At our practice last night I called the Sharks out as I and another coach noted a distinct lull in intensity. A couple of players were heading to and lingering around the water bottles a little too long, others were down on a knee for extended period of time while a couple of others were actually splayed out on the ice at the end of drills like they’d been shot. I was fairly confident the problem wasn’t one of conditioning, but rather one of focus. The same problem has seemingly been plaguing this squad in all of the games they’ve lost so far this season. To date, we’ve been able to match the speed of nearly every team we’ve played. We’ve been able to out-work and out-hustle most teams. Yet we’ve only managed to do that for an entire game on maybe one or two occasions. Even our finest effort to data, a five-goal outburst in the first period, of a game was followed by two periods of hanging on for a 5-3 victory.
So I posed my “loss/lack of focus” theory to the players at practice. They all, to a player, contended conditioning is not an issue. Though that may have in this been prompted by the realization that admitting a conditioning problem = conditioning drills, which in turn = lots of skating followed by even more skating. I tried to reinforce how important it is for them to maintain their intensity for three full periods. We’ve told them in games where they are not the most talented group that they can compensate by being the hardest working. In this they are not unique, as sports are chock full of successful teams who reap their successes via their determined efforts. As always, I try to be careful to temper my expectations with the realization that we are instructing 13 and 14 year old female athletes; who have yet to mature psychologically and who may have any number of other influences on their developing minds; from parents, to school, to boys, etc. That is not to say they don’t comprehend the message being delivered, but rather they may not fully realize how, nor have the capacity, to process what we are attempting to relay along with all of the other conflicting messages they are receiving. We plead for our roughly 30-40 minutes of focus per game all the same.
And so today we entered a guaranteed four-game tournament a few hours north of home with games against two familiar rivals from our regular league, who we get to play in 2 of our 3 games tomorrow (a busy day, indeed). Tournaments represent opportunities to refine team tactics and build team bonds. I was heartened to hear that before our first game tonight the team held its own meeting, without prompting from any coaches, to talk about their focus. Sounds like my message was received, which again is all I can ever ask for. I’m genuinely pleased if even a little bit of what I say sinks in. My plan for today’s pre-game speech was to continue the focus discussion. Their own pre-game chat served to reinforce my motivational intent. The start of the game to follow was further validation as there was a distinct sense of focus displayed on the ice. And while there were some tense moments in what would ultimately be a 2-1 triumph, buoyed by a fine goaltending performance, we could not question the girls effort or desire to win. Our only criticism tonight came in the form of a plea for the players to not rush in pressure situations, which is always much easier said than done from behind the bench. The only goal against us this evening came with 9.5 seconds left on the clock when support broke down. An errant puck found its way slowly through a sea of skates and sticks to wreck a deserved shutout for our keeper.
Tomorrow’s challenge will be to establish and maintain the desired focus through no less than three games beginning at 10am and ending at 10pm, with the third contest coming against perhaps our greatest league rival, who dealt us a 2-1 loss only seven days ago. Quite the task for a group of 17 teenage athletes, who may rather want to hang out at the hotel pool and who certainly didn’t want to hear me announce a 10:30pm curfew after tonight’s game. Yet, I’ve faith the majority will indeed honour the bedtime policy. My own Devil lies slumbering in a pull-out hotel couch only a couple of feet away as I record today’s events. I am hopeful of reporting back on a playoff berth tomorrow evening, however, as usual, only time, effort and a decided level of focus will weave that tale to its conclusion.