This hockey coaching thing sure ain’t gettin’ any easier. My team of 13 and 14 year old girls is struggling mightily to say the least and while I’ve not yet thrown my hands in the air, I’m certainly near the point of calling on the Hockey Gods for some divine intervention. To be blunt, the team hasn’t seen a check mark in the W column dating back to late November. Frustrations among the players, parents and most certainly the coaching staff are mounting as the potential exhibited by this squad to start the season, including a home tournament win, has been quashed by inconsistent, undisciplined play mixed with odd flashes of brilliance.
The latest case in point came last night when our last place team played two periods of seemingly inspired hockey and a took 1-1 tie into the third frame against the top team in our league, who to date have the same grand total of losses as we have wins (ONE!) My assistant coaches and I, having been to this dance before, implored our charges yet again to hone their focus for the final period. We commended them on their play through the first two and let them know they have the talent to win against any team they face when the put forth their best effort. I believe we could all sense small cracks in the armour as orange peels were flung gaily at a garbage can in the middle of the room. A couple of players were noted to be brushing their hair in un-hockey-like fashion, though for some this is a necessary evil of supporting abundant locks. In previous games I’ve suggested we focus on playing one period at a time. In this case, I demanded even smaller shift-by-shift chunks for added clarity. And yet, the first shift of the third period ended with a puck in the back of our net followed by the same result less than a minute later. All the hard work the players had put in up to that point was a faint memory. Body language was not good across the board as I’m certain the phrase “Here we go again” reverberated in each player’s head. The play would turn somewhat in our favour again for fleeting moments, but the final score signaled what would otherwise look to be a lopsided 5-2 victory for the opposition to anyone just seeing the numbers.
I am convinced at this point our biggest challenge is one of a psychological nature; yup, it’s in their heads. When we reach the third period with a slim lead or the prospects of a win, I can almost see the players grips on their sticks ratcheting up a few notches. Pucks are handled with more trepidation. Passes are made with more urgency and less precision. Battles for pucks are enjoined with hesitation. No one wants to make a mistake, but inaction and/or ultra-caution leads to the same. Far too often these mistakes manifest themselves as penalties which only serve to exacerbate the situation. A little over a week ago one of our defencemen took a rare delay of game penalty for covering the puck with her glove at the end of a game; an infraction which led to us giving up a game-tying goal with only 30 seconds left. Yet another victory narrowly aborted. We coaches will try to counteract fear and doubt with positive reinforcement, but I’m afraid for the most part it’s falling on deaf ears; deafened by our recent failures.
Some folks around our team are no doubt lobbying for a harsh response to our undisciplined play. Some have suggested I “bench” players who are exhibiting undisciplined behaviour, which is leading to some of our downfalls. I understand their intent. However, I contend that the team tends to hit the proverbial wall en masse, which I attribute back to hitting the panic button. I would be hard pressed to select just one player deserving of being benched when entire lines seemingly stop skating for a shift. That being said, I am increasingly open to doling out stiffer consequences (i.e. benching) those players who are consistently taking “bad” penalties; those who aren’t learning from their mistakes. In principle, I am against benching players as I feel in developmental hockey sitting on the bench does little to improve the player; but perhaps sending a subtle message in the form of a missed shift might be just what the sports psychologist ordered.
With only a few games left in our regular season and playoffs to follow shortly thereafter, there is still plenty of time to salvage some positives. I recently sent an open letter to our parent-group asking for their honest feedback, to which I received several thoughtful, positive and constructive responses. I shouldn’t have been surprised to note that each looked at the situation from the perspective of their child. I will also be holding a pre-playoff team meeting where I intend to speak with each player individually about their strengths, weaknesses and responsibilities moving forward. The learning experience for this first-year head coach and his developing, challenging, evolving, group of young athletes continues. While challenging, I am still managing to smile and have some fun along the way. A couple of wins down the stretch would sure help though.