As hockey coaches, it is time for us to up the ante

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Henry Acres

Henry Acres is based in Sweden, as a husband and father to twins. He has experience as a team and skills coach, in management and scouting at various Pro and Jr. levels in Sweden, Finland, Norway and continental Europe.

He possesses Elite Trainer certification (ETU) from the Svenska Ishockeyförbundet and HP-1 from his native Canada.

Henry is motivated to continuously develop people, teams and organizations towards becoming their best and himself on this journey.

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2021 is a year of profound opportunity to adapt and grow.
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2021 is a year of profound opportunity to adapt and grow. The reality of our time is that modern humans are a “new breed.” Humanity is progressing at an astounding rate and we hockey coaches will be left behind in the same way as the “dodo” if we refuse to learn and conjunctively unlearn what once worked to stay relevant to the times. Our shared world and today’s hockey players aren’t moving backwards to embrace the leadership of years gone by.

Far too long coaches have taught to the lowest common denominator. “They don’t have the skill” and “they aren’t smart enough” are common expressions I have heard and in times of sorrow, and have spoken myself. These statements echo throughout the coaching and leadership ranks extending into every rink on Earth.

This is your job — this is your challenge — your players do have the ability; it is up to you to unlock their vast potential. Why do most kids of all ages leave the game? It isn’t fun anymore.

Why?

At a very basic level. They have a stunted education, feel trapped, unheard, undervalued and/or constrained by “the system.” Players feel unable to express who they are via this great game, limiting their imprint and personal stamp on it. With this, I am speaking to the junior levels and above. U16 and above players have, generally speaking, accrued the basic skill level required to begin to be able to truly express their ability to play the game. With your nurturing they can and will continue growing their abilities to express themselves individuality within the team construct. Why kids leave the game before this age is a PHD thesis on the multitude of variable factors involved that is a dissection best left for another day and should probably include a panel of sociologists and phycologists for good measure.

Now, the players do share in this conundrum — what are we as coaches, the media  (social and mainstream) inundating their fertile minds with? The sublime genius that perhaps 50 humans possess and have the ability to express fluently as demanded, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, etc. This is the picture of what “good” is and this picture is what they believe it will take to “make it.”

When confronted with this picture, this task to be “good” is much too vast for a developing brain to comprehend and as a player you are confronted with a few options:

  1. Dig in, go to work, embrace the struggle and all it entails by attempting to figure out, how do I become this? By asking questions, studying full games, not only twitter highlights, putting in the homework outside of their structured team and/or individual training sessions, playing multi-sports to enhance your entire athletic base and skill development including movement patterns with full understanding there is no guarantee you will get where you dream to go, while you will get what you work for and these skills will serve to assist as you navigate the big game of life.
  2. Go through the motions, playing small until you decide this isn’t really for me.
  3. Hang ‘em up directly and devote your time to other pursuits. Keep in mind the game we love, profoundly loses, when any player/coach/referee/volunteer leaves the rink for the last time.

What can I do about this?

Embrace the process.

You as a coach must have a clear vision of what it is you want to happen in every segment on the ice. Defensive zone-coverage(s), net-front play, hand-offs, skating patterns, retrieval routes, recovery strategies, on-ice communication, how do we start the offence, neutral zone play, offensive zone play with and without the puck, faceoffs, special teams, forecheck, tracking, line changes, dump-ins, etc. What do you want to happen?

Be as detailed as you can possibly be. Is this overall picture crystal clear for you? This is the base of your system-team play. Your ability to relate and teach this to your players will be impacted by your understanding of the purpose- the why? Why is this the way you want to play? Dig into that and question why you believe this is the road you want to travel. Is this the road for your players? How far off are they from having the ability to execute what you desire? If you are succumbing to the internal and external pressure to win, these questions will determine the amount of pain you will endure and ultimately how much you are willing to endure in order to create your vision. As when the bullets and grenades of the season start to fly, the strength of your questions and overall preparation will affect the fate of your ship and the precious cargo within. The better your answers match “your truth” and the reality of where you and your group is, the less painful and more joyful the experience will be for all. Do the research, ask questions, while staying present and aware in the moment by retaining “the beginners mind” as once you become set fast or fixed in a belief of how to play you begin the slow death of a thousand cuts. Your ability to pivot is just as important as your players. You are the key to giving life to the “way” you play, additionally unlocking your players abilities to flourish and pushing your dream from a vision into reality. This similar questioning process is paramount in the building of your entire program:

Identify and detail all the skills your players require to succeed in your system, gain and enhance the knowledge you require to build as strong a teaching base to grow these skills to the best of your ability, challenge and develop these required skills in you and your players daily. Plough the earth, plant seeds and water your charges to harvest the fruits of your shared labour at the required date. We are blessed with an infinite amount of resources at this time to assist us with this and my experience has been that anyone who loves the game, is very willing to share experience from their journey. Your players and associated stakeholders will provide you with immediate and vital feedback by the action they do or do not take.

