When the game is on the line is when coaches most often forgo long-term development for momentary success by playing their better players, while the players who are less advanced remain on the bench.
As the time ticks off the clock in a tight game, every decision, every moment, is magnified. It is during those tense situations when players have the opportunity to rise to the challenge. However, in youth hockey, it’s also during those intensified stick-gripping moments when coaches need to rise to the test, too, and not shorten the bench.
Flint Doungchak, Pacific District coach in chief for USA Hockey, said players in youth hockey, and all youth sports, should get equal playing time regardless of the situation.
“The only way you get good at anything is when you spend time actually doing it – time on task,” Doungchak said.
Since 2003, Doungchak has been the head instructor for the USA Hockey District Coaching Education Program (CEP) in Oregon. He’s seen how coaches can sometimes take a short view when it comes to winning a single game.
“You have to realize that short-term gains often sacrifice long-term results,” Doungchak said. “I don’t know how you fix that until you start to have people look at the long run.”
The long game
USA Hockey recommends smaller teams. The idea is that smaller benches promote more ice time – in both games and practice – for all players.
“If you have big teams, it’s less time on task,” Doungchak said. “The way I describe it to people, if you’re going to learn to play the piano or violin, most parents would say they’d like their kids to have as much time as possible learning how to play those instruments. It shouldn’t be any different for youth sports.”
In both games and practice, equal playing time means that every player on the team will get an opportunity to improve. It’s simple math. If Player A doesn’t get the chance to play very much, that player won’t get the chance to improve. Conversely, if Player B plays all the time, through the nature of added repetitions, that player will be superior to Player A.
Youth coaches need to understand that they are just a single scene in the movie of a player’s career.
“When kids are young, you really don’t have any way of predicting who is going to be good in the sense of ranking them from 1-10,000 in their birth year [by the time they’re older],” Doungchak said. “So why don’t we give every kid a chance to play and develop and play as much as possible?”
Often, it is in close games when coaches lose sight of what’s important. When the game is on the line is when coaches most often forgo long-term development for momentary success by playing their better players, while the players who are less advanced remain on the bench. But coaches should put all players in all situations, so they get a chance to learn and play in pressure-packed situations.
“If you’re not playing a kid at a certain time, you’re teaching him a lesson he shouldn’t be learning, in terms of value, in terms of capability, in terms of learning how to be ‘that kid,’” Doungchak said. “On the flip side, if you always tell that other kid, ‘You should be the one in that situation 100 percent of the time,’ I don’t think he or she is learning everything they need to learn either.”
A youth coach’s mentality should be to push the bar just beyond a player’s capabilities. To get them to do or try something they didn’t think they initially could accomplish. Sitting players can lead to a lack of confidence and, worse, disliking the game.
“At the end of a game, a player might actually think they shouldn’t be playing in a tight game. It’s our job as coaches to say, ‘I’m going to stretch you in that situation.’ Sometimes you’re going to do well and sometimes you’re not, but it’s a task and a learning experience, so next time you can achieve at an even higher environment,” Doungchak said. “If we never give them that chance, they’re never going to be that person. It’s not our job to determine at 8, 10 or 12, even at 14 and 16, to start putting kids into boxes and say, ‘Well, you’re not going to be this guy so I’m not going to give you that chance.’”
It takes a lot of conviction to long-term development for a coach to deprioritize wins and losses. When it comes to equal playing time, it might result in an extra “L” or two.
“Coaches might make a mistake in the analysis and say, ‘What the kids really want is to win,’” Doungchak said. “In working with kids for so long, that’s not really what they care about. Yes, they have feelings and they don’t like the way they feel when they lose, but I think most kids would rather play and then think, ‘Ah, we lost that one.’
“But I think coaches can mistake that without realizing it and make [winning] more about them.”
Keep parents in the game
Coaches can also feel stress from the stands to win at all cost – even if it means shortening the bench to win a tournament. Parent pressure can be heavier than a double-overtime game.
“When I first started out, I didn’t really know how to handle [parents’ expectations], so I tried to do my thing without paying attention to what parents were doing,” Doungchak said. “But that in turn caused more stress because I’m not communicating with parents. So, being a coaching education instructor, that’s a common theme. I say that we’re in a time period where our roles as coaches, administrators or directors require us to educate parents, too.”
Doungchak said that coaches need to keep parents involved in the process and their eyes on the long view. Sometimes they see successful NHL players and want their kid to jump from 10U to the National Hockey League.
“What parents see on TV, they think everything has got to happen now. Everything has become instant gratification,” he said. “The media only presents part of the story because they can only give a 30-second snapshot. The guys they highlight on TV are total freaks of nature, meaning Jack Eichel was going to be Jack Eichel way before it happened. He’s an exception to the rule because he’s easy to explain. But we’re not going to talk about the rest of the players in the NHL who are excellent players and how they got there.”
If a parent is still unhappy after a loss, “Ask if it fits into the 20-year picture or the 20-minute picture,” added Doungchak. “If you are unhappy with the 20-year picture, come talk to me. If you’re unhappy with the 20-minute picture, then you’ve got to ask yourself whether or not that [loss] really matters in the long term.”
Finally, both coaches and parents need to remember not to place adult expectations into a kid’s mentality.
“I know it’s a cliché, but kids are really kids. When you turn on the TV and you’re watching Las Vegas play Washington, remind yourself that you’re watching 20-plus year-old guys. It took those guys three-quarters of their physical lives. Don’t put that kind of pressure on kids at 10, who just 5 years ago were not that good at walking. Kids are kids. They have kid brains. They have kid emotions. They’re not those guys playing for the Stanley Cup.”