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USA Hockey Delivers Successful Coaching Plan For All Levels

By Ross Forman, 09/05/21, 10:30AM CDT


The elements of good, solid, successful coaching start from 8U to 18U and every stop on the hockey bench. From the West Meadows Ice Arena in suburban Rolling Meadows to the rinks on the west coast or others near the rolling hills of Kentucky, coaching carries many keys that push the good to be great and the great to be exceptional.

Being an average coach, anchored around old-school ways or practices, literally and figuratively, just doesn’t pass anymore.

Coaches can and should be successful, everywhere – and that certainly includes the leaders of teams in Illinois.

The season is upon us, finally, and the spotlight is certainly shining on our coaches, among others. The pandemic has been a slapshot to the stomach for everyone, but soon the games will be played, again, finally.

Players can’t wait.

Parents can’t wait.

And yes, coaches too can’t wait.

“Coaches have a huge impact on players; it’s our job to set them up to be successful and really have a great experience at the level they are at,” said Dan Jablonic of USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program (CEP). “Coaches come from all different backgrounds, industries, etc. Some coaches have never played but are great teachers, great educators. Others have played at the highest level.”

The USA Hockey CEP is the Uber that takes all coaches to the same approach for the game. Coaches can and will fine-tune the CEP Elements for Success, more specifically, the five core elements of great practices. They are: Make It Fun; Make It Challenging; High Puck Touches; Constant Decision-Making; and Simulates a Game.

Of course, the team’s age-range has an impact on the five elements, but not overly.

For instance, at the 8U level, coaches must be aware of how they are teaching the kids. In fact, they truly must be aware of how they are talking to the kids. Is the language, for instance, age-appropriate? Some language and words should be reserved for higher-level teams, always.

USA Hockey’s CEP has revamped its plan and presentation for coaches over the past few years, to really stress how they can deliver a world-class experience for players, all players, through coaching.

“Everything we do as coaches, everything we say as coaches … we always need to think, ‘How can we do it better, to make it a better experience for the players?’” Jablonic said.

“There is, of course, the technical and tactical side of the game, including strategy. That certainly is very important to coaching – and coaches always should look at things and ask, ‘Will this further help set up our players to be successful, through every stage of development, not just when they start in 6U, but up through every level.’”

There is, of course, a solid ladder of development for players – and coaches must always pay attention to help players get a better footing on the way to the top of the ladder.

Coaches also must make sure tips, instruction, guidance and more hit home – or the concept will fall, be lost.

A player’s attention-span must be considered. Everyone knows, or should know, teaching detailed game plans are drastically different for an 8U and an 18U.

Coaches also must make sure the teaching points of play are understood. Do the players truly understand the approach or are they just shaking their head in agreement so as to not be yelled at or laughed at by teammates for asking questions in confusion?

It is key to give explanations through demonstrations, and then observing and analyzing.

“Filling up a player’s toolbox with skills that can be beneficial at different times,” Jablonic said.

Athlete development is never a one-way procedure. Players learn throughout the season. Some catch a concept in a 10-minute drill in practice. Some need 10 games to understand the teaching.

To that, coaches should find out how their players need to be challenged.

The challenge must also stand alongside the fun aspect and, as Jablonic noted, “What we’re teaching has to look like today’s game. That’s important. We can’t rely on old techniques from 20 years ago.”

The days of basic, boring, simple drills from days long ago should stay in that long-gone era. “We have to put players in challenging activities that are going to look like the game, and when they excel at those, it usually leads to a player having fun.”

Yep, having fun and making things a challenge can, and should, go hand in hand.

Take, for instance, Hockey Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis, a former Stanley Cup and Hart Trophy winner, who has transitioned into coaching youth, at various age-levels, for his sons. He’s repeatedly shared his insight on hockey, specifically, coaching through webinars and more for USA Hockey.

Coaches don’t have to have that elite-level hockey resume to be successful on the bench.

The CEP is for everyone – at every level, on every team, in every state.

“The game is a math equation, and the problems, er, teams and players are always changing. We have to solve for that; that’s the key to coaching,” Jablonic said. “You can’t just have a drill book and whistle. What exactly are you doing to get the most out of your players every time they step on the ice? That’s what great coaches do, where they shine.

“The best coaches really teach; they improve their team so players are going to want to learn,” he said.

Several of the key elements that are paramount to coaching include safety, fair play, respect through USA Hockey’s Declaration of Player Safety.

“Safety is always first, that goes without saying. We want coaches to let the environment teach the drill or concept. Allow your players to inhabit the game environment in practice so when they get to the game it is familiar to them,” said AHAI’s Coach-in-Chief, Jim Clare. “This new curriculum is all about “player-centered” practices, it’s not about the coach. I know as a coach I want “coachable” players, well my hope is that our Illinois coaches are coachable as well. We need to be constantly learning our craft because the kids deserve it.”

Coaches, much like players, must continually learn – from strategy to techniques to drills, and beyond. USA Hockey offers coaching webinars and more to further the knowledge of all coaches, at all levels, in all states.

“Every year, every season is important for every player. We cannot lose sight of that fact,” Jablonic said. “Hockey is for life and we, as coaches, must remember that from a player’s perspective.”

Coaches must teach the proper on-ice skills to progress through the ranks, certainly with the drive that everyone wants to skate in the NHL but knowing that odds of playing in the National Hockey League are minimal, at best. However, almost everyone will eventually skate in an adult league, and the players want to shine there, too.

On-ice lessons certainly spill into real-life – and never was that more prevalent than the past 17 months. “Never take anything for granted; that’s something we definitely know from this past season,” Jablonic said.

To that, coaches must look at ways to be more efficient in their approach.  And hey, the pandemic actually might have played a positive role on that front. If a team practice is, say, 60 minutes, how can you maximize development for all 60 minutes?

“Coming out of COVID, that’s something we want coaches to cherish,” he said.

For instance, maybe a team only had 15 minutes to prepare to get on the ice during the pandemic. Coaches must prepare for that time. Use email, social media and more to update the team on practice plans, explain the plan. No need to waste on-ice time doing that.

“If, for instance, you’re doing a body checking progression drill in practice, include off-ice related activities for those kids, too. And maybe follow it up with a Zoom question and answer on the topic,” Jablonic said. “The more coaches can use, implement into their coaching, the better.

“We want coaches to think and not be reliant on one drill. Instead, let’s think about all the tools you have as coaches, the how-to-coach skills, mixing what you have, what you can learn, and more. We have to be able to adapt, change, expand and improve.”

Coaches also must remember that, when they enter the rink, everything and everyone is fresh, new. Leave that day’s woes outside; always carry a fresh, positive, upbeat approach to the game, the players and beyond.

“Coaches must remember to coach the process, not just the outcome; that’s a big thing for USA Hockey. We must focus on the right things,” he said.

And the current things. How has the game changed? That plays for players and coaches. If a coach is relying on something he or she did 10 or 15 years ago, that is not the mindset that USA Hockey wants for its coaches, Jablonic said.

“We know that the growth mindset is challenging,” he said. “But what we do today to set up our kids to be successful might not always be something that worked years ago.

“Look at how much the game has changed over, say, the past 5 years. We have to look at coaching through that lens, be open to change, to deliver the best experience for the kids. That image of the strict coach, wearing a baseball hat, with a whistle around, holding a clipboard … that’s not us anymore.

“Coaches now must stand side by side with their players, guiding them to their goals.”

CEP is the power for that path.