An Open Letter of Advice to High-Level Hockey Coaches
By Scott Lowe – MyHockeyRankings.com
(N.Y. Post Photo)
Dear High-Level Hockey Coach:
I hope this letter finds you well as we pass U.S. Thanksgiving and head toward the holidays.
For many junior hockey programs, this is a period of reflection. How is your team progressing? Which rookies are really getting it? How and where can improvements be made to gear up for the stretch run?
And for prep schools, the months of anticipation are over and you are finally getting to see how your recruiting efforts have paid off and how the pieces fit together as real game play begins.
It’s an exciting time, but also can be a stressful time for players and coaches alike.
Coaches whose teams maybe haven’t been performing up to expectations this season or in recent years and who have demanding owners or athletic directors may be worried about job security. This is also the time of year where rumors run wild about junior teams that are in financial trouble. Prep school coaches have to try to win games and recruit at the same time to keep the pool of talent funneling in for future success.
No one said coaching is easy, especially not in this day and age of social media, keyboard courage, parental intervention and athlete entitlement. Believe me. I know.
And when it comes to junior and prep school hockey, coaches have the near-impossible task of trying win as many games as possible, keeping the owner or A.D. happy and developing players so that they can realize their dreams of playing college hockey.
These tasks don’t always go hand in hand.
After more than 25 years coaching, I stopped recently. I gave up coaching hockey after eight years, because frankly my son passed me by. He needed to play for more knowledgeable hockey guys in better programs if he wanted to realize his dream of playing college hockey. And I stopped coaching baseball, which is the sport I know best and am most qualified to coach, when he finally stopped playing summer ball at age 18.
I also spent 15 years working in NCAA Division I college athletics as an administrator and assistant athletic director. While I still loved the purity of working at a mid-level program where winning wasn’t supposed to be everything and enjoyed promoting the athletes and letting the world know about all their hard work and accomplishments, the 75 or so home events I was required to attend each year would be in direct conflict with my son’s and daughter’s games.
With each of them playing in their final years leading up to college – my son heading off to play junior hockey in the NCDC and my daughter playing three sports at her school as well as club lacrosse – those were years and memories I refused to give up.
But, being perfectly honest, I also got out of coaching because for me, mentally, the time had come. For all the great kids and families – and there were so many – the overbearing and delusional parents; the unappreciative, disrespectful and entitled kids; and the crazy schedules in which we would play as many as 75 games in a relatively short period of time, definitely took their toll. The hard-working, high-character kids from great families sill made coaching worthwhile, but after all those years the emotional paycheck was shrinking.
So, as I write this open letter to you coaches, I understand.
I’ve coached underachieving teams, overachieving teams, talented teams that weren’t fun to coach and weaker teams that improved so much and loved to play so much that I never wanted the season to end. I’ve dealt with great kids, bad kids, great players who were bad kids and awesome kids who couldn’t play.
I’ve also been told by parents of ultra-talented kids to put their kids on the bench if they aren’t listening or if it would help send a message to a team, and I’ve had parents of kids who couldn’t throw five out of 10 pitches over the plate tell me their kids were Division I players and should never sit. I often run into what I call the “Division I” or in “alphabet letter” hang-up in hockey, too.
My favorite coaching experience was taking a 12-year-old baseball team full of tremendous talents and great athletes who had never been coached and showing them that through hard work, attention to detail, development of fundamentals and belief in the team and coaches they could accomplish anything. There were teams that won championships I loved, too, but there was something about feeling as if you had impacted a group of kids forever that fuels the desire to be a coach at any level.
We started the year 2-12. I remember very clearly a windy day on a dusty field near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland in June. It was hot. Miserable. We lost 23-2 to an okay team.
Our team completely fell apart – mentally, physically, you name it. Coaches got tossed from the game. Players were criticizing each other. We sat in the outfield after the game and made a promise to the team as coaches that what happened that day would never happen again. We asked them to make the same promise, and they vowed to get back to work and not look back.
From that point on the team went something like 30-17 and ended the year by going undefeated in pool play and advancing the quarterfinals at Cooperstown before finally losing. There were tears at the end, not because of the loss, but because the group knew it probably would never be together again.
