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Pitfalls for young coaches

03/12/2019, 9:30am CDT
By John Russo, Let's Play Hockey Columnist

Now is a good time to take stock of performance as a coach and to make a written list for improvements next season.

Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill

When I titled this column, the question in my mind was whether to use the term young coaches or inexperienced coaches. In this case, young means young and/or inexperienced. I believe that many young coaches have things to overcome that are not just related to inexperience, however. 

I would encourage head and assistant coaches to look for items on the enclosed shopping list that relate to their own coaching. Now is a good time to take stock of performance as a coach and to make a written list for improvements next season. I always make a list at the end of the year of things I would like to correct or do better in the future and of things that did and did not work. These might include drills, systems, relationships, handling problems or problem players, and communications. 

These items are much more important for young head coaches. By definition, assistant coaches are often (but not always) younger and/or less experienced. They will often be closer to the players since they don’t have to make the hard decisions that a head coach does. A young head coach has to develop a mature and organized approach very quickly.

It doesn’t take problems with all of the items on the list to spell trouble. One or two can be fatal to effective coaching. 

Some older/experienced coaches still succumb to these pitfalls as well. Generally, however, age and experience teach pretty good lessons. 
1. Letting the desire to still play interfere 
Invariably, young coaches want to be involved in drills and scrimmages and be one of the boys. It is impossible for coaches to properly teach and correct when they are going down the ice on a 2-on-2 drill or constantly shooting on the goaltender in drills. Of course, there are fun scrimmage times or breakaway contest times when coaches can lighten up and participate, if they wish. These are not times to show players that they can still do it all, however, but rather light, fun times. Coaches who still want to play are seldom good at their coaching duties. 

2. Not having good drill usage 
The key to keeping practices fresh is having a good spread of drills and activities that are appropriate for that team’s age level, skill level and time of season. That means, number one, that for the most part, drills and activities will change over the season so there is a need for many dozens of drills available from which to choose. Without experience, it is hard to know which drills work and which do not. It is often hard to tell from drill books the little nuances that make or break drills or which are best for solving certain problems or teaching certain skills. I suggest that visits to other good coaches’ practices (tell them why you are there) will often shed light on what to do. It is critical that drills are age-level directed. There is nothing more boring or less developmental than doing peewee level drills with a high school team, for example. Or having practices that concentrate heavily on offensive patterns – over and over – to the detriment of hockey smarts.
3. Not utilizing good assistant coaches
Recruiting good assistant coaches and utilizing their abilities and strengths is critical to be a good/great head coach. Young coaches can’t yet have all of the aspects of coaching in their arsenal, so they need to find other coaches that do – and learn from them as well as let them handle their strong areas.

4. Blaming poor performance on others or on the wrong people 
This pitfall, unfortunately, sometimes applies to more experienced coaches as well.  Young coaches, however, have less capability to analyze what problems really are, so they will tend to:

• Blame it on the referees. Players pick up on this too and give themselves good excuses - - and very bad habits.

• Blame it on the goaltending. Sometimes the goaltender can be the problem, but most often team defense makes a goaltender look either good or bad. It took me several years to figure out that too many goals against is just as likely to be due to breakdowns in how the forwards are playing, possibly in all three zones. 

• Blame it on the players. Now this sounds strange; the players are the ones who are playing the games! Coaches must look to their own preparation, teaching, communications, and systems first before they take the easy way out. Problems are really a situation for coaches. As I have said many times in this column, coaching is the single biggest impact item for success or lack of success of a team. Coaches need to identify shortcomings in players, systems, etc. and then help overcome these shortcomings with proper practices. Sounds easy, but it is so very hard to do. 

• Blame it on anything else. This could include the rink, the parents, the rules, and a myriad of items. 

5. Getting too close to players 
This is more likely to be the case when a young coach is operating at the high school level, for example. This relates to some degree to the first item, but extends to off-ice and other activities. There has to be respect, good feelings, maybe a little fear and many other relationship-related things between coach and players, but getting too close and being buddies is most often a formula for problems. 

6. Getting too complicated 
Because there are many good books on drills and systems today, coaches can get swept up in trying to insert Swedish national team drills or Russian power play concepts at the peewee or bantam levels. They also may lack the experience to know how to use a progressive system to move a certain drill from a fairly simple concept to a higher and higher level over time. It is important that players are able to grasp and execute good basics before moving up to the more complicated. It does take experience to know when a team or line or defense group is ready to move up to the next level of drills or systems. 

7. Assuming that playing experience makes for a good coach 
Wow, this may be the biggest of all of the pitfalls. Playing experience certainly is often an important ingredient in being a good coach. However, coaching is a different task with a need for a much broader and deeper understanding of the game. It takes study and effort to become a good coach over several years. Coaching has all of the challenges of teaching, management, and design all rolled into one package. Many young coaches did not have good coaching themselves, so have little good to pass on. They must dig in and learn. Fortunately, it is much easier to find help now than it was 15-25 years ago. Training clinics, video tapes, and books are everywhere. Mandatory USA Hockey clinics and books and videos are well done and can provide help. 
8. Not allowing player’s leadership to evolve
Ultimately, great teams don’t just have great coaches, but they also have great leadership among the players. Coaches need to give that leadership to the natural leaders - good, honest leaders.


John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and now mentor to the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin and recipient of prestigious hockey awards at the state (Peterson award) and national levels (Snooks Kelly). His Coaches Corner columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey each year since 1986.

Order John Russo’s new chapterized book, “The Best of 26 Years of John Russo’s Coaches Corner.” It has been described as a “must read” for all youth coaches. Go to for information and ordering.

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