Melissa Walsh

Coaching Mites: A Great Balancing Act

Powerplay Communications | October 2011 | Hockey Mom Sense blog: "Coaching Mites: A Great Balancing Act"

So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. — Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

In this early part of my rookie season as a U8 hockey coach, I’m highly alert to two sets of wisdom: 1- insight into how little kids think; and 2- statements about how respected coaches think. I want to blend that wisdom and package it into how I interact with our Mite hockey players on the ice, on the bench, and in the room. I understand my role as nurturing their love for the game, which is achieved by teaching and motivating. It is the great balancing act of the youth hockey coach.

An often repeated Scotty Bowman quote is: “The better the coaching has become, the worse the game has become.” I couldn’t find the original context for this quote on the Internet. But as a mom of four hockey players, I’ll take a stab at this quote’s implication for youth hockey: Nailing the Xs and Os is far less important than evolving a coaching finesse for motivating players, bringing alive their passion for playing the game, and channeling every player’s innate will to win.

In his hockey memoir, The Game, Ken Dryden shared in detail his perspective of Scotty Bowman and his style of coaching. He said that Bowman understood his players very well, yet didn’t seek to befriend them. He had a talent for motivating players, getting all of his players to dig deeper. He earned respect and trust from the players. And, according to Dryden, Bowman did not employ systems. Rather he brought to each game “a plan” for “getting the right players on the ice.”

What does this imply for those of us coaching the game’s youngest players? If we are to coach Bowman-style, we will know our players. We will treat our child players like children. We will praise them concretely for skating hard and tackling a new skill. We won’t force systems; our practice and game plans will give them room to hone creativity and hockey sense. We will grow their love for the game.

We will find a way to develop each kid on the roster, despite the team’s vast range in skill level. How? By enhancing the will to win in every player. During every practice drill, each player should sense his or her potential as an athlete. Practices should be fun, and heads should be sweaty when the helmets come off after practice. And during every shift of every game, each player’s confidence must grow. Effective youth coaches use “mistakes” as teaching moments, not open opportunities to belittle players.

I’ve been hearing so much complaining around the rink about USA Hockey’s revised Coaching Education Program and its new rules, which are rooted in LTAD (Long Term Athlete Development) and the ADM (American Development Model). Indeed, USA Hockey’s new approach is forcing significant change and cutting into the agenda of many coaches, most who are far more seasoned in this sport than me. As a hockey mom who has seen up close the good, bad and the ugly of youth hockey, I support and applaud USA Hockey’s LTAD approach. I believe that with its effort to foster each kid’s love for hockey and chance to evolve creativity in playing hockey, USA Hockey is redeeming some of the best aspects of pond hockey and giving the game back to whom it should belong — to the kids.

As Don Cherry said, “People think common sense is common, but it’s not.” USA Hockey is forcing common sense on youth hockey coaches. Next, I hope they’ll develop an education program of common sense for our hockey parents.