From rules, to equipment, to pace of play, a lot has changed about the game of hockey over the past few decades. Coaching styles have also evolved, as fear and intimidation tactics have begun to make way in favor of a more supportive, communicative approach.
While Xs and Os haven’t gone away (nor should they), “soft skills” have started to gain traction as critical components to team building and player development.
“There’s a big portion of the game that is Xs and Os, but the majority of impact are those ‘how to coach’ skills,” said Dan Jablonic, former UMD Bulldog and current USA Hockey American Development Model (ADM) Regional Manager. “We’ve put great emphasis on our Coaching Education Program, and instead of giving coaches a collection of random drills, we provide tools to help them interpret what a good plan looks like, how to develop one themselves and how to communicate it to players and parents. At the youth level, once players know you’re invested in their personal development, they’ll have an open mind, ready to learn.”
“Finland is well respected when it comes to goaltending development,” he said. “One thing they do is have someone there to talk to the young goalies on the ice during practices, asking them what did you see, what did you feel? It makes them feel as though they are a valued position.”
Giving players a voice is a powerful way to make everyone feel valued, while also encouraging a higher level of engagement and ownership.
“It’s making sure players have a foundation as an athlete and the ability to think and make decisions,” Jablonic said. “Two years ago, we had the Swedes come in, and it was fantastic. After every activity they would communicate with players about what just happened, ask them what worked, how it could translate to their game. It got the players to open up and think. It was all about empowerment, self-reflection and then how to use it in the game. I thought it was great.”
Jablonic’s Top “Soft Skills”
Jablonic shared this list of the five soft skills that he believes all coaches should have as part of their hockey playbook:
Nothing shows how much you’re into coaching more than the willingness to prep and have a plan. That tells the players and parents coach really cares, he/she took the time to understand and get others involved, to communicate the plan to everyone, have equipment ready on the ice, etc. Practice planning is huge. There’s no need to stand there at a white board explaining a drill for 5-6 minutes because we’ve communicated about it in advance.
Relatability (Building Rapport)
Having a plan is the first step to building rapport with your players. From there, we must know how to challenge them, listen to them, pick up on cues and body language. Coaches need to recognize these things and put themselves in their players’ shoes.
Ability to Teach
Once we build rapport, we look at the other soft skills. First, we’re teachers. How do we explain an activity? Did we plan what we were going to say or are we winging it? Are we asking open-ended questions to show their understanding? Then, we relate it back to the game. If you’re talking about positioning, make a couple of points and be concise. You’re bending your knees so you can skate fast, keep your hands away from your body so you can make a hockey play, keep your head up so you can scan the ice. Keep it simple. Speak their language. And make sure it’s developmentally appropriate for their age.
Being able to ask the right questions is a skill like anything else. Asking kids, “where did you have success in that situation?” “what can you do better?” etc. The ability to ask those type of open-ended questions instead of yes-no questions opens kids up and empowers them. It allows them to make their own decisions, while we just guide them to solutions. The best teachers are the ones who allow feedback through good questioning.
Coaches are constantly evaluating player performance, but how many times do we talk about how we as coaches did today? We should ask ourselves things like, “did we explain and get to their level so they can understand the concepts?” “were my actions in silence so they could focus on the direction or did I talk through it and confuse them?” “is there anything I could modify to simplify things for them?” Having that honest assessment of yourself is huge. And put yourself in your players’ skates. Ask yourself, “how does it feel to be coached by me?”
Striking the Right Balance
One reason there may still be some resistance to focusing on soft skills is that hard skills are easier to quantify. How accurate is their shot? How many goals did they score? These are easier questions to answer than, are my 10-year-olds exhibiting leadership qualities, how do they solve problems, how are their interpersonal skills?
Jablonic believes if coaches have an open mind, they’ll see a long-term impact.
“The core soft skills open up to the next level of coaching,” Jablonic said. “If you’re doing all these things you should know there’s learning taking place, not only for the players, but for the coaches as well and everyone’s having fun throughout the journey. That’s the beauty of our game. Every day you get humbled. The best coaches are the ones who are able to grow and adapt.”