Most will agree that the best hockey players in the history of the game were special because of the way they thought the game two steps ahead of everyone else. They had incredible “hockey sense” and this set them apart from the rest of the pack. We can all agree that this is a very important part of hockey, so why don’t we spend more time trying to hone this skill?
Ever since I was young, I’ve always heard the saying: “You can’t teach hockey sense.” I never questioned this because it was coming from coaches, scouts and GMs—hockey authority people. Why challenge it? It has to be true. Right?
I believe it is true that there are certain players who have an insanely high level of mental acuity when it comes to the game of hockey. When you think of the term hockey sense, Wayne Gretzky immediately jumps to mind. He was an innovator and a player who used his strong mental talents to elevate his game to an ungodly level. And just like exceptional talents in any field—sports, arts, science or business—it begins with confidence and fearlessness.
For me, saying that you either have it, or you don’t is a myth. I believe hockey sense can be taught, and I believe that the perception that we can’t is built upon laziness and fear of the unknown. The first step to opening the mind is to break down barriers, toss out myths and unleash creativity. In order to do this, a culture built on positivity and self-confidence needs to be created. In other words, make it fun. Once kids feel comfortable, they will drop their guards and this is when true development can occur. This removes the fear out of the game and unleashes a hockey player’s greatest weapon: confidence.
When a hockey player is confident and devoid of fear, he or she is a force to be reckoned with. Have you ever experienced the feeling a player has after scoring a goal? In the shifts following a goal, you feel quicker, stronger and re-energized. The game slows down and you feel like you can accomplish anything. Now, imagine you always felt like that. That’s the power of confidence. Great players thrive on this—always have.
Nowadays, minor hockey teams rely heavily on system play due to the grossly misguided pressure to win. There are even a large number of people who believe that hockey systems teach kids how to think the game at a higher level, when in all actuality this is stripping the kids of the creativity that is the foundation of the game.
As a major peewee playing AAA hockey, I had a coach who spent 90% of our practices teaching us “The Trap Forecheck”, “The Left-Wing Lock”, and power play breakouts that would make your head spin. I remember the anxiety I felt every time I stepped onto the ice. I had a million things going through my 12-year-old brain and not one of them had to do with reading and reacting. Most of the time, I would just get the puck and shoot it off the boards and out. I was terrified to make any mistakes.
As a coach at the junior A level, one of the biggest problems I saw with young players was a severely low level of mental acuity, which was ironic because every OHL and NCAA scout was looking for players with hockey sense. Players were so reliant on systems that they didn’t have the ability to read and react. Their minor hockey organizations had trained them to be so focused on “Option 1”, “Option 2”, and “Option 3”. They didn’t have a feel for the game. Hockey is a game that is filled with breakdowns and turnovers. There is no right or wrong, because sometimes the right decision ends up being the wrong one.
So how can a coach teach hockey sense? Step 1 is to create a positive environment and encourage creativity. Encourage your players to play without fear of reprimand and try new things. Step 2 is to design practices to include drills that require more reading and reacting requirements and freelancing, rather than structured paths and directions. For example, if you’re designing a breakout drill with forecheckers applying pressure, provide basic positional structure without direct paths or instructions. This allows the players to learn how to read and react to pressure. Even though they may struggle initially, the positive culture you have created will help them work through adversity and develop the mental skills required to overcome.
The number one rule above all else when building hockey sense in young players is: “Be Patient”. It takes years and years of practice to hone any skill, especially mentally-oriented skills. If you start with a positive culture that celebrates creativity and structure your teachings around reading and reacting, this will empower your players and provide them with a huge leg up when they reach higher levels in the game where system play becomes more important.
Remember, it’s much easier to teach systems to a player with hockey sense than it is to teach hockey sense to a player who only knows how to follow a system.