Practice without improvement is meaningless.
Former NFL coach Chuck Knox, to whom the statement is attributed, might have been having a bad day at practice and muttered it in frustration. Then again, perhaps he was in a circumspect mood and the pithy aphorism was suitable at the moment.
We get maxims like that from the pros or famous people fairly often. We nod at how they’re occasionally even applicable to our own worlds. The questions then are: Does Coach Knox’s remark hold true for minor sports in general and, in our case, hockey? Should we expect improvement in every practice? Is that even possible? And if it is, how do we know it’s happened?
If you watch carefully, hockey practices, especially in minor, can be studies in frustration. Let’s set aside for now that in this country, the one person who apparently knows less about coaching than everyone is the coach. Even those with rudimentary thoughts about the game see practices and wonder what the heck the coach is up to. The frustration for an observer comes from not understanding where the practice fits in the grander scheme of the season or what its specific objectives are. Sometimes drills or activities seem disconnected from one another. What was the point, one wonders? At the end, you ask yourself if the kids learned anything and/or if it was fun.
Let’s examine this from a different angle. If you were to pick a day to sit in on your child’s class in school, what might you see? As well, wouldn’t you ask yourself some of the very same questions as with the hockey practice? A grade nine class is working on a math lesson. The teacher has assigned exercises for students to do at their desks. A few are using tablets that have videos to walk them through solutions. Others require the teacher’s hands-on assistance. You’re watching from the back of the class. Nothing seems to be happening. There’s not much chatter. It appears the teacher is doing more guiding than actual teaching. The 80-minute lesson ends and you can’t be sure if much of anything happened, let alone improvement. Sure, they practiced stuff. But are they better at it?
Now in minor hockey, coaches mostly don’t have the luxury of years of training and experience. Their practices are infrequent and on tight timelines. Your 50 minutes aren’t 51. Plus the physical environment is hardly conducive to a comfortable learning setting. There is pressure to make the players better, which means the practices need to be good ones, however one defines “good” for an age group or level. Within these challenging parameters, coaches need to squeeze in new instruction as well as review previously taught skills or tactics.
If hockey practices occurred daily in shorter timeframes, such as in hockey schools or private academies (for which one pays a high price), we would see a noticeable improvement at the end of, say, a week. A full week of puckhandling instruction, even if weighted mostly to drills versus technical teaching, will provide improvement. Back to the school comparison: If students spend a solid week of lessons on two-step equations, they will be better. If they spend one lesson on the topic, the likelihood is only some will get it.
Coach Knox’s football teams, as in any pro or college sport, practiced almost daily in one form or another. Improvement was inevitable. Yet he was stating that any practice should have improvement. He didn’t say, “A week of practices without improvement is meaningless.” It’s a significant difference and the impact on our sport’s coaches is profound.
We ask a great deal of our minor hockey volunteers. What happens when we tell house league or recreational coaches that their once-per-week practices must result in their players showing improvement? For one thing, we’re putting a great deal of pressure on coaches who are mostly ill-equipped to accomplish it. Secondly, how do we know they have improved in something?
Learning is tough to measure. The “rule of thumb” in hockey is that if players can perform something in a game, then it’s been learned. Not perfected, just learned. This would suggest we need to determine the nature of improvement in competition. Seeing it in one practice is likely asking a lot.
The kids may feel they’ve improved after 15 minutes of practising those stick checking exercises while the coaching staff may suspect they’ve improved. Empirical observation does count.
Given the constraints of most minor hockey practices, that may be the best we can get. If the kids and the coaches feel the practice has produced improvement, it’s a start. We still must recognize that skill and tactical improvement in practice is, more often than not, a long term objective.
Richard Bercuson, the author of “Inside Coaching Hockey,” is a Hockey Canada/OHF facilitator and instructor with over 40 years coaching and teaching the game. His weekly coaching blog “Deflections” can be found online at hockeynow.ca
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