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How to Pull the Best Out of Your Players

By Mike Doyle, USA Hockey, 12/03/19, 1:15PM CST

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Use these coaching strategies to push your players to be the best they can be.

Players need to learn how to make decisions for themselves in real-time.

Video gamers use controllers to dictate the action on the screen. In youth hockey, joystick coaches try to control all the action on the ice with their voices, shouting directions from the bench.

“You see it a lot in games at the youth level,” USA Hockey Coach-in-Chief for the Minnesota District Christian Koelling said. “You see a lot of coaches shouting instructions from the bench during the game. The odd thing is you don't see any NHL coaches doing that. Even NHL players make mistakes but coaches don't yell the entire game and try to tell them what to do every second.”

Hockey is a fluid, quick-thinking sport full of twists and turns. Players need to learn how to make decisions for themselves in real-time. 

“Yelling doesn’t really provide any benefit because the players on the ice can't even hear you most of the time,” Koelling said. “Even if they could, they won’t be able to make that play based on you yelling what to do.”

Additionally, it can have a negative impact for the kids that are closest to the bench boss. 

“All the players that are on the bench are probably not too excited if coach is yelling play-by-play,” said Koelling, who is the director of hockey operations for the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. 

Good coaches can fall into this impulse during the heat of the moment. Koelling said that coaches need to consciously step back and remember kids need to learn on their own. 

“There are ways coaches can help that process along but shouting instructions throughout the game doesn't help produce results,” Koelling said. 

Pull Rather than Push

Shouting out instructions throughout the game, or even practice, certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. Many coaches’ coaches used the push method: always telling players what to do and where to be. 

“I think a lot of our coaches grew up with the traditional learning method that everything was push. The push method is centered around the coach,” Koelling said. “The pull method is centered around the player and it requires more patience and it requires more time, but ultimately there's a better outcome. With the push method, you might have more immediate outcomes but it's not good for long-term development of that player.”

Rather than always telling a player where to go or what to do, getting players think for themselves is the ultimate goal of a coach. 

Declaration of Player Safety

“Asking questions is really important as a coach because it opens the door for players to reflect and studies show that learning occurs with reflection,” Koelling said. “So just asking players what they did well and what they might improve in the future are really good ways to open that door up and allow players to learn.” 

Self-reflection can also be a good way for players to recognize mistakes without having to feel the criticism of the coach.  

“Pulling the feedback from the players instead of telling them what they did wrong is more powerful. If, as a coach, you can get them to realize what they did wrong or what they may need to improve on without giving them negative feedback, then it creates a more positive environment for players to learn.” Koelling said.  

Let Go of the Joystick

It might be difficult for some coaches to loosen their grip. Often, coaches might feel pressure from parents, administrators and even other coaches watching from the stands. 

“I think coaches need to be confident enough in themselves if a practice, game or even a particular drill looks unorganized or unstructured. Sometimes that's when some of the best learning can occur,” Koelling said. “I think coaches may feel pressure at times that they look like they don't know what they're doing if there isn't that structure in place.” 

Controlling every aspect of every game and practice by constantly shouting directions doesn’t allow for learning. Koelling said that coaches need to realize they are teachers and they need to focus on long-term development over short-term results. Asking questions, using the pull method and not vocalizing directions from the bench are ways coaches can get the most out of their players. 

“It allows a player to figure out how to learn on their own. It allows them to truly understand something – a concept – rather than just doing something because they're told to do it,” he said. “Not only does it help them understand a concept or learn something in a more thorough manner but it also sets them up to learn more efficiently down the road as well.”

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