Kids know. They are often way more perceptive than adults and just as they suspected, several parents with major-league aspirations for their children moved their kids to different programs the following year.
The grass isn’t always greener. In fact, it’s rarely greener. Who knows what that group might have been to achieve collectively or individually if it had remained together for another year or two?
Believe me when I say that I am as competitive as anyone – often to a fault. When my kids’ teams lose a game I think I get more upset than they do. No, I definitely do.
And don’t think that’s a negative reflection on them. They are super-competitive, extremely skilled athletes who are far more talented and far more dedicated than I ever was. But I envy their ability to leave it all on the field, literally. They compete as hard as anyone during the game and are upset for a few minutes after a loss, but then it’s over.
The coach in me just doesn’t allow that to happen. I leave those games upset about every call that didn’t go their way, wondering what the coaches might have done differently and discouraged that some kids just don’t seem to get it.
I have gotten better with this as I’ve gotten older, but I still have a long way to go. Now that I have stepped away from coaching, I realize that some kids will never get it. And that’s okay. Those kids probably really get it in the classroom or in the science lab or on center stage or in the orchestra pit. Everyone has his or her passion, and it doesn’t have to be in sync with yours or mine.
I’ve also had to come to terms with the fact that most coaches – especially those making little or no money – will never approach their craft the way I did in terms of preparation, competitiveness, fire, attention to detail and time spent agonizing every wrong decision and missed call. It’s my hope that people making their living coaching might have a similar approach or hold similar values close, but there are many ways to skin a cat.
Everyone is different, and it’s okay for kids to be exposed to different personalities and coaching styles – good and bad. That is something that prepares them for their lives after sports – which they will all have – when they have to deal with bosses and co-workers who may care less than them, more than them or perhaps not at all.
One thing that junior hockey taught me as a parent is that as our kids enter their teens, it is important for us to gradually step away and let them handle things on their own. It’s fine – in fact, it’s encouraged – for parents to have a good relationship with the coach and to be able to talk about the team, things they can do to help the program or just shoot the breeze so that the coach doesn’t go running in the opposite direction every time he or she sees your face.
But you have to be able to not make every single conversation about your kid and his or her role or how he or she is doing. And you can’t fight your kids’ battles or constantly advocate for them. These are life skills they need to learn, and if you continue to do this, they will be unprepared whenever they do head off for college as a student-athlete or just a student. And I can assure you that nine times out of 10 you will actually hurt their standing on the team.
Believe me when I tell you that as my son’s junior career evolved and he went from being the best player on his team to another guy competing for playing time, there were (many) moments when I felt a need to get involved on his behalf. At his request, I didn’t.
He would have killed me if I did, so instead I found other poor souls in the junior hockey world to help talk me off the ledge. God bless them; there is a special place in heaven for those guys. And if anyone reading this article is looking for someone to vent or talk to instead of approaching a coach, I think by now most of you have my email address. It’s my way of giving back (haha).
Enough about that, though. That’s for another article and another day. This piece is intended to help the coaches, so let’s get back on track.
I’m the first to admit that I’m not a hockey Xs and Os expert like the guys who have coached my son the past several years. But there are many concepts and lessons that cut across all sports when it comes to coaching, and I have been around the game for 45 or so years and did have the good fortune of traveling with an NCAA Division I hockey program for two seasons. So as far as the general population is concerned, I’m probably in the upper five percent when it comes to my knowledge of hockey.
As mentioned previously, I also coached for more than 25 years at a pretty high level and spent 15 years around NCAA Division I athletes and coaches. I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of great – and a few not-so-great – high-level coaches and observed how they ran their programs, interacted with athletes and university administrators and anything that could make me a better coach or manager. I’ve tried to compare and contrast the successful coaches to the not-so-successful coaches and then even narrow that down and note the differences between the extremely successful and good-but-not-quite-as-successful ones.
I’ve read books written by and about the great coaches and been fortunate to call many outstanding coaches and people my friends. There were coaches I have worked with who if I had to win one game, I would want them on or behind the bench against anybody – former Princeton and UMass hockey coach Don Cahoon and Loyola University women’s basketball and WNBA coach Patty Coyle come to mind.
