This is I think the single most important question every coach needs to ask themselves before the season even starts. What is my focus going to be? Winning games or Developing the players? What do I want to develop in the players (skills vs systems)? What is most important? Does this change with age or level of play? These are some of the questions I would like to shed some light on through this article.
When a coaches focus is on winning games, this changes the way a coach has to coach. For starters, the best players need to be on the ice as much as possible. This puts the less talented players on the bench as much as possible. When we take this stance in coaching, we see the best players get better and the less talented players develop slower or possibly even get worse. The confidence for the best players is at peak levels, which in my opinion will help any player play to the best of their abilities. On the other side of things, the less talented player's confidence is at an all time low. This could push them backwards in performance. I have seen this at work many times where a struggling AA player will get passed up the next year for a top A player. That top A player was the go-to-guy for his team all winter.
Confidence levels were very high all year, while the struggling AA players confidence levels were very low. This has a huge impact on how these players develop in the long run. It can make or break a kid. This can cause struggling AA players to not enjoy the game. I see this style of coaching at every level from mites to High School. This, to me, is very disturbing at the Mite - Bantam levels. These levels should be 100% Development based. This means every player should play the same amount, in the same situations. Every player needs to see Power Play time, Penalty Kill time, Over Time, and the last two minutes of a tight game. This is so huge for the kids to develop competitiveness and confidence. Even when they fail to score, when they are one goal down and lose the game. These are times that compete levels are formed. Next time a player is in that situation, they are going to remember that loss and compete harder. These lessons have nothing to do with skill. Blowing a lead in the last two minutes of a hockey game hurts and will have effects on your mindset going into the next game. For me, at these levels especially, kids need to all play equally. I can tell you from experience that the best squirt is often not the best peewee or bantam. The best squirt may not even be playing hockey in Bantams. This is why it is so important to play them all!
How about the big debate between developing systems vs skills? Can Systems win you games? I think they can win you some games if they are executed well. I also think that without the proper skills the systems don’t work. More times than not I see coaches that are so concerned with X’s and O’s that they coach the creativity out of players. When players come back to the bench and get yelled at for not being in the right spot after every shift, it makes them scared to make a mistake. Playing scared has many negative consequences. Like low compete levels, less confidence with the puck, throwing pucks, and low creativity. Does this mean I’m against systems? Not at all, systems need to be taught. I do how ever believe system should be taught off ice mostly. Systems can be taught on turf with a soccer ball or a football. This helps kids to slow it down and really learn the system. We can learn this off ice and then once the kids have a good handle on it, bring it to the ice. This way we can get away from standing around on valuable ice time. This gives more time for teaching the SKILLS it takes to perform the systems you have mastered off ice first. Without the skills no system will work!
Now, I believe having a high focus on skills is ultimately most important at every level. From Junior to PRO are 100% about winning. Many may argue, that the High School level should be 100% about winning as well. For me, when I coach High School age teams and below, my gauge of success is based on what the kids accomplish after they are done with my team. How many kids can I help move on to the next level. This is going to have a far greater impact for everyone involved than winning more games in a season. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like to win. I love winning and I absolutely hate to lose! This is where all of this comes full circle. Winning is a bi-product of a skill development. Especially, at the end of the year, when it counts. These teams are more confident as a whole in high pressure situations, they are free to take more offensive risks, and have the skills to make plays that other teams have not focused on.