Been There, Heard That: Transition From Player to Coach

One of the most common questions I am asked now that I’m finished my playing career is, “How do you like coaching and being behind the bench instead of playing?” At first it was a big learning curve, and it continually is, but as I began to settle in as a coach, it really made me see things about hockey in a an extremely different light. For one, it allowed me to be a part of the process as to how things are done and which method is best to achieve success. I now see a hockey team as a mechanism with separate moving parts that all combine to make the mechanism work.

It’s like a car. If your transmission is shot or your tires are flat, then you’re not going anywhere. Some parts just need a bit of oiling or pumping up, while other parts react better to being fired up or just need a bit of elbow grease. And just like a car, sometimes you will have parts that need to be replaced in order for it to keep running.

One of the biggest debates amongst analysts is what type of coach or method is the best at getting results. I think that it depends on the situation. For one, I think the most successful coaches are those who can step back and look at a team and all its separate moving parts and figure out a way to get all of the parts working at a high level, together. Not everyone reacts to screaming or degradation (In fact I don’t know many that do) and on the flip side some players become too complacent and need a kick in the butt sometimes to get them going and keep them honest. Like I said earlier, it depends on the situation. As a player, I always found that when my confidence was high, I was able to perform at a high level. The key is keeping morale high, while instilling accountability, discipline, structure and keeping things fun all at the same time.

People involved in hockey tend to forget that, yes the game is fun, but at the same time there is a lot of stress and pressure on kids as they progress through minor hockey and junior. Most of these kids are bombarded with negativity and reprimand from coaches, teachers, parents, and other kids. At the Tier II Jr. “A” level I found that a lot of the players I encountered were either trying to reach another level or were coming down from one. It’s one of those tweener levels.  With the players who are striving to reach the next level it’s about providing the tools, structure and confidence to get there and with the players coming down it’s about picking them up, dusting them off and helping them to get back in the saddle. The players coming down are dealing with a devastating juncture in their life.

Take a major junior player for example.  You will see a lot of players who enter their overage season having already played two or three seasons of major junior and they run into a numbers game problem where there are only so many spots available. They are released and return to play their last year at a lower level in Tier II. These players are dejected and often feel as if it’s the end of the road.

For players in this situation I like to use the incredible story of Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals. Joel finished his junior career having gone undrafted and overshadowed and decided to play in the CIS for the University of PEI. The CIS has generally been deemed a graveyard for failed dreams, yet Joel used his time at UPEI to further develop his game and took the long road, less traveled to reach his dream of playing in the NHL. Joel Ward’s story goes to show you that there is always an alternative way to reach your dreams if you remain determined and motivated.

The danger with these players is that if you don’t find a way to motivate them, they can become haunted by illusions of failure. I find that if you don’t grab a hold of them and help them find another way to reach their dreams, then you tend to lose them to a dark path.  This can be a scary path to head down alone.

Just as it always has been, I find that hockey is speckled with too many unqualified coaches who think that screaming and belittling players is the best way to win. Whether it was because these coaches played for coaches like that and they are carrying on the only way they know how or because they feel powerful when they get to take aggression out on players, it just makes me wretch when I see a coach who constantly exudes negativity. You look at his players and they are afraid to even touch the puck let alone make a play. You stand in the arena and can almost see the love and desire for the game evaporate from the players like the steam from the screaming coach’s flapping yap.

It especially irks me when you see a coach like this at the minor hockey level where kids are supposed to be developing and having fun and where much of their self-esteem begins taking shape. Kids at these ages are like sponges and it severely worries me to think that the authority figure they are sponging off of is an angry, egotistical tyrant who spends more time screaming at the referees and players than taking time to teach and develop. At young ages, kids always learn more when something is perceived as fun. In a game like hockey, which is supposed to be fun, kids need a comfortable atmosphere to grow and develop.

When all is said and done, hockey simply is what it is, a game. Just like all sports at their origins, hockey was created as a fun pastime and for 99.66% of the hockey playing population, that’s all it will ever be. So if you are a hockey parent and your child comes out of a dressing room after a game with tears in their eyes because they didn’t score a goal, smile and give them a hug and a hot chocolate. If you are a coach and a young hockey player on your team makes a bad mistake to give up a goal, pat them on the back and tell them, “We’ll get it back, don’t worry. Mistakes happen to everyone.”

In a sport where turnovers and missed shots outweigh goals and triumphs, a little bit of honey can go a long way in developing players and making things fun. Respect doesn’t always go to the person who yells the loudest or creates the most fear. Respect comes from trust, understanding and knowledge. When there is mutual respect and a common goal and all the parts of the car are working, then there is no limit to how far you can go in hockey.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

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