A good friend of mine is Joe Logan, the current women’s basketball coach at Loyola University in Baltimore. Joe’s program should be a model for most college athletic teams. He’s the winningest women’s basketball coach in school history, and has been to several conference championship games.
But he doesn’t win every year. He’s actually had some awful years.
Win or lose, though, Joe maintains a great relationship with people all across campus. His kids are model citizens who are active on campus and in the surrounding community, and his team annually has one of the highest GPAs among all of Loyola’s teams and ranks among the national leaders. Joe manages to accomplish all this and still spend quality time with his young family.
Some people have come along who don’t appreciate what Joe does because maybe his team isn’t at the top of the conference standings each year. But ever few years the team makes a postseason run, and he doesn’t waver as far as who he is, his approach or his core values. Fortunately, at a Jesuit institution, the person Joe is and his track record of sending prepared young women out into the real world is appreciated by just about everyone.
Another coach I worked with, Loyola men’s lacrosse coach Charley Toomey, guides a perennial top-10 program. He doesn’t get the blue-chip, five-star early commits schools like Maryland, Duke, Syracuse and Virginia get. Charley spends most of his down time scouring the planet for under-the-radar, late-blooming prospects of high character who will work hard and mesh with his coaching personality.
I was fortunate enough to work with Charley when his team won the 2012 National Championship. Less than a week after winning the title in Massachusetts, as the championship trophy was making the rounds on campus, Charley was out in 90-degree weather at some field in the middle of nowhere looking for his next under-the-radar All-American. Success never rests.
My first two years out of college I worked at Princeton University, where I had the good fortune of traveling with Coach Cahoon’s hockey team and spending time around legendary hall-of-fame basketball coach Pete Carril. Coach Carril often would pay me as a young intern to drive him to and from the Newark airport (and then let me wheel around Princeton in his giant Caddy while he was away). I wish I had tape-recorded the stories he told me and written down all the lessons I learned on those 45-minute drives.
I also played a lot of lunchtime hoops with Carril and his staff, which included future Division I head coaches Bill Carmody, Armond Hill and Joe Scott, and got burned by more backdoor cuts by a bunch of old dudes than I would care to admit.
In hockey, coaches talk a lot about keeping things simple. No offense is more simple than what has become known as Carril’s “Princeton Offense,” yet its concepts have been adopted by some of the most successful basketball teams in the world at all levels. As simple as it is, when the attention to detail is there and the offense is executed properly, it is virtually unstoppable – even when you know what’s coming.
In addition to my personal coaching experiences and time spent working in college athletic departments, I spent 10 years working for Cal and Bill Ripken as part as their Ripken Baseball organization. First, I was in charge of running the Ripkens’ baseball camps, and spent hours with Cal and Bill learning everything about their dad, Cal Sr., and his methods and philosophies of coaching baseball.
Cal Sr. developed the manuals used by the Orioles to train their players at spring training and throughout the minor leagues. Every player on every team at every level was expected to approach the game the same way and was taught the same strategies and concepts. This became known as “The Oriole Way” during a 30-year period when Baltimore was the most successful franchise in Major League Baseball.
I still have copies of those original type-written manuals at my house. These goldmines of information included a lot of baseball strategy that might not interest everyone, but there also was a tremendous emphasis on the importance of having a high attention to detail (“Practice doesn’t make perfect, PERFECT practice makes perfect)”, the importance of communication among players and coaches and the need for players to master the game’s fundamentals as the building blocks for everything else that takes place on a baseball field.
Later in my tenure at Ripken, because I had been there in the early days and was part of developing what became known as “The Ripken Way” of coaching youth baseball – and because of my writing ability – I was put in charge of combining the teachings of Cal Sr. with the beliefs of Cal and Bill to create instructional products that could have a positive impact on thousands of youth baseball coaches – and in turn millions of youth baseball players – around the world.
In that role I helped produce or create instructional DVDs, instructional web content and coaching clinic presentations. I even was lucky enough to help Cal write his Baltimore Sun newspaper column and to write a book on coaching baseball with the two Ripken brothers.
