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A hockey player with the National Hockey League's Nashville Predators.

Hockey Coaching 104: Systems vs Skill Development

10/24/2014, 5:00am PDT
By Kelvin Cech

The secret relationship between skill development and positional play...


The truth about most coaches is that they teach what they were good at when they played. 

This makes sense, we all prefer coming at an audience from a position of authority or of expertise. I would never try to teach basketball player how to do that thing where they jump and the orange thing goes through the other orange thing, just like I wouldn’t expect a basketballer to teach a hockey player how to execute an evade-and-shoot-off-the-strong-foot manouvre.

We’re talking about skills here. The problem many coaches run into is that they either haven’t adapted to the new way the game is being played or they never possessed those skills in the first place.

Think about it, Wayne Gretzky never had to check an opponent because he always had the puck. When The Great One coached the Phoenix Coyotes, it was mostly a mess because to him it all came naturally.

Minor Hockey coaches suffer from the same sort of problem - they teach what they know: systems.

The Audience

Let’s talk about the benefits of a strong system-oriented team. First, the players will be in the right spot more often than not. This either gives the team an advantage because they’re more likely to win races to loose pucks, or at the very least it will put them on equal footing with their opponents.

Understanding systems at a young age will also teach players about how the game is played at the next level, so they’ll have a headstart as they get older. 

The crucial element for systems-heavy coaches is to completely understand their audience. The younger a team is, the shorter their attention span is. If you only get a couple hours each week to practice, then talking and teaching for the majority of those hours will inevitably fall on deaf ears sooner rather than later. 

The Essentials

Does this mean a peewee team or an atom shouldn’t be learning systems?

Nope! The systems taught should be simple, however. Learning how to do more than just skate, shoot and pass can be easily broken down into a few essential points:

  • playing your position (winger vs centre vs d-man)
  • understanding the responsibilities of your position (defend vs forecheck)
  • allowing room for growth and creativity

The Balance

Hockey is often a chess match between coaches. Imagine two teams playing the exact same system. Which team will win?

The team with more skill.

Sure, desire, work ethic and discipline come into play, but in the long run it’s the team with the most skill (or the players who best use the skill they have) that end up winning. Coaches put too much emphasis on the x’s and o’s they draw on a white board or the half they spend every practice working on the powerplay. Players these days are smart, they’ll pick up on systems because they know it will help, but the emphasis of every team should be developing the skill and character of its players first.

So, how do you combine the two? Here’s a sample yearly skill development weighting. Your mileage may vary.

Segment 1: Lay the Foundation

September, October 

50% positional play 

25% competition

25% skill development 


Segment 2: Brick and Mortar

November, December

10% positional play

30% competition

50% skill development 


Segment 3: Finishing Touch

January, February, Playoffs

50% systems

40% competition

10% skill development 


What do you think?

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