Great decision-making might the biggest predictor of success in hockey. Players who pick the right plays more often than not, over the course of a game, control its flow. They earn the trust of their coach, receive more ice-time, and get more puck touches. Goals and assists also come by more frequently for them.
Unfortunately, decision-making might be the facet of the game that is the hardest to teach.
Coaches can help players improve their play selection by showing them which ones are available to them in certain situations, through drills and videos. To really improve the choices of players, however, it is essential to identify where their strengths and weaknesses are in the decision-making process — as it is a process, a succession of different mental abilities.
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You can break-down decision-making in many different ways. I like to think of it as four different elements: scanning, anticipation, self-awareness, and adaptation. A problem in any of those elements can reduce the quality of decisions of a player.
Players have to consistently gather information on their surroundings. The more aware they are, the easier the game becomes.
The best way to improve awareness is through frequent scanning of the ice. Players should make it a habit to look over their shoulders whenever possible to eliminate blind spots and build a clear mental map of the ice.
But it is not enough to just passively look. They have to actively search for the right details: their position on the ice, the location of their teammates and of defenders, and the gap between them and those defenders. They have to know how much time they have to execute their moves and where to skate next to support the play. There is always more information to collect.
Top players not only register the position of players, but also their body position, their handedness, the position of their stick, and their speed — all elements that further inform their choices.
Sometimes, a decision-making problem is simply a scanning problem. A player who doesn’t scan enough will generally pass the puck well when facing the play, but will resort to throwing the puck away on a retrieval against back-pressure.
Once a player has good scanning habits, the next step is using the information to guess the path that skaters will follow and the plays they will make. The game is fast-paced, but it follows principles and systems; a certain level of anticipation is always possible.
Those principles or systems allow players to anticipate the position of defenders and teammates in a given sequence. So that, if they find themselves in a pinch, they don’t have to search all over the ice for an option. They can look at specific areas where teammates should be.