“When you know how to listen, everyone is your guru”

Belief in yourself and the strength of your process will determine the level of achievement. If you are going to follow this method and embark on this journey, you will fail. What will carry you and the group through the painful and difficult times is your unwavering belief in yourself and this process. Your energy and belief combined with your ability to create a clear picture of their role (each individual) in bringing this vision alive thus empowering your team with infinite energy. Strengthening each individual’s self- belief and self-worth, in the relentless pursuit to grow the chain links together via chunking, life affirming information containing a bite sized piece of your knowledge base. Engaging the group as a call to action, to lift each other today and each day that follows.

“Be the change, you desire in others”

Communication: most dissatisfaction from players, management, parents, lies in the failure to communicate at the required level to the individual. Making clear, reaffirming, reframing, to your players is only a piece of your team that is required to understand your vision and process.

Illustrating the “how” we will construct and accomplish our goals for all stakeholders, coaching staff, parents, management, board members, sponsors, fans, agents, the more of these “people of influence” in your players lives, you can involve the better. The process then begins to move, transferring “your vision” into a shared vision, fostering a “heartfelt” investment in the process of your program, the greater your shared potential for success becomes a reality.

When the human mind is unsure, unclear of something, the mind will run, at a cost of vital energy from the required task(s) as each individual’s mind works to create a feasible story to latch onto. There is some measure of truth in this created story, what you need to be aware of: is this the truth you want these individuals to have? Break this cycle as immediately and often as required.

Bringing the focus back to why that individual is here today, what we are working to accomplish and how our partnership is immediately strengthened by a precise, laser-like focus on the process towards accomplishing our shared goal. This takes time and skill. Invest and prosper. What can I improve to advance the result I desire to have happen? Who is being left out (in the cold) and why? What am I, are we missing? How can we do (each other) better?

“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”

Culture/Environment: What is the feeling we want to achieve for ourselves and each other today? Do you accept, embrace, recognize and build each individual for who they are and what they contribute to our group today? Have you created a safe environment for learning, allowing growth to take place today? Are you stretching yourself and in turn your players today? Did we accomplish this today? Why, why not?

Presently for me these are the big questions to be answered daily. If myself and my organization (coaching staff, support staff-equipment, medical, management, agent, parents, romantic partner, anyone who is in consistent daily contact with the players- “It takes a village”) as a whole fall short on accomplishing this. What is the effect?

The effect of falling short on this daily goal is the desired growth requirement for today is adversely impacted, at best hindered, and if left unchecked on multiple days this will chink away at the armour of our collective belief, eventually making “the dream” impossible. This excess noise leads to the individual and team being unable to perform to the best of their abilities in the required moment. Today’s opportunity is lost forever.

Tomorrow is a new day, and the process begins anew of creating a plan, executing said plan, evaluating the result as an individual, staff and connecting the pieces together for the entire team. Surfacing a clear focus and purpose for today, so together we can achieve at the optimal level that we hold ourselves accountable to in our desire to continuously, lean into it and push forward to be better today than yesterday. Involving and assisting your players in developing a working model for them to increase their rate of understanding how they can make use of this plan, execute, evaluate process, promoting “ownership” of their development.

Again, the clearer your picture of the process, and associated steps; will enhance the belief, building further investment from all parties, on and off the ice, creating a greater embracement of the ideals and values of your program’s culture, strengthening the ecosystem and environment you are all working in. Building and nurturing the bond that promotes individuals and teams to perform beyond any level you may believe attainable from each team member and the group as a whole. What is this vital ingredient? TRUST. It is a truly beautiful and magical experience, a feeling you want to experience again and again. When a high level of trust is achieved, magic moves from fantasy to reality. You strive to ride this wave as long as possible. In my world this is the level of “success” and desired outcome that truly motivates us each day. With sustained dedicated focus, working together to create and maintain this high level of trust it will culminate in consistent championship performance, time and time again.

Stay mindful that when trust is fractured, this magical level of performance once again becomes obstructed or unattainable and you must begin once again from the beginning. By asking the questions that will reveal the truth, with the purpose to begin anew. Re-building the bonds that bring it all together, generating the opportunity to boost the ability of each individual to lift your team and organization to a higher working level of trust. Enabling performance at an entirely new peak level. This cycle is a constant in every team environment.

Remember when you begin each new season, coaches can get caught in the belief even with a full returning roster your team will remember all these steps we have taken together. That was last year, and we have all evolved during this time between games.

Trust and enjoy all your process provides, growth is painful yet required, your players and “the best game you can name” will thank you for your investment!

Keep creating and stacking great days.

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