The first few weeks of the season are always an exciting time of the year. Every team has a blank slate and players of all ages are energized about the opportunities ahead.
It’s also one of the most critical times of year as the tone established early on often sets the stage for the entire season. Setting the right course for the team and each player individually can help raise everyone on the team to new heights.
With so many things to work on and accomplish, the first challenge is often where to start.
We sat down with long time high school coach and Minnesota Hockey District 8 Coach-in-Chief, Bill McClellan to discuss what teams should be focusing on as they kick off the season.
Skills, Not Systems
When you hear professional coaches talk about their preseason plan, it’s common to hear about installing systems and other team concepts. Is that really the best thing for youth teams though?
“That’s kind of the big debate,” said McClellan. “At what point, do you start some focus on the team aspect of it?”
Faced with as little two weeks before their first games at the high school level, McClellan admits its tempting to work on positioning and getting all of the players on the same page. However, he believes the goal is to develop players over the course of the season, especially at the youth levels, and in order to do that, there has to be a focus on skill development every day of the year.
“Skating and hockey IQ, those are the big things,” said McClellan.
Both of those skills can and should be enhanced daily by utilizing station-based practices. By keeping skill drills contained to a small area, coaches are able to increase the quality and quantity of players’ repetitions, while also providing better instruction.
“You’re able to get more accomplished in a small area, more repetitions, and at the same time, you do get a little more rest,” said McClellan. “When the younger kids go the length of the ice, let’s face it, they get tired. Once they get tired, now what they’re doing is replicating a bad habit because they physically can’t do it correctly anymore.”
Another important step in creating a team culture focused on development is ensuring everyone understands the role of mistakes and how players learn from them.
“Kids make mistakes,” said McClellan. “We make mistakes as coaches. I think it’s very important to learn from your mistake.”
Coaches and parents can have a positive impact on how players respond to mistakes and their willingness to attack those opportunities in the future by catching and recognizing players when they do it right.
“I try to make a really big deal when I try to correct a mistake, and then, the player goes out on the next shift and does it better,” said McClellan. “Even in practice, a player does something wrong in practice. You correct it, and then, the next time they go, they do it correctly. I’m really big on making a scene and saying, ‘Hey, look at that! Look at how that worked out. Good job!”
By pointing out the players’ positive progression, parents and coaches can help build confidence and encourage players to have a mindset in which mistakes are seen as temporary and an opportunity to improve.
People, regardless of age, are much better at remembering how people and moments in their life made them feel than anything else.
For coaches, that means getting to know all of their players will likely have a big impact on how players will respond to their coaching during the season as well as what type of long-term impact the coach and season will have.
“One thing I do now with our high school guys, and I wish I would have done it with the youth is pick out a couple of guys each practice and talk with them,” said McClellan. “Not just a couple minutes, but throughout the whole practice. After a rep, talk to them about how things are going off the ice, how things are going in school.”
“I think a couple of things develop. Number one, you start to develop a relationship, but I think the most important thing is the kid gets a sense that the coach really cares about them.”
Building respectful relationships between parents and coaches is also a critical part of setting the stage for a successful season.
“The most important people in a kid’s life are mom and dad,” said McClellan. “You have to be able to communicate with mom and dad, and mom and dad have to be on board with what you’re doing for it to work for the kid.”
“The best way to do that is to set the parameters right away when the season starts. Get together and have a parent meeting and the coach talks about his philosophy and what he sees and what he’s going to do.”
If parents have questions or initial concerns, it’s best to address them early. That way open lines of communication are established right away and everyone is on the same page as soon as possible.