6 Paradoxes of Skills Coaching
Teaching details that drive results
Newsletter subscriber and skills coach Sebastien Lemay (who we met here) invited me to attend a skills development session he ran for a small group of advanced players ranging from age 17 (2021 draft-eligible Jacob Guevin, rightmost in white) to age 10 (Thomas, middle in black).
After our ice time we met up at LaBrasserie in downtown Trois-Rivieres to talk hockey, drink beers and eat unreasonable amounts of chicken wings.
One topic we discussed was the difference between average and elite skills coaches.
“Things that make no sense, until they make perfect sense.”
Paradox 1: The best training aid is no training aid
(From an earlier article entitled “Minimalism in Hockey Coaching”)
Nowadays hockey-specific stickhandling aids, passing rebounders and shooter tutors are a cottage industry within our sport. Lots of skills coaches rely on these apparatuses to provide a challenge to their players when performing individual drills.
But while good skills coaches are adept at using the right on-ice hardware in their drills, the best skills coaches I know use no hardware at all.
Not using apparatuses forces a coach to really pay attention to the student and give targeted feedback.
Just completing a stickhandling circuit around, over or through fixed obstacles doesn’t mean that the skills will transfer to the game. But completing such a circuit with the incorrect posture, puck placement or visual scanning process means that the skills definitely won’t transfer to the game.
Paradox 2: To improve puck skills, start without the puck
Many skills coaches have their students start drills with possession in order to maximize puck-on-stick time.
On the first level it makes total sense, but habitually starting with the puck actually holds players back. After all, no one starts a shift with the puck on their stick.
Almost every Belfry or Nicholas drill I observed started with a player either retrieving a loose puck or receiving a pass early in the sequence. This is no coincidence. As I illustrated in an earlier newsletter post, the first touch makes the play.
Paradox 3: To get off the wall, play on the wall
In most minor hockey practices I’ve witnessed, players spend the vast majority of their time skating and carrying the puck in open ice rather than fighting for possession and jockeying for body position along the wall. They play between the dots in practices, then get pushed into the wall in games.
“Play how you practice, practice how you play.” Right?
To reverse the phenomenon coaches need to create more drills where players get their first touch on a rimmed puck, use their bodies to shield the puck and employ evasive skating techniques to attack the middle of the ice.
As a rule of thumb, 80% of a player’s initial puck touches happen outside of the dot lanes during games. Therefore it’s a good idea to devote a disproportionate amount of time working on the skills allowing players to turn “bad pucks” into good ones.
Paradox 4: To develop individual skills, incorporate partner work
Skills coaches are hesitant to have players pair up in drills rather than perform reps individually. Perhaps it is to keep their athletes fresher during long skills sessions, or maybe it’s to satisfy parents who would rather see their kids handle the puck rather than apply token pressure while someone else’s kid does.
The top NHL skills coaches think differently. For them the presence of a partner creates important context and pushes players to execute to a high standard on each rep. On a retrieval drill they seldom need to tell a player to go faster or to shoulder-check - not employing those fundamental habits leads to an unsuccessful rep when the player is being forechecked by a peer rather than a coach or no one at all.
Paradox 5: To teach finesse, practice with contact
In order to develop poise in game situations (a topic that I discuss here), young players need to feel comfortable. But a skills session is no place for comfort. Every session players need to be challenged with drills requiring them to take or even initiate contact while the puck in on their stick.
Skating is the act of balancing on metal razors while in movement. The same balancing act should occur when a player is practicing his/her puck skills.
If a player loses the puck every rep, then the drill is not right.
If a player never loses the puck, then the drill is also not right.
Paradox 6: To go really fast, start *really slow*
A number of minor hockey coaches ask their athletes go all-out early in the session while neglecting form, then continue to crack the whip and demand pace as the players tire. Bad technique + fatigue = bad reps & bad attitudes.
Here is an excerpt from an earlier post featuring coach Dan Mayes, in which we discuss how P.K. Subban can improve his training habits:
Dan mentions the P.K. Subban chapter in Hockey Tactics 2020 as a part of the book that resonated with him. While we are both fans of his enthusiasm and of his game-breaking ability, one aspect of P.K.’s training we find problematic is the speed at which he executes his drills.
In the video above, P.K. rushes through his reps. Going fast is a way for him to hide his technical inefficiencies.
He stacks his center of mass over his heels and works harder than he should. His poor ankle flexion and stiff upper-body don’t throw him off-balance because of the sheer kinetic frenzy he generates.
In classical disciplines such as ballet or martial arts, movement are first done incredibly slowly and deliberately in order to build fluidity and mastery before the speed element is added. Any technical flaws are immediately apparent. P.K. would gain much more information out of each rep if he just went slower.
Indeed, the goal is not to take the most steps in the smallest time interval, but rather take the least steps over the largest distance. Especially if your game is rushing the puck up-ice, and especially if you’re aging and physically slowing down.
Beginners have the ability to do a good rep slowly.
Intermediate players have the ability to a decent rep quickly.
But experts are able to do a perfect rep at any speed.
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