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Overcoming obstacles and building positive club culture

By Michael Rand, 09/26/16, 3:00PM MDT


When Ben Frank went to a symposium five years ago on USA Hockey’s American Development Model approach to youth hockey, he had what he calls a “life-altering” experience.

Everything about the message being delivered resonated and made him want to change the way he was running his youth teams in Southern California’s Wildcats Hockey Club.

So Frank, a former college hockey player, scrapped his traditional approach in which he had his 10U and 12U players doing many of the same drills he used to do. Instead, in the middle of the season, he implemented the types of practices encouraged by the ADM.

He was thrilled – but he also met some resistance.

“I had to spend a lot of time justifying it,” said Frank. “My parent group didn’t understand what I was doing.”

In the process, he learned a valuable lesson:

When trying to build a strong culture within a team and eventually an entire club – from top to bottom, everyone from coaches to rink managers to volunteers – it’s not just about having good ideas. You must also create a consistent way to deliver that message.

“You need to get everyone on the same page and understand different stakeholders have different reasons. Getting them on board is number one because if you don’t, you’ll have problems,” he said. “If everyone can agree on the goal and their role in supporting that role, that’s when you succeed.”

As the president of Wildcats Hockey Club these days, Frank spends a lot of time thinking about how to communicate those messages. Here are some of his best tips for creating a cohesive club:

Two-way communication is key

Frank says starting conversations about the vision for the club might be uncomfortable at times, but it’s critical to bring it to different stakeholders to make sure they understand the mission.

“What I’d say is the most important thing is going to be communication – two-way communication,” he said. “Getting people to have conversations around what the vision is, and what the end goal is. That conversation is going to be different for each role.”

That last part is an important distinction because while the mission should be unified, the way each stakeholder can help might be different.

“Let’s say the culture is that you want to move toward the ADM, age-appropriate programming. There are reasons for different roles and how they would support them is different,” Frank said.

For example:

“I go to my rink owners and talk about why we should be ADM rinks.”

“If I’m talking to the coaching staff, it’s about player development, becoming a better team.”

“If I’m talking to parents, I talk about their kids in the long term, years from now, doing the right things now.”

“With board members, it’s a conversation more around the bigger picture of what they want to stand for and bring to the community.”

The ‘why,’ not just the ‘what’

If you’re trying to implement a system, it’s particularly important to emphasize the method – lest it sound like madness to those who have become familiar or comfortable with other designs.

“Things like the ADM that are all positive, based on research and sports science, we know it’s right,” Frank said. “But if someone doesn’t understand it and why it’s important, you might get an argument.”

Explaining the method helps avoid pushback in the long run and gets everyone back on the same page if things start to veer off course.

“Everyone is excited and then someone gets caught up in the middle of the season with wanting to work systems to win a particular game,” Frank added. “We come back to what we agree to. It’s not about the weekend, it’s about the long-term … It’s easy to be focused on coaching your team, but in my opinion it’s a very important leadership position. We have a responsibility to those kids to do the right thing.”

Know your audience

Frank was asked if it’s more difficult to sell the development model to coaches, parents and kids at younger levels since there is a perception of delayed gratification when the goal is long-term success instead of short-term gains.

But he says it’s easier to deliver the message to those newer to the club – whereas those who have played in other systems might need more convincing.

“For a new parent who is newer to club or travel hockey (without preconceived ideas), it makes sense to them that their 8-year-old should have fun and have an age-appropriate hockey experience, as long as you’re clear and up front right away. Some of the people that have been part of a different culture for years already, it can be harder to change their mind,” Frank said. “It’s so important to know your audience. With an 8U group, it might be a different message than for an older group.”

If you can pull it off, though, the payoff is huge in Frank’s eyes.

“The ADM completely changed our club culture with retention and enjoyment and growth,” he said. “For me and the staff, everyone feels great about what they do every day.

“It’s easy to get stuck in the old culture, but when you redefine the decision about what’s best for athletes long-term and not just trying to win games now, we know that’s going to help us win down the road and develop better players.”

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USA Hockey: What is the biggest change made to the registration requirements for this season?

Matt Leaf: With more and more seminars transitioning to a virtual format, the Referees-in-Chief (RIC) have determined that there really is no need for the closed book exams. So, level 2, 3 and 4 officials this season will no longer be required to submit a closed book (or modified online closed book exam) upon completion of the seminar requirement. Instead, the open book exams have been expanded to 75 questions for level 2 and 100 questions each for level 3 and level 4.

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USAH: Are there any other changes to the exam process

ML: The only other change to the exams deal with those who do not pass the original exam. Level 2, 3 and 4 officials will now be able to complete their retake exam 24 hours after failing their original exam. Level 1 officials will still need to wait seven days as we want them to slow down and take some time reviewing the rules so they can gain a better understanding and improve their chances for success on the ice.

USAH: What changes, if any, have been made to the seminars? Are all officials still required to attend a seminar each season?

ML: Yes, except for Tenured Officials, all officials are required to attend a seminar for the level that they apply for each season. So, a Level 1 official must attend a Level 1 seminar, Level 2 attends a Level 2 and then Level 3 and 4 seminars will be combined as one seminar in many cases.

Level 1 officials are strongly encouraged to attend a seminar in their own area and most areas will mainly conduct in-person Level 1 seminars. Although there will be some hybrid Level 1 seminars with both a virtual and in-person component, the key here is that every Level 1 official is required to attend a Level 1 seminar ice session. This may require some additional coordination of scheduling for these new officials, but the reality is this on-ice practice is so critical to any future success they may have on the ice that the RICs feel it is critical that the ice session is part of their educational experience.

Level 2 seminars will also include an on-ice component that Level 2 officials need to be aware of when they plan their seminar attendance. The vast majority of Level 3 and Level 4 seminars will be virtual and officials are encouraged to attend a seminar at a date and time that is convenient for them.

USAH: Have there been any changes to the curriculum for the various levels?

ML: The curriculum for each level was standardized prior to last season and is something that will continue to be updated on an annual basis. The specific presentations, along with the video examples, have all been developed in a manner that provides valuable information specific to each level with new presentations and updated video examples being used to keep things fresh and relevant. In addition, the seminar curriculum has been coordinated with the online modules to minimize duplication and to diversify the required education for each level.

USAH: How about SafeSport and Screening – any changes to those requirements?

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ML: A significant part of the discussions that took place with the RICs focused on the importance mentoring plays in the success and, ultimately, the retention of brand-new officials. USA Hockey loses 50% of our new officials every season and improving that retention rate by just 15% will result in 1,000 additional experienced officials joining our ranks each year. We need to do a better job of bringing new officials into the fold and then supporting them in ways that sets them up for a successful and rewarding experience. The RICs feel strongly the best way to positively impact this issue is through mentoring.

Experienced officials should expect to receive information later this summer that outlines expectations of a formal Mentor Program and asking them to volunteer their time and expertise to become involved as a mentor. Once we have established a pool of officials that are willing to contribute in this way to the next generation of officials, they will be assigned a group of new officials they can reach out to and guide them through the registration process, seminar attendance, assistance in completing the open book exam and reaching out to prospective assignors when the time has come they are ready to work games. Once they have stepped on the ice, that mentor can continue to be a valuable resource for the new official and provide the necessary support needed to be successful. We will also be encouraging local clubs, assignors and officials’ groups to implement Shadow Programs that will complement the Mentor Program and positively enhance the officials’ experience even more.

With everyone working together towards a common goal, USA Hockey can become a leader in addressing the officiating crisis while providing a positive experience to our next generation of officials.

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