From Behind the Bench: Developing the Next Generation by Paul Carson

Paul Carson’s roles, duties and accomplishments are many. Published children’s book author, educator, coach, hockey dad, Hockey Canada executive, board member of the Coaching Association of Canada are just a few. He understands hockey from pee wee to pro, and as Vice President of Development at Hockey Canada, he understands the need to be progressive in order for the game to grow and thrive.

In this edition of FROM BEHIND THE BENCH, Carson talks about how to move the game of hockey forward, and how to get on board with the sport’s evolution.

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My name is Paul Carson, I’m Vice President of Hockey Development with Hockey Canada.

A Pyramid Approach

Some people think that what makes a good coach is experience in the game—somebody who played at a high level whether it’s junior, college, professional or on the National team. Does this make a good coach? Not necessarily.

The first thing is practical experience. If you want to be a coach, you can’t just go out and study and then show up at a minor hockey association saying I’ve got this NCCP level and I’m ready to coach without having been on the ice yet. So, you want the practical experience along with the education. The next steps in a coach’s development could be mentorship, sharing of best practices, and finally professional development.

If you look at the first two levels—practical experience and education—as being the foundation, that’s where you’re going to meet people that would be good mentors. If you’re coaching female or minor hockey, you need to look to people in that environment and find someone that you look up to, that has something to share with you. Through Hockey Canada, we created skill instruction programs, like learning how to teach skating or developing defensemen or goaltending skills. These clinics are offered by resource people that I believe can serve as very good mentors at the minor hockey association level.

The Coaches Site conference provides a terrific professional development opportunity. It may not be a certification clinic or designed specifically for an age level or a specific skill level, but it will meet the needs of a broad range of coaches. It becomes professional development because there is lots of information and ideas coaches acquire from this learning experience. That’s the top of the pyramid.

And remember that we are in the business of developing people, developing the next generation of citizens. I think more than anything, developing an athlete is a byproduct of a really good sport system that’s focused on developing the whole child. Through their life experiences and sport opportunities they become good athletes. As a coach, you have to understand that there are other systems that have a role to play in shaping a person’s development—the school system, other community pursuits like playing a music instrument, and the all-important family unit.

But young players need to be good people first, and they need to have lots of life lessons along the way. They are people first—not players, not athletes, not future stars. Anybody that has a passion for the game and a desire to learn and continue to grow on a regular basis has the opportunity to be a good coach.

The Future for Females

Female Hockey falls under the Hockey Development department as well, and it’s critical that we always consider similar principles in terms of developing young boys and girls. We can never lose focus on the fact that female hockey is just as important in our country as the male game.

I believe sport should demonstrate and celebrate equality, diversity, accessibility and inclusion. When I’m sitting in on someone’s hockey development presentation, especially in our organization, I will be asking, “Where are the female clips? Where are the testimonials from female coaches? Where is the reference to playing on the Women’s National team as opposed to playing in the NHL? Who are the female players that we profile as role models and leaders in the game?”

We have to understand that our responsibility is not only to grow the female game, it is equally as important to grow female leaders who will lead the growth the women’s game. I was invited attend an IIHF Female Development Camp this summer and I declined the invitation.  My response was “I want to see a female leader in my place. We need female leaders teaching that course. And we need females mentoring the coaches.” Now is the time to make these program adjustments.

In my role on the board with the Coaching Association of Canada, and in terms of coach education and supporting the development of sport, we spend a god deal of time on the subject of diversity and inclusion. With a 15 member board, it’s always important to consider equality, diversity and inclusion. We’ll review the make-up of the board when it is time for new membership and say, “We need two more women this time.” The nominating committee will ask “What if the best candidate is a man?” Well, the reality is there are women that are going to be excellent candidates as well. You can’t pretend to care about diversity, inclusion and accessibility and then not demonstrate that in your behaviour as a leadership group.

An Evolving Game

Let’s talk a little bit about what how we see the game changing.

Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières did a study on the introduction of half ice hockey in Quebec last year and they surveyed moms, dads and coaches. The most receptive group to the change was coaches, most likely because they received some education on why this change was important. The least receptive group to the change was the dads, who may be more traditional in their approach to the game. The dads commented, “Well, I played full ice hockey at that age.”

If I consider three generations—my dad, me, and my son—I did not play hockey the way my dad played, and my son did not play hockey the way I played, and his kids will play differently than he did. Yet for some reason, people don’t understand evolution and the changing demands of the game enough to apply it in this case.

Our demographic in Canada is changing and relies heavily on immigrant growth. So, how do you draw people to a sport they’ve never seen before? Or they may have seen but don’t really understand? Or the top levels of the game are too fast, too hard hitting and a little bit scary? We need to get new families to hockey into a rink with five and six year olds, so they can see what the game is really like, but in the process, we also have to make adjustments to how the game is played.

I am a strong believer in multi-sport participation. So is Tom Renney, our CEO, and Scott Smith, our president. It’s because our number one priority should be to have all kids involved in sport. And then the youth hockey system needs to do a really good job at what we deliver. So, we have to ask ourselves, “How should the game change?” We need people to understand that change is necessary, and these changes are not going to negatively impact on the game. Change occurs when the fear of not doing something is greater than the fear of doing something.

I’ve had the opportunity to coach some pretty good hockey players over the years, and for the most part they really didn’t need me on the ice with them. They are self-starters, driving their own performance. Sometimes you have to get out of their way, let them have the ability to lead their own experience. We can’t expect everybody to approach the game the same way because they may not have the same talent, desire or motivation, but they do want to play, and they’re just as important. We need to make sure the game addresses a broad-spectrum of participants. The system should address the needs of all participants and not compromise the experience of any player in support of another player’s needs.

A big task on Hockey Canada’s horizon is to review the seasonal structure model for each age group. One of the challenges when promoting multi sport participation is that many people will say, “It’s great in principle, but at home my daughter’s coach is telling me if she’s not at tryouts in the middle of April and training with the team throughout the summer, she’s not playing on this team.” Coaches need to consider the needs of a young player and set reasonable expectations on commitments to a single sport.

There is no question this is a systematic issue in sport. The sport system has to self-correct and sports need to work together to ensure there is alignment. Sport leaders need to set some parameters on when the season starts, when the season ends, and what should occur during the season.

Advice for Coaches

Coaching during a game may be an important task, but it is equally important to pay attention to what you do as a coach from the end of one game to the start of the next game. This may be one of the hardest tasks a coach has. How do you manage all the stuff that goes on in between games? Especially today with social media and the challenges kids face with bullying and cyber bullying.

Be an open communicator and be transparent with your parents. There has to be opportunities for parents to approach you, not immediately after a game but within reason. At the beginning of the season have a parent meeting, and then monthly check-ins where you ask, “How are we doing? How am I doing as a coach?” Break parents into groups so they’re more likely to talk and get that feedback from them.

As a coach, you must be very clear on what it is you’re intending to accomplish with your team, because parents might say, “We have an awful team, we’re 0 in 9.”  But what has that got to do with being an awful team? Winning should not be the only measure of success. As a coach you have the ability to set goals for the players and these goals can be more focused on personal growth and improvement and less focused on team performance and game outcomes. It takes 17 or 18 players to make a hockey team. Every player will have a different experience each season. The goal should be to ensure a positive hockey experience for all participants, in a safe, sportsmanlike environment.

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