While each of these products of course included a lot of information specific to baseball, they also included a ton of valuable information on how to communicate with young athletes and their parents, being patient when dealing with various skill levels, the importance of building fundamental skills, the role of coaches in a young person’s life and so much more that translates to any sport.
So I write today sincerely trying to help you as coaches navigate more than just the strategies of hockey, because I don’t feel that’s my place. But as someone who has coached for a long time and been around may successful high-level coaches and athletes – as well as someone who recently sent two kids off to play college sports, one of whom spent two years playing Tier 2 juniors, and currently is helping a handful of kids navigate the junior and prep school paths – I think I might be able to provide some useful insight.
So, here goes:
State Your Mission
This one is pretty simple, but can alleviate many potential headaches down the road.
What does your program stand for? Are you trying to win championships? Are you trying to send all your kids on to play NCAA hockey? Maybe it’s a combination in which you are trying to develop your players to play at the NCAA level while winning as much as you can. Or perhaps you want to give the best kids who grew up in your organization or area a chance to play at a higher level and help them get to college while surrounding them with a few players from other locations to make the team better.
All of this is fine. It’s your team, and you can do what you want.
What’s not fine is getting a kid to sign early by telling him he’s a top-end player while knowing you are going to continue to look for better players. It’s okay to tell a kid there are no guarantees, and that he has to come in and earn every minute of ice time he gets. In fact, this is the way it should be – for ALL players.
This really comes down to the owner, GM and coach or athletic director and coaches of all the teams in the program being on the same page. It’s about setting expectations. Should a player expect to be on the hot seat if he’s not producing and the team isn’t winning immediately, or do you plan to give your training-camp roster a few months to develop, rotating all the players so that they know their roles and play with confidence.
Chemistry is such a huge part of a hockey team’s success. It is my belief that the constant revolving door of players that some teams seem to embrace has the opposite effect of what many coaches, A.D.’s and GMs think it will have. It doesn’t motivate, but instead eats at team chemistry and causes players to lose confidence.
Hockey is perhaps the most team-oriented of all sports -- the guys spend so much time together in the locker room and off the ice. They go to battle with each other, stand up for each other and truly become a family. Some of the best teams succeed because the whole group working together tends to far exceed the sum of its parts. Many highly talented teams struggle for opposite reasons.
My advice would be to take the roster you assembled in training camp and give that group every possible chance to succeed – all of them. You saw something in them as players at some point, and helping athletes grow as players and people is what coaching is supposed to be about.
Develop them as players without killing their confidence. Players who are afraid to make mistakes, are constantly looking over their shoulders and who see new kids at practice every few weeks are less likely to be successful than kids who can play their game – and the game you want them to play – knowing that one or two mistakes won’t land them on the bench for a game, a week or a month.
The revolving door and the benching of some kids – but not others – for making mistakes leads to an environment where players are rooting for other kids to make mistakes or are trying to make kids look bad in practice or are talking behind each other’s backs. This leads to a lack of trust among players and coaches in addition to a loss of confidence among players who are riding the roller-coaster.
If you have four, five or six players who are relatively equal in ability, but maybe bring different things to the table and are competing for the final spots in the lineup, consider putting them in an early season rotation.
Look at your schedule and figure out who might match up best against what opponents and sit them all down and explain that you like them all and want to see how they develop without the pressure of being pulled in and out of the lineup. Let each of them know that they will play four out of every six games or three out of four or four out of five – whatever works based on the math – and that all you ask is for maximum effort and coachability.
Set a date – maybe four or six weeks into the season – at which time you will review their performance and tell them that as long as they are healthy, continue to work hard, have a great attitude and are coachable, they will at a minimum play in the games outlined up to that point.
Of course, if a player lights it up you have the option of increasing that kid’s playing time and maybe moving someone else down into the “developmental group.” Even if your goal is to win a championship, you need to peak and win games in the second half of the season, so this can be part of the process involved in trying to accomplish that.
