Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Magic Dust of NHL Coaching Success

Every NHL season is guaranteed to see changes within its fraternity of head coaches. Such are the ways of the big league hockey world with huge payoffs at the gate the further a team goes into the playoffs, valuable exposure and merchandise revenues that come with a successful season and glory for all those associated. Failure to bring these dreams closer to reality with a winning team will result in at least a few unceremonious sackings throughout the year.

Just what goes into making a good hockey coach? What are the different qualities, characteristics and skills that contribute to long-term success? What are the unique elements that are especially relevant at the highest level with all the attendant media pressure and exaggerated expectations?

To first get a shot at weaving his magic in the big show, a coach must possess a decent pedigree. Former NHL players who demonstrated a desire to further their understanding of the game are usually the ones who will follow the coaching path. Those who took the lead in practices and the dressing room as a conduit for hammering home important points. Not all coaches in the NHL were players in the league, though most played competitively to a reasonable level while growing up.

Coaching experience before entering the NHL at that position is mandatory. The years of playing and coaching before getting the big opportunity lead to the requisite hockey knowledge that every big league bench boss posses to some degree. This is pretty much a no-brainer. Without an extensive and nuanced understanding of the game, a coach can never hope to move beyond the theoretical stage.

The ability to take that knowledge and use it to implement a practical system is much more difficult. Organization, hard work and surrounding oneself with a competent supporting cast are the foundations. While some of the assistant coaches, trainers and other support staff may be hired at the whim of the GM, normally the head coach will have a say as well. It is here in the personnel he surrounds himself with that the first glimpses of a coach's inner workings are revealed. His input in assembling a team is also key and highlights the importance of being able to recognize existing and potential talent and who will play well together.

The communication and interaction with players is where the real test begins. A coach must be able to relay the set plays, strategies and overall focus that he wishes to establish in leading to a team identity. Burn those drills into instincts and make them operate in tandem with the clean, uncluttered narrative that has been preached regarding what will lead the team to success.

In seeking out that perfect game plan and approach to a season and each individual game, a lack of rigidity is essential. It's perfectly understandable that every coach has their own particular take on the game and what works best. Based on the current climate, the quality of opponents and past experience, a potential system for winning must be created with the players who are available, not the team a coach wishes he had. Skills can be improved, habits broken and new ones learned, but there has to be a realistic recognition of the talent that is currently in the room.

Fine-tuning and responding to changes and developments as necessary and addressing lapses in fundamentals when needed, comes from years of observations and a feel for the emotional state of the team. It's also necessary to recognize when things are ticking along nicely and not to interfere or over-think things too much at that juncture.

Conditioning, training and practice regimens are a critical part of how a coach relates to his players. In any type of coaching or instruction situation, it's important to create routine and expectation for players. Humans crave patterns, systems and logic. In teaching his system, a coach must break it down simply, make it effective and somehow maintain enthusiasm within the familiar.

A hockey coach's performance leading up to a match-up and in actual game situations is one of the most vital factors in establishing whether or not he will rise to the elite class. Pre-game preparations, goalie selection and line arrangements in expectation of an opponent's strengths and weaknesses are aspects that should be used to judge coaching skills.

When the puck drops, reacting to game situations, matching lines and communicating with players are skills practiced under the glare of 19, 000 fans and the media and with little time for hesitation or second guessing. Between-period blackboard sessions and pep talks start to take coaches into that netherworld of intangibles and a hard to define "something" that really separate the individuals who have started to master the psychological aspects of the position from those who are passing through on their way to oblivion.

In many ways, it's an individual's make-up as a person that determines how well he manages the motivational side of being a coach. His character, temperament and ability to deal with adversity are things that are seen and felt by the players, who will spend many of their waking hours with the man assigned to help them achieve their dreams.

Mood is contagious and weaknesses can rarely be hidden over the long-term. To create a sense of trust, respect and just enough fear of the consequences if game plans aren't followed and effort isn't exerted, is something that can only be accomplished by a rare few people. Understanding players on an individual basis is crucial for the successful NHL coach. Create a sense of fairness amongst team-mates while actually engaging in anything but. It's important that a perception exists within the team that the same standards apply to all.

But anyone who has worked as a coach knows that different people react to different methods of extracting their best. And so some must be coddled, others nudged and still others rammed head-first into dressing room walls. To achieve the holy grail of coaching by creating a sense of urgency and eliciting performances beyond expected limits is the ultimate goal.

At the NHL level, another component of the mental game is the relationship that a coach develops with the media. Players make some allowance for the difference between what is said behind closed doors and what is offered to the media hordes. In fact, it is expected. A smooth talking raconteur of a coach can be a valuable tool in shaping the message that is played out in the public domain.

The media too can be used to send coded messages to the team through a coach's scripted utterances. It's a risky proposition to call out players in public for poor performances. A relationship with hockey writers and broadcasters that is too cozy will create some unease and mistrust in the room and may shatter the "us against them" mentality regarding opponents, the media and outsiders in general.

For all the talk of team togetherness and the code of keeping it behind closed doors, coaches are aware there is always the risk of the dreaded "losing the room," where certain players, usually the highest paid untouchables, decide to openly challenge authority and spark a mutiny. In today's game, players know that they can manipulate a coaching situation far easier than they could in the past. It's natural for individuals on a losing team to want to avoid the hard questions that such situations create. A good coach will keep the focus on improving, recognizing destructive narratives in their infancy and castrating them appropriately.

At the same time, he may have to engage in some mind games of his own. For example, subtly playing certain players off against one another without having it come across as contrived nastiness or done for any other reason but for the good of the team.

So what kind of ideal prototype do those qualities and abilities result in? The thoughtful enigmatic coach who induces a strong sense of loyalty and respect? Whose respect and approval in turn becomes almost as important to players as their desire to win? A Roger Nielsen, Freddie Shero or perhaps from today's crop a John Paddock? Or a hard-nosed, disciplinarian along the lines of Pat Burns or Mike Keenan who simply won't accept losing?

Various elements don't just come together and conspire to create a winning group of players. Many a talented team has been squandered and more than a few over-achievers have been created because of the actions of a head coach in the NHL. The magic coaching dust that some seem to posses, that ability to push players beyond their normal level of performance, remains a singular and hard to define quality that will elevate some to the level of myth and greatness. In many ways it's all about the words a coach uses and the atmosphere he creates. It's one long rap, riffing on and hoping the players will buy into his system and ride his wave of wisdom all the way to the top.

"Win together today, and we walk together forever."

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