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Bill Beaney on Small Area Games, Chaos & the Keys to Discovery

By USA Hockey, 05/01/20, 10:45AM MDT


Youth hockey coaching tips from one of the most successful coaches in college hockey history.

Bill Beaney is one of the most successful coaches in college hockey history. The Lake Placid, N.Y. native is the NCAA career leader in Division III men’s hockey wins with a record of 602-260-59. He led Middlebury to eight national championships, including five consecutive from 1995-99, before retiring in 2015.

During his title reign, 80-85 percent of Middlebury’s practices consisted of small-area games.

If he was coaching youth hockey today, how much of his practices would he dedicate to small-area games?

“About 98 percent,” said Beaney. “I say that because I believe in it, because I’m confident that we can help those players discover how to play with some guidance. Our goal is to help guide them to making these decisions. 

“The other part of it is, it just develops such a love for the game.”

Beaney, alongside USA Hockey ADM Regional Manager Roger Grillo, recently addressed coaches as part of the USA Hockey’s Webinar Series, sponsored by Pure Hockey and BioSteel. 

You can watch his full presentation here. 

Here are some of the key takeaways for youth hockey coaches.

Early Resistance to Small-Area Games

Beaney’s players at Middlebury College weren’t immediately receptive to small-area games.

“There was some initial pushback by the team when we first started doing it in the early 90s, but as time went on, I think the players took it as a source of pride that hey, you know what, we’re not getting drilled to the point that we’re getting bored. He’s giving us an opportunity to discover. He’s talking to us, collaborating with us and helping us learn what we have to do by creating these kinds of opportunities. It makes the players resilient, self-reliant.”

Playing for U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Coach Charlie Holt

“We were on a seven or eight-game winning streak. We went into a game and ended up losing. The next day in the newspaper they asked Charlie, ‘It looked like your team was playing a different system today, can you tell me about it?’ His comment was, ‘Well, we did. We changed the system. We knew that the last one worked, but we figured we’d try something new and maybe it would work a little bit better.’ That statement made it very empowering as a coach not to be afraid to try new things along the way.

“The other memory from Coach Holt was he’d go through a practice plan or game prep and go over our responsibilities and just before we’d walk out that door he’d say, ‘Remember, you heard what I said, but the bottom line is, just go out and play hockey.’ Those are two very empowering statements for me that have helped guide me as a coach.”

Holding Players Accountable vs. Taking Confidence Away

“You as a coach have to develop relationships with your players. For some players, the best thing to do is to hold them accountable. For other players, the best thing to do is to encourage them to go out and make more mistakes. Try to make plays, fail, but continually learn how to fail better. I think some of the other players that you may want to hold accountable, I think you have to have some semblance of order, but you can’t take the creativity away from them. The more opportunity that we give kids to try to stickhandle by somebody, to try to make a play they might’ve seen on TV, the better they’re going to be because they’re going to be able to handle those situations when it’s a real game.”

Jazz on Ice

Beaney says conflict and compromise is what happens on the ice, just like in jazz. 

“It’s how the players learn to listen to each other, to recognize what is the play to make, how to support a puck, where to go, how to move to the most advantageous position. I think that happens when the coach gives players those opportunities in practice to make those decisions.

“You might come back the next night [to a jazz concert] and they’re playing the same song, and it’s going to be a little bit different because they’re going to play off each other a little bit differently. There are players within that group that are taking over in short periods of time and isn’t that what happens in hockey? Some players will take over, but then the rest of the players have to be able to complement. 

“We can get to that place if we can create those almost chaotic situations in practice and let players discover how they can work together and play off each other.”

Coaching Goaltenders with Small Games

Beaney was one of the first coaches to paint more creases in their rinks because of the amount of small-area games used in practice.

“We put creases in initially because our goalies came to me when we were playing so much cross-ice or half-ice. They wanted to be able to use the crease to mark where they were in the net so they could help in their own teaching of where to be in the crease depending on where the puck is. It gave a lot more credence to the games. It made it much more realistic...Use your creases on the sides, use your creases full-ice, don’t be afraid to spray paint another crease.”

Figure it Out

A frequent slogan at Middlebury under Beaney’s tenure: “Figure it out.” 

“I think the key is to figure out which [small-area games] work for the age level that you have. Which of these games are going to have the greatest impact on them? Do they make your kids curious? Or are they discouraging them because they aren’t successful? 

“I think it’s important to not give them the answer, but to give them the clues and to help them figure it out...Use small-area play where kids end up discovering the answers. Ask questions to help them solve problems.”

Positionless Hockey

Beaney was one of the first coaches to enact a form of positionless hockey: a 2-3 shape with two forwards and three backs. The two forwards would change together and the three backs would change together.

“Initially real difficult for them to understand...The forwards up front learned to hunt in pairs, work in pairs. Then ultimately what it did was it morphed into basically positionless hockey, because everybody felt very confident they could play the other person’s position. It was all formulated on creating a shape, learning how to support a puck whether you were pressuring it or possessing it, and how to also at that time maintain balance.

“For some people, it might be speaking a foreign language. What we tried to do was break the game down in its simplest form rather than putting numbers to positions. We try to get players to recognize space and how to deal with all those variables.”

Bill Beaney Webinar

Thick Skin with Small Games

“I wouldn’t get discouraged when using these games. I would have a thick skin if you have parents that are saying ‘You’re not teaching my son or daughter anything — they’re just out here playing games. We want instruction.’ Hopefully you’ll be confident enough to talk about how this in fact is the best kind of instruction. That’s a big, big piece of it.”

Playing on the Edge of Chaos

“The more chaotic you can make your practices look, the better — the more learning is going on. If the practices are scripted there’s an awful lot less learning going on and a lot less enthusiasm on the part of the players.”

“We’re getting players to play on the edge of chaos. What’s chaos? It’s a lot of movement and decisions that have to be made from that movement.”

For more expert insight, watch the legendary Bill Beaney’s entire presentation in this episode of the USA Hockey Webinar Series, sponsored by Pure Hockey and BioSteel:

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