At the prep level, this doesn’t involve bringing in outside players as much as maybe moving players up and down from Varsity 1 to Varsity 2 or from Varsity to JV, etc.
One thing that I think is very important for prep schools is to be honest with kids coming in who hope to play hockey when it comes to the structure of your program. Are Varsity 2, Varsity 3 and JV considered a developmental path for getting players to the Varsity 1 level, or is the program’s philosophy to plug yearly Varsity 1 holes with new recruits from outside the school? Are the coaches of the various teams working together to develop players or do they each have their own separate agendas?
In my mind, this type of approach will build the chemistry and trust you need in the locker room and on the ice to allow your team to compete and give your players the best chance to develop. And for the kids who prove to be incapable of playing at a particular level, you’ve given them every opportunity to prove themselves worthy. Now you know enough about them to help them find a team at a level where they can be successful and open up room to bring in the types of players you need to win down the stretch without destroying your chemistry.
Your remaining players are happy and ready to fight for each other – and for the coaches. You’ve helped all your players develop while helping your weaker players find a home that can still help them achieve their hockey goals.
If this approach doesn’t work for you, again, that’s fine. It’s your money. Your team. Your career. Just be honest about that.
Tell prospective players that your goal is to win as many games as possible from the opening gun and to win a championship, so kids who can’t cut it will be moved out immediately. Some elite players will embrace this approach – you want confident players with the right mentality in this type of situation, anyway – and everyone who comes on board will know what the expectations are from Day 1.
Be Honest with Yourself
This goes for GMs, coaches and even athletic directors. Look in the mirror and make sure that the program you are leading aligns with your career goals. Are you happy being a guy who develops young players and prepares them to go on to play at a higher level and achieve their hockey goals, or is your goal to coach at the highest junior level, or at the college level or even professionally?
If you are a guy who loves developing players and helping them achieve their goals, taking a job with an owner who is all about winning from Day 1 is going to create a lot of inner turmoil and stress that is likely to be transferred to your players and lead to dissatisfaction among the front office, the coaching staff and the players.
Just like with the players, your career goals belong to you and only you. No one’s dreams are wrong, but if you are telling players constantly to find the situation that is right for them in terms of the coach, playing style and their role, you as a coach or front-office staff member should listen to the same advice.
Make sure your “open door” policy truly is an open door. If you’re never around when the team isn’t practicing, don’t answer or return phone calls or are slow to respond to text messages – even though you want players to feel like they can come talk to you about anything – that’s not the message you are sending.
In all my years working with coaches in various capacities – including currently – I have often found that coaches are slow to respond to messages and emails when I need some information from them, but when they need something from me they expect me to be on call and ready to respond immediately. Don’t be this person. Be the person you want your players to be. Respond, even if it’s just to say, “Hey, it’s a bad time, but I’ll be able to respond or talk in detail sometime tomorrow.”
Another thing to consider is not waiting to announce the lineup and hour or two before the game. Unless there is an injury or illness to consider, you likely know the moment you finish practice before the next game what your lineup is going to be. Is something really going to happen overnight to change your mind? And if you truly are wrestling with what to do about one or two spots in the lineup, call those players in after practice to let them know what’s going on and that you will have a final answer for them first thing in the morning.
Making kids wait until the last minute to find out if they are playing is not motivating; it’s excruciating, cruel and unfair. If you ask your players to think about more than themselves, you should hold yourself to that standard as well.
And whether you want to deal with this reality or not, friends and family do like to attend games and show support for the players. Parents have trusted their kids with you, so it’s important to respect their decision to do that and give the players the information their families and friends need in a timely manner so that they don’t waste a trip or a weekend if someone is not in the lineup.
I would think it probably is a good idea to be available up to a few hours before game time on game day to talk to any players who are not in the lineup If this is something you prefer not to deal with on game day, consider having posted office hours during the team’s next off day. If you feel good about your decision and can support it, there never should be any issue discussing the situation with a player.
If you want this to be a quick game-day talk and are willing to have a longer meeting on your off day, come prepared to that longer meeting ready to help the player understand his or her deficiencies and improve. Have video clips to go over with him from games or practices and concrete examples of what he needs to do to get in the lineup.
