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Always be learning

By Matt Cunningham, Manager, USA Hockey Coaching Education Program, 02/28/17, 3:45PM MST


If you've seen or read "Glengarry Glen Ross," you know the classic line with which Alec Baldwin's character scolds his band of weary salesman.

"Always be closing."

In sports and youth development (and life in general), we can adapt this to "always be learning."

Living in Colorado Springs presents some unique opportunities for sharing ideas and best practices with other national governing bodies. During a recent three-day experience with USA Volleyball, I was fortunate to learn about our many similarities, some obvious differences, and also how some coaching best practices are universal. Here are my key takeaways for coaching development:

Find your ‘why’

A common theme during the three days was developing your philosophy and the importance of staying true to your values. Why are you coaching? Is it to win or to teach young people valuable sport and life skills that will benefit them in both the short- and long-term?

Along these lines, a common theme was planning in a variety of areas. For example, how do you define your goals as a coach and teacher of the game, especially as it relates to both your team as a whole and each individual, unique athlete? To take this to another level, how do these components fit into the overall development of your guiding principles, which include team rules, choosing captains, designing playing systems and overall skill development?

Different skills, common themes

One afternoon, a group of coaches were presented a challenge that measured much more than the ability to teach a specific volleyball skill. Coaches were divided into small groups with each group assigned a skill, such as serving, blocking or back-row defense.

With my limited knowledge of volleyball, I was nonetheless overwhelmed by the parallels to be found in coaching hockey. 

Blocked vs. Random

While each group was leading the class, two instructors led an ongoing dialogue that transitioned from individual skill development to team systems and communicating with your athletes.

One emerging theme was finding the balance between blocked and random practice. As a hockey coach, one of my initial thoughts was that volleyball players must spend significant time in blocked scenarios, considering the agility, coordination and strength required to perform a serve for example. One of the instructors made a valid point that, while players need plenty of time to develop fundamentals, they ultimately need to be placed in game-like scenarios to develop their game sense.

Furthermore, a coach presented a challenge to his peers; one that's valid for any coach in any sport. How can you add an additional component, skill element or progression to an individual exercise? 


We all have our favored words or terms for common parts of the game. The key is finding common language with your team or club. During my time with USA Volleyball, succinct is a word that came to my mind often. Coaches were encouraged to use direct words that convey the exact desired outcome. For example, instead of instructing “I'd like you to …” or “I want you to …” use simple language such as “Do this.” This should be followed by the "Why."

Consistent coaching cues – feet to the ball, jump, load, open, close – gave me a better understanding of skills and concepts in a fairly limited amount of time. Beyond coaching cues, the group discussed striking the delicate balance between providing valuable feedback and giving players the latitude to figure some things out on their own through trial and error.

If you can’t pass, why are you working on an offensive system?

Are we talking volleyball? Basketball? Hockey? All of the above and more?

Another consistent theme that resonated is the need to focus on individual skill development and the progression from blocked to random, and challenges with finding the balance. What you're coaching is chaos and young athletes who can think, anticipate and adapt will have better chances for success regardless of the sport. Discussions centered on age-appropriate equipment (the Volley Lite), separating starters and substitutes at too early of an age and the need for athletes to play all positions.

Perhaps my favorite takeaway comes from the life skills and intangibles that young people gain through youth sports. While they'll remember some wins and losses, the team-building and fun activities that we, as coaches, can design will stick with them for years to come. 

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COVID-19 and the 2020-21 Season

By Matt Leaf 04/02/2020, 11:30am MDT

Even with almost 50 years of involvement in hockey, you can’t plan for the current state of the world and the impact coronavirus has had on our game. I think it is safe to say that nothing prepares you for the changes that have taken place in our daily lives and the uncertainty of when things might return to normal. Or in this case, what will become the new “normal.”

Our expertise is hockey, so what we’ll address in this piece: the impact of the global pandemic on our game and how likely it will affect our game in the immediate future. 

USA Hockey continues to post information on COVID-19 on the main website. These updates keep our membership informed of specific programs and the changing safety recommendations that will be in place when hockey returns. Be sure to check back regularly for updates and other hockey information.

On the officiating front, much of what we are able to do from a program standpoint is connected to player events like national tournaments and player development camps. As you know, the national tournaments (along with the March, April and May IIHF World Championship events) were cancelled. The Officiating Program then canceled our two instructor training programs that were planned for late April and early May in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Colorado Springs, Colo. 

