Hockey is the fastest, most exciting and fun game in the world, but even the top players and coaches can get stale in the middle of the season – even U.S. Olympic Coach Dan Bylsma. How does he keep his team fresh during the dog days of winter?
USA Hockey sat down with the Penguins head coach to find out.
USA Hockey: How important is it to keep practices fresh for youth hockey players?
Dan Bylsma: I think in practice, a balance needs to be struck from foundation skill drills that your players are accustomed to and can build on. Also, it’s important to incorporate drills and games that can keep it fresh, fun and competitive while still working on skill aspects and individual and team development.
USA Hockey: What about your players? Even with paid professionals, do you try to incorporate different drills to keep them engaged, energized and even have some fun in the middle of the season?
Dan Bylsma: Without a question. We use small-area games to engage the players in competitions within certain aspects of the team, whether it’s defending, whether it’s attacking offensively in areas, whether it’s creating odd-man rushes in small areas.
We have several games that we do have fun with and give back to our players.
USA Hockey: Do small-area games and station-based practices help you accomplish that?
Dan Bylsma: Absolutely. We have a game “Defend Away from the Puck” that we play in the neutral zone. We have an odd-man rush game – 3-on-2 and 4-on-3 – that continually leads to small-area attacks. They force the players to play in tight and also defend. They help us with both the defending aspect and offensive aspects for our team. It helps us to get some power-play concepts and to get some offensive concepts. It’s a competition. It’s a game. They love playing it, but it does accomplish aspects of our game we want to instill into our team.
USA Hockey: Do you or your players have a favorite drill(s)?
Dan Bylsma: “Activator.” It’s where you have to give and go with the activator to score a goal after you turn the puck over. “Defend Away from the Puck” is a game we play often. The 4-on-3 and 3-on-2 games in half-ice. These are all drills and games we like to play here.
USA Hockey: Some parents/coaches don’t see the point in small-area games or station-based practices. What’s your message to them?
Dan Bylsma: Smarten up. They’re great to engage five or six players at a time. There are more touches on the puck. They put players in small-area defending situations and in attacking situations. Give and go’s are incorporated into many of these drills. These are important aspects of developing players, player skills and team concepts.
USA Hockey: Do you think these drills/games are more productive for players?
Dan Bylsma: I think you can accomplish a lot in small-area games and station-based practices in terms of skill development. More touches on the puck and repetition that you don’t get in maybe a 1-to-5-ratio drill that you only get one or two reps from in the course of the drill. There are certain foundation drills that are important, but you can get a lot more touches and repetitions on the puck in these situations by having them in small areas and station-based practices.
USA Hockey: It’s important for coaches to have a season-long plan, but do they need to stick with that plan word for word? Or should they make adjustments to their practice plans based on player development and enjoyment?
Dan Bylsma: I think it’s very important to have foundation drills – drills that players are acquainted with and know. You can add onto those drills to add onto the skill level and the different aspects of the team and skill development. It’s important to interject some life and freshness and other drills into your team, be it competitions and small-area games to help with energy levels and freshness of the players.
USA Hockey: Can it be tough for coaches to stay energized and fresh throughout the season, too? What are some things you like to do on or off the ice to avoid “going through the motions”?
Dan Bylsma: Yes, it can be. I think coaches can easily come to practice as a second job. Having energy level and freshness throughout the season can be tough. I think competitions, team competitions, player competitions and games are all things that add to the enjoyment versus just going through the same drills throughout the winter time.