume they think like you,” Gadowsky says. “And it depends on the issue and depends on your ability to make it positive for everybody. That's the key.”
Maintain a Creative Environment
Stealing a young player’s creativity is one of the wrongs USA Hockey is trying to right through initiatives such as the American Development Model. Gadowsky is behind the initiative and the small-area games at their core.
“One-hundred percent,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of drills that incorporate creativity as well as small-area games do – for the mental development and the decision-making development, but, also, when you’re having a lot of fun, you develop better.”
Shaking Things Up
Player development can also flourish when players are grinding their way through what might otherwise be considered a situation where many coaches feel it’s time to shake things up – such as talking to a team when it’s on the wrong end of a blowout.
“Coaching isn't black and white,” says Gadowsky. “Coaching is having a really good feel. And, maybe in that instance, if you happen to think it has something to do with effort, I think you handle that situation much different than you would if it’s the result of facing a hot goaltender. Every situation is different and I think that’s what makes a really good coach, one who can read situations well and come up with a very appropriate plan or a decision to stay the course.”
What about turning the tide on a long losing streak for an 8- or 10-year-old team?
“When you talk about the importance of wins and losses at that age, I just don't believe in that so much,” Gadowsky says. “I mean, it's fun to win and you always do your best, but if a coach is confident in his ability to develop individuals and develop a team, they keep in mind to stay focused on the process or stay on task. Just because you might lose a few games in a row, you don't all of a sudden get overly frantic, or say, ‘This time, something didn’t work,’ or that we’re going to skate wallies for two hours for practice.”
The Intermission Speech
What about a raucous, paint-peeling locker room speech between periods of a game? What’s the key to that trick of the trade?
“Timing,” Gadowsky says. “And it can’t be the same thing every time. It’s timing. You hear about these epic speeches, but in hockey, you have three periods and a whole lot of games, and I don’t think you can be epic every time.”
In other words, coaching isn’t a series of if-then propositions where a long losing streak calls for skating “wallies” and a two-goal deficit calls for an epic locker room speech. There is nuance in Gadowsky’s approach. Like the players themselves, games are not one-size-fits-all affairs, and the effort to generate more positive momentum or turn things around varies.
“It's something we try to work at all the time, and it’s challenging,” he says. “I'd be lying if I told you I think I have a good handle on it. It's something I struggle with and continue to work on each week, how to deal with individuals.”