At this time, details for any potential summer development camps are still being determined. On the player side, several camps we are connected to were cancelled, and the few camps that are still in planning have been dramatically downsized. The Officiating Program continues to monitor the decisions made for players and will take advantage of any opportunity we have to salvage our summer camp program and maximize participation.

The good news is, we are confident we will have a 2020-21 season. All indications show no reason to delay registration. It will open as scheduled on or around May 26, followed by the open book exams and online seminar curriculum on June 1. 

SafeSport Training (required for anyone born in the year 2003 or earlier) and background screening (learn about the new national level screening program in the Q & A section) will also be available to complete at that time. If COVID-19 still has things slowed down in early June, it would be an ideal time to get these requirements completed.

The biggest unknown will be the timing in which we will be able to conduct seminars. The vast majority of rinks are currently closed, and many of them took this opportunity to remove ice to save operating costs and do maintenance. There is now doubt they will be prepared to quickly ramp up once they are allowed to do so, but as with most everything right now, the timing is uncertain. As a result, some of the earlier seminars may be pushed back a few weeks. The District Referees-in-Chief will secure ice times and facilities so we can provide seminar dates and locations as quickly as possible. We are also encouraging our instructors to think outside the box by providing some weeknight seminar options, and to look at other ways to best meet the needs of our members.

The Advanced Officiating Symposium, scheduled for Providence, R.I. in late July, is still going to plan. We will continue to monitor the situation, including local restrictions and travel advisories in the coming weeks, and we will announce any changes in advance to allow for alterations to travel arrangements. Click here for up-to-date information or to reserve your seat at the 2020 Advanced Officiating Symposium.

These are difficult times for everyone, and although our hockey family is important to us, it is a small fraction of the big picture that is impacting our daily lives. To quote Andy Dufresne in his letter for Red that he left under the big oak tree in The Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. We hope the coronavirus is conquered with minimal loss of lives and a return to a prosperous normal as soon as possible. We hope your passion for the game of hockey will only grow as a result of its absence. We hope we are back on the ice in the coming months and that the 2020-21 season will be our best yet.

Thank you for your continued support of USA Hockey and don’t hesitate to contact us if there is anything we can do to make your hockey experience a better one. In the meantime, stay safe, stay healthy and be prepared to be back on the ice soon.

Q&A: What Young Players Can Learn From Watching Games

By Tom Robinson 04/08/2020, 8:45am MDT

Director of youth hockey Kenny Rausch on what can be learned while watching

USA Hockey Announces National Background Screening Program

By USA Hockey 04/02/2020, 12:00pm MDT

In order to comply with new requirements from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC), USA Hockey will be implementing a national level background screening program. This program will replace all USAH Affiliate coordinated background screen programs.

Why must officials be screened?
Per USA Hockey and USOPC policy, all coaches, officials, board members, employees, volunteers, billets and anyone else who will have regular contact with, or authority over, minor athletes are required to submit a background screen before any contact with minor athletes.

Who is required to be screened?
Officials who are 18 years-old (or older) prior to June 1 of the current year.

Any official, 18 years-old (or older) without a completed valid background screen (national or USAH Affiliate coordinated) after April 1, 2019.

All national background screens are valid for two seasons, and starting on June 1, 2020 a national background screen must be completed and in good standing before receiving an officiating card and crest.

What are the timelines for launching the national background screen program?
Beginning on April 1, 2020, background screening will be conducted by our national background screen vendor, National Center for Safety Initiatives (NCSI), and information on background screening will be included following your registration.

As of March 22, 2020, applicants will no longer be able to submit new USA Hockey background screens through USAH Affiliate vendors, and will not be able to submit new screens through NCSI until April 1, 2020.

If you were screened after April 1, 2019 for the 2019-20 season, your screen is valid for the 2020-21 season, and you will not need to be screened under the new system until prior to the 2021-22 season. If your most recent screen is from prior to April 1, 2019, you will need to be screened under the new system, after April 1, 2020, in order to participate in the upcoming season.

All new screens submitted through the new NCSI national screening program after April 1, 2020 will be valid for two seasons.  For example, a screen submitted and approved on April 15, 2020 will be valid through the end of the 2021-22 season, which is August 31, 2022.

How can members complete their required background screen?
A link to submit for screening will be included in your membership registration confirmation email and posted in the drop-down menu under the OFFICIALS tab at

Background screens through NCSI under the national program will cost $30 for all domestic screens. For international screens (members who have lived outside of the U.S. for six consecutive months in any one county during the past 7 years) the flat rate fee is $150. If that country is solely Canada, the flat rate fee is $75.

Where can members go with questions about the national background screen program?
Please refer to the USA Hockey Background Screen webpage at