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PRACTICE ENVIRONMENT- how to really prepare your players for game time

I spent some time listening to a ‘Glass and out’ podcast earlier in the week, that had former Toronto Maple Leafs and Canadian Olympic team head coach Mike Babcock on as a guest. While I learned a lot, he touched on an area that I wanted to expand more on. He briefly went over a couple of techniques on how we can get the absolute most out of practices that we can. His main message was eliminating time at the board, and rather, demonstrating drills instead. As a staff, we have had numerous conversations about maximizing practices, especially as of late. This is not talked about enough. I wanted to dive in to this more, building off of what Mike talked about for only a couple of minutes, and break down ways you can make your practice more impactful. 

Having taught different coaching clinics for Hockey Alberta this year, the pointers below are also some that I pass along to my attending students. These have lead to consistent success in our sessions. Keep in mind, every practice your team gets better or worse, there’s no in between. That’s the approach we need to take. 

For a 1 hour practice, we aim to be less than 8 mins explaining drills, communicating messages, and/or getting set up. Want to play at a high pace for 60 mins in a game? Don’t expect to do so if your players are listening to you talk for 1/3 of the practice. Practice intensity is not high enough, and skill sets are not improving. Keep players invested in the practice, and you will be amazed at how much your practice quality improves. 

The game is about the PLAYERS, not us coaches. Our job is to enhance the environment, and design proper progressions to improve and increase confidence. While reviewing details are important, at some point, we need to allow players to create a ‘feel’ for the skill, and learn by doing. Make explanations clear and direct, with a game example, ask for questions, and continue on with practice. Talking too long loses attention, and risks creating confusion. Teach players while they wait for the next rep. 

Our practice structure needs to match the way we want to play. The first 5 minutes of practice dictates the habits you are building.’

Some keys that help keep intensity elevated and quality high:

  • Explain first 1-2 drills prior to getting on the ice so you can hit the ground running. Again, first 5 minutes sets up the rest of practice.
  • Review objectives of practice, and how it transfers to your players’ individual games and team, before practice. Talk about details you are looking for. Engagement increases when these are communicated! Allow for player questions and input. 
  • Practice time is not stretch time. It is your responsibility to be physically and mentally ready to go once you step onto the ice. Teams will do dryland before a game, but not a practice. Which one are you skating more in?
  • Maximize ice surface and activity of all players at all times- stations, position-specific skills, etc. 
  • Don’t draw the drill AND demonstrate it. Majority of todays athletes respond better to visual learning, especially younger ages. Efficiency between drills is key. 
  • If drawing up the next drill, have players bring water to the board while listening. Other coaches should be setting up the next drill. If demonstrating, get pucks/cones/equipment in place while players get water. All coaches should know the plan! 
  • 2, 3 tops, main focus points for each drill. Players will never remember, never mind execute, 8 things. What will make the biggest impact in their game right now amongst this drill? Key in on those.
  • Give feedback and teach, while players are waiting in line or performing stationary or small group skills
  • Utilize all coaches, whether it is by adding in an extra check, pass, etc, or running a station. Encourage all coaches to teach, there is value in other voices for the players. 
  • Add in extra skills at the start or end of drills, or a second puck to recover after a shot (good habit)
  • Encourage competitions amongst players in certain drills- counting points. Maybe a forward line competes to see who scores the most goals in a drill.  
  • Implement fast changes between drill reps- translates to a back check after a shot, a Dman following up the play after breaking the puck out, etc. 
  • Use of relatable small area games- increased puck touches, compete level, playing in traffic, fast transitions. Skills, tactics, and systems have to be transferred to a competitive, game-like environment. 

Conditioning is something that does not seem to be talked about as much as it used to, when we look at our teams and players. Puck possession is a lot of work. All 5 skaters have assignments every second they are on the ice. Let’s not enable our players intensity and tempo to drop, because of our lack of preparation, or execution.

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