skip navigation

Russo: The importance of Pre-Season and Early Season planning/prep

11/11/2020, 10:45am CST
By John Russo

Many parents probably think that coaches pull their skates out a couple of days before the first practice and their previous playing and coaching experience is enough to prepare them for at least the first weeks or month of the season. Even some coaches think they can operate from the “seat of their pants”.

After playing for 20 years and coaching another 45, it is abundantly clear to me that really good or great coaches are way ahead of the curve through good planning and preparation – much of it taking thought and hard work.

To start with, the selection of their team is not as easy as finding the “best” 15 to 20 players. Experienced coaches are concerned more with overall skating skills, work ethic, coachability and commitment shown during the off-season to strengthen weak areas through dry-land and on-ice work. These types of players (at all levels) form the nucleus of a team that allows a coach to properly teach and show the maximum amounts of growth and improvement. Many coaches do not make good decisions concerning the factors of coachability, discipline and work ethic, and suffer for those decisions as the season progresses. 

Preparation for the entire season should be done in writing. Philosophies, overall goals, strategies for achieving goals, practice general planning, and milestones for checking progress should be established before the crunch of the season begins. It is worthwhile to briefly review each one of these items: 



Philosophy items include such things as communication with players and parents; team rules and disciplinary actions; practice to game ratios; breaks during the season; outdoor practice ideas; and coach/player relationships. 


Overall goals 

Goals should center around individual skill development; team system development; attitude and discipline development relating to teammates, coaches, parents and referees; improvement in understanding the game; and winning percentage. All established goals should be realistic and reachable. 



This involves deciding how the goals can be achieved – how to get results. All coaches should provide input concerning strategies. 


General practice planning 

This involves converting general strategies into practice ideas and philosophies. How practices will progress as the season progresses, when different skills and systems will be taught, and how the practices will generally be run. This is the basis for actual preparation of practice plans for each segment of the season. It is a time to decide, for example, what forechecking and power play systems will be utilized during the season and when these systems are to be taught and installed in the game plans. 


Progress milestones 

Coaches should establish set dates when they will measure the progress of their team (and individuals) against the goals that have been established to see if revision in the goals is necessary. I like to break the season into three segments: early season, when I am most concerned about individual skill development, team discipline, ethic, and understanding of basic systems; mid-season, when I want to start introducing more complex systems and skills; and late season, when I want to fine-tune the team and individuals and see what kind of game results can be obtained from the growth and development that has been taught during the season. Late season results and progress are what coaches should be aiming for, so early and mid-season measurements are critical. Early season concern for winning will often have a negative effect on the proper teaching that should be ongoing at that time, so that late season results can be achieved. 

Pre-season and early season planning takes time – but a lot less time over an entire season than trying to operate without good pre-planning. Some of the older, more experienced coaches fall into the trap of minimizing pre-planning because “they have been through this before.” The truth is, every season and every team is different and requires different goals and plans. Coaches should be looking for the new approaches, ideas, systems, and philosophies that they can use in the upcoming season to help them do a better job than they ever did before.

It is unlikely that any coach can run good practices without good progressive practice plans. To properly prepare individual and grouped practices, it requires the thought process that comes from pre-season philosophy, goals, strategy, and general practice and milestone development.

Youngsters deserve a well-planned operation. As I have said in the past, there is nothing worse for a young hockey player than a poorly organized coach that muddles through the season, not sure of where his team is headed. Coaches that are prepared in advance for the season and for each piece of it will enjoy it more and do a better job. They will also get better results from their players and gain the respect of the players, as well as all others that they come in contact with during the season. 

Now is the time to get in control of the season.


John Russo, Ph.D., is the founder and now mentor to the Upper Midwest H.S. Elite League. Hailing originally from Sault St. Marie, he was the first recruit and two time captain for the U of Wisconsin Badgers. He has been the recipient of the prestigious Peterson Award by Minnesota Hockey and the Snooks Kelly Award by the US College Hockey Coaches – both for exceptional development of hockey on a regional and national level. He is a (national) level 5 certified coach and has over 50 years coaching and training experience from mite to college levels. His Coaches Corner columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey each year since 1986.


A version of John Russo’s articles can be found in his chapterized book called “The Best of 26 Years of John Russo’s Coaches Corner”. It has been described as must read for all youth coaches and his Golden Rules can be found in dressing rooms throughout North American and many foreign rinks. Go to for more information and ordering. 


Tag(s): State Of Hockey  John Russo