You teach your children some fashion sense
And they fashion some of their own
- Gordon Downie

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Riding the Coaching Rollercoaster

I spend most of the winter (and a significant portion of my summer) in a hockey rink. It has been this way since I was seven years old and I would not trade it for anything. As I noted in The Game I Love, hockey is a huge part of who I am. For the past several years, I have not walked into the arena sporting only a bag slung over my shoulder and a stick in the other hand.

As a coach, I walk in with both hands full. Depending on the day and my reason for being there, I might carry a bag of pucks, my hockey stick, a mug of coffee, my coaching bag (skates, gloves, helmet), a black binder full of things I think I need but usually don't get to, a dry-erase marker, a white board, lost and found items from the last game or practice, fundraising forms and money, to name a few things.

The gear I bring to the rink has changed, but my reason for being there really has not. I love hockey. I don't come to the rink to win championships, pad my ego or live vicariously through my kids. I hope that every player I coach wants to play hockey for the rest of their life. I hope my players learn something about themselves. I hope they improve their skills and at the end of the season, I hope they miss our team because every team should be something special.

It takes courage to coach a team. Ultimately, a team's success reflects directly on its coach. I love the tongue in cheek adage "I coached great. The team played lousy!" However, it rarely plays out this way. Good coaches are willing to take all of the blame and deflect all of the praise. When things go poorly for a team, people want answers. I firmly believe that no one begins a game hoping to lose. Some days, the team is not good enough. Other days, the puck simply does not bounce the way it should. Occasionally, your team can do no wrong. The outcome of most games has little to do with what a coach puts into the game. As a season progresses, however, the success of the team has to reflect upon the coach. Even though a team's success (or lack therof) might have nothing to do with coaching, the coach ultimately faces questions, second guesses and criticism.

I am a teacher and I believe in teaching the game to my players. Basic skills take precedence over team tactics. I have coached every level from initiation to college and I can guarantee that any team capable of executing basic skills (skating, passing, shooting) at a high level of speed and accuracy will do well against any opponent. I know that there is usually an implementation dip or delayed reward, which means that most of my teams take a while to excel. For me, it's a worthwhile tradeoff because developing basic skills benefits all players.

Most of what I have addressed so far has to do with the science of coaching. I really believe that it is important for coaches to be able to pass on the correct techniques and skills to their players. That said, there is a definite art to coaching that cannot be overlooked. When I think of the best coaches I had in minor hockey, the thing that stands out is their ability to say the right thing at the right time.
Not only did they know how to make individual players feel good, they knew what to say to the team to motivate them. The lessons I learned from men like my dad, Rusty Climie and Gary Williams stick with me to this day. These men always mixed positive reinforcement with correction. Today, my approach to individual players and the entire team is always guided by these amazing role models. I was fortunate to have the best coaching of my hockey career when I was in Pee Wee and Bantam. The lessons I learned from those coaches have remained with me, not just in hockey, but in life.

The rewards of coaching are immense. When I hear young players call "Hi, Coach Ted" several years after I was their coach, it truly fills my heart. My basement is full of pictures, hockey sticks and cards signed by the teams I have coached. I have coached a few very successful teams and a few that could not find the formula for success. Regardless of a team's record, I look back on the memories from each season with great pleasure.

As much as I remember the great things, the not-so-great things stick with me, too. Coaching stays with a person. It can keep you up at night, distract you from your work and affect your personal life. At the worst of times, coaching makes selfless people question themselves. There is a downside that can be unsettling and heartbreaking.

The hockey season is drawing to a close, and I think it is really important to reach out to anyone who  gives their free time to coaching a team. I have been incredibly fortunate in Red Deer Minor Hockey to have amazing assistant coaches and managers. My opposing coaches have, with very few exceptions, been tremendous colleagues. If you have not already done so, take a moment to personally thank your team's coaches. They willingly get on a roller coaster three or four days a week and ask for nothing in return.