Minnesota State University women’s hockey head coach John Harrington has been guiding his team through a rebuild. The process requires patience from coaches and players, along with a proper balance of priorities. At the college level, the final score matters, but so does the players’ long-term development. At the youth level, the balance shifts entirely to skill development. But winning and skill development doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Harrington, a member of the gold medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, shared his thoughts on blending development and winning as a coach.
USA Hockey: How can youth coaches develop better hockey players without worrying about the final score?
John Harrington: It’s a competitive world. It’s hard to do that. You have to have a lot of confidence in what you’re doing. I think it’s important that coaches emphasize to players, ‘here’s what we’re trying to do in the next game, here’s what we’re trying to accomplish and the things we want to work on.’ After the game, you have to make sure you say, ‘OK, let’s see how we did. These are the things we talked about before the game. How did we do?’ That way, the game becomes about the skillful things and the conceptual things in the game, and less about the final score. If they learn how to do that, it’s a win. And certainly even just the effort is important. ‘Here’s the kind of effort we need, did we have that?’ Kids must also be learning the important things about the energy they put into the game, and then how they play the game skillfully, and how they play the game conceptually, or how they think the game.
USA Hockey: How do you think a youth hockey coach should deal with mistakes and failures on the ice during this process?
Harrington: Sometimes players respond to those differently. Language is important. Saying “I saw what you were trying to do ‘and,’ instead of saying the word ‘but’ when it comes to saying what they did wrong is helpful. Avoid the “but you should have done this.” It’s much more effective to say, “You did this and this and this, ‘and’ I think the next time you should try this,” so it becomes something where you’re adding to what they did well instead of negating and handling it in a negative way. You just negated everything when you said, “But this is what you should have done.”
USA Hockey: So all kids are different, but in general, they don’t respond well to always being told what they did wrong?
Harrington: Youth players will handle things differently – for some, it’s part of the game and you play on, for others it affects them negatively. You have to be able to see what kind of players they are when you have young players and you have to coach accordingly.
USA Hockey: Do coaches really have to let their players fail on the ice? Let them learn from their own mistakes?
Harrington: Yes, that’s a big thing, too. There has to be an understanding that mistakes are part of the game. I heard one person say once that the team that makes the most mistakes invariably ends up wining, because they’re trying to make plays and do good things. They’re not playing a real conservative game. I think it’s important to emphasize the idea that players have to play on, the game goes on, and it’s what you do next that matters when something doesn’t go right for you. That’s the most important thing. How did you keep playing and negate whatever went wrong? Or did you quit playing, did you sag because something went wrong and then that caused something else (bad) to happen?
USA Hockey: How do you recommend preaching patience and trusting the process to parents?
Harrington: That is certainly something that must be explained and understood before you start. For a coach, it takes a lot of courage to say “hey, this is how we’re going to handle these things, and when that happens, this is how I’m going to coach.” Parents should probably know that when this coach takes over, they’re going to coach that way. It’s important to have an early conversation with parents and let them know that this is how it’s going to be because I’m concerned about the long-term development of these players, and not necessarily the immediate success, like whether they’re going to win the 10U tournament this particular weekend. We’re trying to be successful, but the more important thing is the long-term development of the players.