Relatively speaking, the women’s ice hockey program at Merrimack College is still in its infancy, having just completed its fourth season as a NCAA-affiliated school in Hockey East.
However, Erin Hamlen, the Warriors’ head coach, is definitely no newbie to the profession, having served behind the bench for various teams since the turn of the century. She was the head coach at the University of New England and for the Boston Blades, an assistant at her alma mater, the University of New Hampshire, for over a decade, and had several stints at the national level for USA Hockey.
Hamlen shared her thoughts on a variety of issues facing youth hockey coaches.
Q: What should youth coaches consider if they are trying to build a positive, successful culture?
A: For coaches, from youth to the college level, the biggest thing is communication. Most athletes these days don’t know what they don’t know. They need information shown to them.
If an athlete doesn’t understand why they aren’t put into a starting role, on a certain line, on the ice in the last two minutes, there tends to be guessing about where they stand. Coaches have the ability to clarify for athletes, even young athletes, where they fit in a program. If you openly communicate with them throughout the process and give them the ability to learn and ask questions, it builds a trusting, positive relationship.
Q: Is there a “best practice” for coaches to communicate with athletes?
A: It’s tough because there are so many different personalities on a team and everyone receives communication in different ways. It’s good for coaches to address a group when talking about expectations for those in the program and those around it and keep that positive. But individual communication is a big piece. It’s important to allow athletes to express how they are feeling. They want to be heard. They may not be where the coach is at that moment so it’s a good opportunity to get on the same page.
Q: What are the keys to having a cohesive coaching staff?
A: As with the players, communication is key. It’s important to understand each other’s expectations. Whether there’s a head coach and two to three assistants or a staff of one or two, you all have to be on the same page whenever you walk out of a room.
For a head coach, it’s important to make sure that not only are the roles clear but that every coach has a visible role in the program. If the head coach has a dominating personality that may not allow the assistants an opportunity to speak, it will be hard for them to get respect from the players. Players need to hear different voices. Sometimes an assistant is better equipped to convey something to a player than a head coach.
Delegating responsibilities is also important – giving coaches clear roles builds trust within a staff. You should have ongoing discussions about pros and cons, how things are going, reassess processes and approaches. We’re always doing that within our program and think it’s something every coach should do – continuously looking to get better.
Q: You were a very successful goalie. What advice do you have for developing young goaltenders?
A: In developing young goaltenders, look to really create athletes. Over-specialization is a big deal. Goalies can have extra training to hone their own craft. But it’s important to play different sports, be athletic and work on things that aren’t just physical like glove saves, but also things that help with anticipation of the play and how a goalie sees the game. If you work with goalies on this at a younger age it can lead to a more knowledgeable player. Young goalies sometimes find it hard to get out of the crease, so get them out of the net and have them skate with the rest of the team. This will help them be a more successful, talented and confident skater.
With younger goalies, it’s good to try to work on the vocal part of the game as well. Weave communication into practices, so they can practice communicating with defensemen, like on breakouts, in transition. Get them into scenarios where they need to talk to teammates. Be sure that early in the season you establish what the common language will be – phrases like “wheel” (taking the puck around the net), “D to D” and others – so they know how to communicate with teammates.
Q: What would you like to see youth hockey coaches focus on more to better serve and develop players?
A: Every program is a bit different. But generally I would say the skill piece has been lost over time in team practices. I know it’s challenging with the number of hours the coach has to work with their athletes, so it’s easier to go into systems and say ‘this is what we need to do when we play in two days.’ But, I’d love to see youth coaches build a plan around skill development. Take 15 minutes each practice and work on a skill piece, or a split session with forwards and defense separated working on a skill. This will translate into a better player and a better team, ultimately.
Passing is an area I’d emphasize – we work on this skill at the college level every day – it’s critical at all levels to continue to work on this during a season.
Q: Do you use small-area games at the college level? And how important are they for youth development?
A: Yes, we try to use small-area games every day in some way. Youth coaches could end practice this way or it could be an entire practice of small-area games. Athletes learn by figuring things out. Sometimes the best way to learn is when they have to create on their own. Small-area games help players understand spacing, how do I get myself open and in position, how do I use my voice, etc. And in small area games things happen quickly. There are more touches of the puck and more shooting opportunities as well.
Q: Is early specialization a problem in youth sports today? Would you recommend players try multiple sports and/or take a break from the rink?
A: Yes, it’s a problem. There are players that, when you get close to recruiting age, are asked to play in tournaments that may go all summer. It may be the only sport they end up playing. You don’t always end up with the same athlete you would if they had another sport to balance things out.
The college season is so long that even our athletes are excited to take a break or try something new. They play intramurals, softball, volleyball. It gets them in a different world for a while and a new perspective on things. And yes, kids need to take a break from all sports at some point and just be a kid for a while. That gets lost at times, with thinking they always have to move forward to make themselves “elite.” It can be a lot of hockey. There’s a time to step away and go swimming or go to the lake, so when you come back it’s fresh and you’re really interested in what you’re doing.