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Coaching Philosophy with Penn State's Guy Gadowsky

By Jamie MacDonald, 01/28/16, 11:00AM MST

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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.

Bench Behavior

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.”

Correcting Mistakes

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.”

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One phone call led Johnathan Morrison into a tenured career with the International Paralympic Committee

Long before Johnathan Morrison was the officiating advisory group leader for the International Paralympic Committee, he was a 30-something-year-old trying to find his way on the international circuit. 

Little did Morrison know, a random phone call in October 2005 would change his life. He remembers it like it was yesterday. He had taken a puck to the face a month earlier and was still recovering from a broken cheekbone when Scott Brinkman gave him a ring. 

As the officiating advisory group leader for the International Paralympic Committee at the time, Brinkman was inquiring to see if Morrison had any interest in officiating a three-team sled hockey tournament in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“He called and asked me if I wanted to get involved with the sport,” Morrison recalled. “Honestly, at that time I had never seen a game played. We were having this conversation about getting involved with the sport and he mentioned that there was an event in February 2006 that he wanted to send me to. It was kind of a chance for me to learn the ins and outs of the sport.”

Wait. There was more. 

“He told me if I did good he would send me to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino,” Morrison said. “I had just moved to the Twin Cities and had just started working the WCHA and that would’ve been right in the middle of playoff time. I remember saying to Scott, ‘When exactly will I know if I’m going to go to Torino?’ I asked because I needed to tell my college supervisor that I was going to be gone for the playoffs. He goes, ‘Well, let me rephrase that. Congratulations. You’ve been selected to go to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino.’ I was like, ‘Oh crap. Here we go.’”

All of a sudden Morrison was on a crash course, trying to learn the ropes of sled hockey as fast as possible. He watched a bunch of DVDs to study the game as well as any YouTube clips he could get his hands on. 

Then it was off to Colorado Springs without any sort of in-game experience.  

“I got very lucky because the other individual that they sent to that event in Colorado Springs was a gentleman by the name of Scott McDonald,” Morrison said. “He had been around the sport for a long time and he basically taught me the game.”

While the differences were vast, especially considering Morrison had only ever worked with traditional hockey prior to that event, the biggest difference came down to positioning on the ice. 

“Everything I knew about positioning basically got thrown out the window,” Morrison said. “You have to be on top of the play at all times because the penalties are much more subtle and much more difficult to see. You have a stick that’s only 100 centimeters long, so that hook is really hard to see.”

Besides that, Morrison also learned the hard way that certain plays look a heckuva lot different. 

“A guy using his stick underneath his sled to try to shoot a puck in a motion for someone that hasn’t been around sled hockey looks a lot like he basically threw it with his hand,” Morrison said. “I remember I actually waved off a goal that I thought was put in with his hand and everybody else knew he put it in with his stick.”

That three-team sled hockey tournament, featuring the United States, Canada, and Germany, gave Morrison the confidence he needed heading into the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino.

“I had just worked a bunch of games at a really high level,” Morrison said. “I was seeing the best players, so I felt good. When I actually got to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino it was one of those things where I had to step up and get better every game. There was no choice.”

For Morrison, the first game of the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino was life-changing.

“When I was younger I was hoping to make the NHL (as an official),” Morrison said. “Once I was about 30 years old, I realized that it wasn’t going to happen, so I kind of switched mental gears and said, ‘OK. Let’s go the international route.’ Obviously the brass ring for the international route is the Olympics. That’s what I was pushing for. That’s what I thought I had my best shot at. Then all of a sudden I get this call that I am going to the Paralympics. It took my breath away. I had been working for something like that, and once it happened, all I wanted to do was get ready for it.”

Since then, Morrison has worked three more Paralympic Games (Vancouver, Sochi, and Pyeongchang) on top of handling his current role with the International Paralympic Committee.

In that position, Morrison works with the technical side of the sport, which basically focuses on our rulebooks, as well as the officiating development side of the sport, which essentially is a pathway that finds a way to get the most out of our officials. He also oversees the assigning of certain officials to certain tournaments

“I am looking for officials that have succeeded at some of the highest levels that show a passion for the sport,” Morrison said. “I’d say the passion for the sport is as important, if not more important, than what they have accomplished elsewhere. I don’t want the guy that calls me and is like, ‘Hey. I’m a good linesman. Can I go to the World Championships?’ Sorry. It doesn’t work that way. I want guys that actually love the sport.”

That became a focus based on his experiences with the sport over the better part of the last two decades. He has grown extremely passionate about it, and as the leader of the bunch, he wants every member of his officiating crews to feel the same way. 

“I’ve been in this sport long enough and I know guys that have worked the Calder Cup and worked the Frozen Four that I could introduce them to sport the same way I was introduced and they’d do a good job,” Morrison said. “That said, I want that individual who is so passionate about the sport that they have taken a week out of their summer to come and train with us. I’m looking for someone who is passionate about the sport and I think we’ve done a good job with that so far.”