We’re just a few practices into a new season of girls midget hockey and my initial trepidation at having to work with a group of relatively unknown players has surprisingly turned to cautious optimism. My concern at having a young team with half of the players in their rookie midget year has been replaced by enthusiasm driven by their enthusiasm. Last year I was lucky to have two girls ready to go on the ice when the Zamboni was done making its rounds, while so far the entire squad has been standing by expectantly as the big doors close signalling their permission to begin their skate. In seasons prior, it was not uncommon to be asked at least four times during a practice when it would be over. Through four practices thus far, the topic has only been raised once.
Further fuel for my fire is the positive work ethic I’ve noted from the team early on. As with players starting any new season, there are certainly signs of rust and a need for hockey conditioning. No matter what you do in the off-season, it’s just not the same as skating full-speed up, down and around the rink a few times. Hell, at my age, taking a couple weeks off from men’s rec hockey damn near kills me upon my return. As these girls get older and find other things to occupy their time in the Summer, it no doubt gets a little tougher for them as well. Of course, the Devil for her part is coming back from a broken leg, which is another physical and mental challenge altogether. To her credit, she’s sucking it up through some reported pain (though a precautionary trip to the fracture clinic has been scheduled in two weeks time for her piece of mind). In fact, the Devil and all of her mates have been giving full and honest efforts from start to finish of each practice much to my satisfaction.
Of course, this is not to say there aren’t still plenty of challenges ahead. One such conundrum is our lack of six natural defencemen. When I chose the team I did not have the luxury of a large stable of capable defence candidates to choose from, so I decided to go with the 15 best skaters and worry about who would play where later. Later is nearly here. My staff and I will need to decide on which forward is best suited to fill the vacancy, as I do want to go with the traditional 9 forward and six defender configuration. Part of this equation is adding a player to the backside, while not subtracting too much from the front. Fortunately, we will have a few practices (including 4 in the first five days concluding tonight), exhibition games and an early bird tournament to start to figure it out. As with any other season I’ve been part of…nothing is ever set in stone, there are always a couple of player projects. Always room for players and the team as a whole to improve.
Perennial challenge number two; just make sure everyone gets along, which can be a task in and of itself when you’re talking about 17 teen-aged girls. Again, in early days and from what I can tell, the group is already getting along. I’m sure there will be a few who take extra time to get into the fold, but all seem willing. I was pleased to see and hear several agree with my annual rundown of “Keys To Success” emblazoned on a bright yellow bristol board, which has come to be something of a calling card for me. I told them I like signs because they provide good, quick reminders of what we want to do as a team and why. This particular sign will be posted in our dressing room for the next couple of weeks to help reinforce the tone. Maybe some girls think it’s all a little contrived and hokey, but if I can get the key messages across to a few then mission accomplished.
So with a group of players at least buying in and willing to work, the third, but certainly not final, challenge, is teaching, nay encouraging, them to play as a team. This is not the first rodeo for any of them and for some there is really not much left to be taught. Rather, the task is more about reminding and stressing consistent execution of individual and team tactics. Help them focus as I often say, “Shift by shift.”
We won’t know exactly what we have until we measure ourselves against a few competitors, which is what the next few weeks are all about. However, after just a few days with the new proteges, I am more anxious to draw comparisons and gauge potential than I was at the end of my tryout process or even a couple of week ago. Bring it all on and let’s just see what we really got. I’ll do what I can to convince the lot of them, we’ve got what it takes to be successful.
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