“Be patient and keep working,” is not a fair response. Keep working on what?
Be specific about exactly what the player needs to do to get more time and follow up with a brief bullet-point email or text so there is no grey area and nothing gets lost in translation. Remember that kids tend to hear what they want to hear. If “Be patient and keep working” is the only advice you can come up with, it might be time to consider the rotation described earlier in the article.
If you truly want to help your players improve and develop, scheduling weekly individual meeting time with them to go over their play from the previous week or game would seem to be essential – especially for players who seem to struggle with coaching on the bench and making in-game adjustments. Video is the best way to help your players see situations and understand concepts they may be struggling to grasp at game speed.
It’s astonishing to me when I talk to players how many of them tell me they are getting very little to no individual video breakdown and analysis. It also seems that a lot of teams also aren’t watching much video as a group with coaches.
If time or technology is an issue, at least send the players some clips to watch on their own time with a quick breakdown of what you are trying to teach on a weekly basis. This can be as simple as, “Go to the game on HockeyTV at 24:11 and watch the next two minutes,” along with a quick note about what they should be looking for. You never will be able to accomplish everything you want on the ice in practice, so maybe just take an extra hour or two during the week to get some important teaching points across in this manner.
Your weekly meetings also can incorporate an update on the player’s contacts with college or junior scouts for the following year and developing an ongoing plan of action to help the player get recruited. Too many coaches wait for players to come to them about the recruiting process, and by the time they do they are behind the eight ball.
If you’re in the business of junior hockey or coaching a prep school team, you’re in the business of helping kids get to the next level – whatever that might be – so if that part of coaching doesn’t interest you, it’s probably a good idea to align with a third-party who can help kids with that process or dedicate someone else in the organization to that task.
Embrace Parents and Families
As mentioned previously, parents have trusted you with their kids and their kids’ hockey dreams. And at many levels they have paid your organization or school a large sum of money for their kids to play for you.
Don’t avoid them.
You don’t have to go out of your way to seek them out or provide them with detailed information about the team or how their kids or playing or anything that is for the team’s eyes and ears only. But if you see that a player’s parents are coming games regularly and are hanging out in the lobby when you are nearby, just go say hello. Thank them for their support and for trusting you with their kid and tell them that you enjoy having him or her around. This can be really quick and you have an easy out, “Gotta go get ready for the game.”
Having been a parent and been around many parents, I can assure you this will go a long way toward making those families feel good about their decision to have their kids play for you. And if you want to take it one step farther, consider ending the conversation with, “If you ever have any questions or concerns or need anything, feel free to reach out.”
Believe it or not, this will make it less likely that you will hear from parents. They will trust that you are a good person with the player’s best interests at heart, and if their child complains to them they are likely to tell him or her that you are easy to talk to and approachable and that he should come see you. Guaranteed.
Be proactive. Don’t duck around corners and hide. Most of your potential problems will be solved before they even occur.
Hold EVERYONE to the Same Standard of Accountability
This gets back to the chemistry issue.
If you are barking at a third- or fourth-line player continually about certain plays or mistakes and possibly limiting playing time because of that, be prepared to do the same with your top-six players.
Of course, holding everyone accountable will limit the grumbling up and down the lineup; that much is obvious. But from a developmental standpoint, none of your players are in the NHL, so the more you continue to let the top guys get away with, the more you are hurting their futures.
When a pro or college player or gets interviewed immediately after winning a championship, what’s the one word that you hear most often to answer the question, “What made this team successful?”
It’s usually “accountability,” as in “the coaches held us all accountable,” or “we all held each other accountable.”
If you are hard on your lower-end players for mistakes, for the sake of team chemistry and the development of all your players, it is important to treat the top players the same way. Nothing sends a message faster than sitting your top scorer or do-everything defenseman for a shift or two. If you want to keep your bottom-six or bottom-pair working hard and believing that they are as important as every other player, you have to be willing to hold everyone accountable at the same level.
If you want to lose your lower-end guys quickly and hurt their confidence, the easiest way to do that is by only holding them accountable or making them feel solely responsible for bad team performances.