Focusing on the Same Thing

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.


The Maiden Voyage Is Not Without Waves

Tonight the rookie coach (yup that’s me) took to the ice with my young group of players and a couple of assistant coaches for our first official practice. They say you are your own worst critic.  I can confidently say some criticism was deserved. Or perhaps I am particularly sensitive to the critical eye; including my own.  Being under the spotlight with expectant parents looking on and having been a parent on the other side making my own judgments on occasion didn’t help. With any misstep, I could imagine rolled eyeballs…mutterings of “what was that?”  Perhaps I entered with higher expectations than I should have.  Maybe I should cut myself a little more slack.  I certainly forgot how quickly the clock ticks when things aren’t going exactly to plan. I do understand that I have to remember and keep in perspective that we’re working with 13 and 14 year old girls with limited attention spans at best.

I believe, to my initial credit, that I spent a few minutes before practice proactively talking about expectations – those of both the players and the coaching staff.  Chief among these expectations being commitment, respect, effort and fun.  Mere moments later, I would find that I should have emphasized focus as well.

To my surprise, I felt the venture going sideways right off the hop. The seemingly basic instruction I gave my players for the warm-up skate before we all took that first fresh step onto the ice was “When you hear one whistle – accelerate, when you hear two whistles – change direction and when you hear three whistles – pivot and skate backwards”  Whether it was a lack of focus or a poorly delivered message, the first whistle had the players accelerating, but the double and triple whistle combinations caused all manner of confusion. Some players skated backwards, some went in the opposite direction and some simply looked around to see if they could figure out what everyone else was doing. One assistant coach glided by me and quipped “You didn’t think this was going to be easy did you?” To which I replied, “Ummm no, but I thought we could get through this first one.”  So I gathered the players together quickly to reiterate the signals, only to note another general state of confusion.  After the next triple whistle I watched one player back into and fall headlong over another traveling in the opposite direction – a move The Three Stooges themselves would have tipped a hat to.  In an effort to set a good cop/bad cop tone early, one of my assistants corralled the team and told them a lack of focus this early was not acceptable.  A little line skating was in order.  We will hopefully not have to employ the suicide skate tactics on too many occasions, but I’m sure there will be a few as there are with every team.

My next minor error I can attribute to a now obvious lack of on-ice help, which I will most certainly address before the next session.  As we three coaches directed forwards and defence through a basic passing drill, I was approached by one of our two goalies who rightly questioned “What should we be doing coach?”  Oh yeah, we need to make sure we don’t forget about the goalies who are not participating in a passing drill.  Kudos to them for asking the question. And again, I’m sure at least two sets of parents were looking on and asking themselves the same.  I owned up to my mistake to one of the keeper’s fathers after the practice. I was pleased when he bailed me out by saying his daughter has plenty of skating drills she can work on if she’s not been given specific instructions.  Granted, though my and our job is to provide the expected guidance.

The third and final shaky moment came in the form of an assistant coach miscue, which I will shoulder some of the burden for.  I assume I did not provide clear enough direction to my helpers who were active participants in a drill.  In what should have again been a fairly straightforward passing/skating/shooting exercise, the assistant coaches, who were responsible for delivering a pass to a skater moving by them on the opposite side of where they received a previous pass, fired pucks to other players heading in other directions.  At least a couple of players were contending with two passed pucks at once.  We successfully made a simple exercise look quite difficult. However, on this occasion a quick reset, coupled with some instruction to the pass recipients, saw the drill smooth itself out.  A practice component we will revisit in a future practice and no doubt master with all involved parties on the same page.

Fifty minutes for a practice is not a long time – time management is key. Though you can quickly lose track of said time, when plans go askew. Before I knew it the zamboni driver was frantically ushering us off the pad, while the next team waited for their fresh sheet of ice.  In thinking back to my time as an assistant coach, I am certain this happens to all coaches on a fairly frequent basis.  And yet, this flew in the face of my desired plan.

Post-practice I chatted again with the players who commented that the practice seemed to go “very quickly”, which I suppose I can take as a sign of engagement and maybe even enjoyment.  I confessed to some rookie mistakes as I’ve detailed here. I hope, nay anticipate, those will be fewer and far between as we move through this season together and become more comfortable with each other. I further hope, yet anticipate less, that the muttering from above will be abated.  I suppose I shouldn’t be concerned with the opinions of others, yet I’ve already admitted I’m my own worst critic. Still my chief concern should and will be the enjoyment of the game and the experience by my players. With an honest effort, which is likewise what I’ve asked of them, I am confident I can steer this ship in a positive direction