Every year at this time we look around and are literally amazed at how much improvement some players have made since the beginning of last season. And I am not talking about development that they have made to their skating or puck handling skills, although that is definitely a part of it.
Rapid improvement in those areas never really surprises us that much because we know that just by participating, by practicing and playing, players will improve their skills to the degree that they are willing to put the effort in to do so. And clearly, if they have the opportunity to learn proper technique right from the start, they will develop those skills at a much quicker rate than someone who starts out with some bad habits that have to be corrected.
Some people say practice makes perfect. In reality, practice just makes something a habit, and unfortunately a bad habit is reinforced just as easily as a good habit when it is repeated over and over again. The key is to do it right, and then build on that.
But the improvement we are talking about is not the kind that you can easily make in practice by putting forth the effort. What we are referring to is the development that can only be achieved by playing the game itself. Learning what to do and what not to do, when to do it and when not to do it.
Improvement of skills obviously plays a role. The more comfortable a player becomes in being able to skate or handle the puck in certain situations, the more it becomes second nature and the more that player can begin to focus on interacting with and against teammates and opponents during the course of the action.
So what are these signs that a player is making some progress? For some players it might be as simple as picking up the puck and taking off with it, head up, looking to see what lies ahead in his or her path. Although it might seem like a pretty basic play, for many it is a huge step.
Don’t believe us? Then maybe you have the same vision affliction that many players have. Look around. There are plenty of players at all age groups and all levels of the game that have no idea what is going on around them once they get the puck. Their focus is totally on the puck and maintaining possession of it until they lose it or it is taken away.
Sitting in the stands or on the bench it is easy to wonder how they did not see the open teammate or could not have made that pass. But they didn’t, and couldn’t, no matter how obvious it was to you and everyone else in the building. But then again, you didn’t have to worry about controlling the puck or be concerned with opposing players bearing down on you trying to take it away.
But at some point they do get it. Well most of them, but not all.
For others, progress might be realizing that they don’t have the quickness to win the races to loose pucks, so they have to be smart enough to figure out where the puck is going to go and get there before it does. Many of those who are blessed with quickness never do quite solve this equation and continually chase the puck around the ice like a dog chasing a stick, sometimes catching up, but just as often not.
Others quickly learn that it is a team game, especially if they don’t have the skating or stickhandling skills to take the puck end-to-end, so they have to rely on their teammates and the give-and-go passing game to get the puck where they want it to go. Some never realize this and habitually turn the puck over while endlessly trying to beat one opponent after the other, sometimes the same opponent twice in a row, seemingly oblivious to open ice or open teammates available to them.
Still others pick up on where to go when a teammate has the puck. They are the ones who are always open, always in position for an outlet pass in their own zone or for an open shot and a scoring chance at the other end of the ice. And then there are players who never seem to get the puck passed to them. It must be that their teammate has the blinders on, because it certainly couldn’t be that they weren’t in the right position, could it?
Some have a knack for scoring goals, are always in the right place at the right time, and the rebound just seems to fall at their feet with the goalie down and an empty net in front of them. Others never ever get the puck in the offensive zone, let alone a shot on net.
Often it seems that the puck follows certain players around. They always seem to be in the right position to break up the play, creating turnovers on the forecheck that result in scoring chances, while others always seem to get a stick on the puck to tip away a pass during an opposition attack. Then there are those who can just never seem to get where they need to be, always turning the wrong way, always arriving second late.
So how does this happen? How do you coach this kind of stuff? How is it learned? It’s not easy. Coaches can set it up in practice by designing game-situation drills and small area games with modified rules to try to create the opportunity for players to make the wrong and right decisions when confronted with these situations.
But unfortunately, you can never really re-create or match the intensity or the improvisation that occurs in a game. In a game, you can’t tell an opponent what to do, and in a given situation you can never really tell what they are going to do. Players have to anticipate. They have to read. They have to react. They have to learn to take what the opposition gives them. And if there is nothing there to take, they have to learn to make something out of nothing.
Hockey sense is such a hard skill to learn and teach. A lot of coaches believe that you either have hockey sense or you do not. We do believe it can be taught and learned by playing and watching hockey especially during unstructured times on outdoor rinks, ball hockey, street hockey, roller hockey etc… anywhere that has a culture that allows for creativity of reading and reacting so kids can recognize the patterns/concepts at a high pace level.
By nature, coaches love to be in control, to teach, to strategize, to manipulate the game and the players playing it. But the smart ones know when it is time to step aside and let the best teacher take over. Because only the game itself allows players to learn what can’t be taught.