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Balancing the Science with the Art of Coaching Hockey | Part 1

11/07/2016, 5:00am PST
By Kelvin Cech


I spent the entire summer building a blueprint of technical success for a team of 12 year-old hockey players. From defensive zone coverage to multiple options for breakouts to offensive zone triggers, I had every inch of the ice covered. 

But it was the space off the ice that really required attention. 

This is the first in a multipart series digging deeper into the comparison between the tactics and intangibles of hockey.

Hockey is dependant on science. Tactics. Routes. I built multiple faceoff plays, neutral zone forechecks, and intricate powerplay techniques, but here’s the reality: that all means precisely squat if your athletes aren’t getting the message. 

So let’s talk about the art of coaching.

Coachability, Buying In, & Learning 

Listening to the coach is a shared responsibility. I used to be the coach who rose his voice - rose his voice, yeah right - screamed at players to get a point across. It was their fault if a regroup failed because they failed to listen to instructions. 

At a conference I attended this summer, Ken Hitchcock talked about the idea of furious vs curious. Hitch won’t enter his team’s dressing room after a loss if he’s fuming mad. He waits until he’s curious about why the team lost before returning. He told a story about circling the block in St. Louis for a half hour before a practice because he was still furious and not yet curious about a loss. 

The thing I took away was that you can lose for a wide variety of reasons, but they’ll always fall into two categories, the science or the art of the game. 

The Science of Hockey

With my new job at UBC I watch more hockey than I ever thought possible. A big chunk of my day is spent watching game video of our team and individual players. 

It rules.

Watching video when you’re removed from the emotion of the game is a powerful tool because it allows you to take a closer look into the science behind wins or losses. 

Did the team simply skate the wrong routes, thereby failing to execute the tactical plan of attack? Did individuals make poor reads or decisions because they weren’t comfortable with the team’s system? Were players ill-suited to the responsibility placed on them by the coach?

It’s incredible, but actually not that surprising, that the mistakes made in CIS hockey often mirror those made in Peewee A1, Peewee A3, and Atom A1 minor hockey. The system of minor hockey is designed to make each tier competitive, so players of similar skill levels are bound to run into the same challenges.

Limited Time & Space to Make Plays

As coaches, it’s our job to give players as much time and space to make plays as possible. We do this by shepherding everyone, figuratively and literally, onto the same page with regards to how we want the game played and practiced.

For example, one of the hardest plays in hockey occurs several times every game, often each shift: defensemen turning to retrieve pucks in their own zone. This play is the reason coaches holler “pucks deep!” every five seconds. Recovering to the corner with offensive pressure bearing down on you is like finding a light switch in a dark room. Oh, and then you have to pull that light switch off the wall and pass it to a team mate. Did I mention the light hasn’t actually been switched on?

That’s why coaches draw up breakout plays. It’s why we build a blueprint of multiple options so players feel as confident as possible when it comes time to perform. 

And despite all the crystal clear direction, innovative coaching, and old-school cattle-prodding, players still make mistakes. 


Next week in the art of coaching hockey. 


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