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Last Updated: Sep 13th, 2007 - 20:41:00 


Behind The Bench
How to run practice
By Bill Ferguson
Nov 9, 2001, 18:48

Mike Milbury teaches his players NHL fundamentals. ©BBS

We’ve all heard the phrase “Practice Makes Perfect.” But when it comes to hockey that old adage can get you in hot water. And as we all know, hot water and ice hockey don’t mix. A more accurate phrase might be “Practice Makes Permanent.” With that in mind this article looks at how to structure practices and get the most out of them?

I spoke with Guy Gadowsky, assistant coach of the Fresno Falcons of the West Coast Hockey League, who ran most of the daily Falcon practices this past season. The Edmonton natives’ hockey experience includes college, European pro Leagues and the IHL. This summer he was the head coach of the Oklahoma City Coyotes of RHI. He mentioned that every coach has his own style, which may change as needed during the season depending on how the team is playing.

Gadowsky’s personal style is to get a little blood flow going even before stretching, then incorporate conditioning into every drill he runs, rather than trying to cram all the conditioning into the very last part of practice. The coach prefers to go into goalie warmup drills right after stretching, then move to the more “combative” drills, such as 1 on 1’s, and 2 on 2’s, saving “team system” drills for last. Yet he makes sure that each drill includes some element of conditioning.

A lot of sense

This makes a lot of sense when you consider that hockey isn’t a game that’s played in fits and spurts. You want to be able to give 100% effort from buzzer to buzzer. Players who become accustomed to saving their energy for the “end of practice conditioning” will probably have strong finishes, yet may well need them because of a lack of effort early on.

Adds “Gads” — as he is known to his team mates — “With ice time as valuable as it is, plus it’s boring to be on the ice standing around for three hours, I like to keep practices to an hour and a half at the start of the season, then later on no more than an hour and fifteen minutes, so that the guys are still awake and intense. You want to get your skating in every drill.”

He recalls practices in college when guys wouldn’t put out in every drill, knowing that if they did, they might not have enough left at the end, thereby looking bad in the coach’s eye during the tough conditioning drills. “You don’t want guys pacing themselves, and you want to change things frequently enough to keep their imagination; you don’t want to blow their mind, or their body.”

Continuing, Gadowsky points out, “You don’t want guys to be able to do the drills in their sleep; you want drills where players have to think.” No matter how many ice rinks are going up, there will never be enough ice to go around. “As a kid, when parents would say ‘O.K., you’ve got just one hour, so go get ‘em’, then to spend half an hour on one knee with the coach talking just infuriated me!”

One thing that my co-coaches and I experienced with our Mite team this year, was that if we ran drills with just two to four players skating at a time, those standing in line would end up goofing around, and invariably someone would get hurt (at least his feelings) and start crying. As mad as we got at the kids for this, we really just had ourselves to blame since we set up the drills. To avoid this, we learned to set up “stations”, where we were actually running three or four mini-drills at a time, leaving very little time for any player to stand around. It made practices flow much more smoothly and the time seemed to pass more quickly as well. Yet we accomplished much more by not having to discipline misbehavers, who actually had gotten bored. Planning — along with plenty of help from assistant coaches — is the key here.


Precise plan required

Any coach who shows up for practice without a precise plan of what he wants to cover, thinking instead that “I’ve got lots of experience, I can just wing it,” is doing his players a disservice. He might do just as well to stretch them out, then say, O.K., SCRIMMAGE!

Think of it this way. If you were lost in the woods, even if you had a map, it would be difficult to find your way out unless you could determine where you were located. The best way to determine what you need to cover in practice is to do an in depth analysis of each player to determine strengths and weaknesses.

As difficult as this might sound, when my assistants and I sat down with our team manager and took an hour to evaluate what were the most critical individual and team skills for a player, then graded each player on those skills, it was amazing how many of our players needed work on the same areas of the game. Once we knew what our key areas for improvement were, we could then incorporate those skills into as many drills as possible so we could work on them each night.

Another coaching technique, taught to me by long-time youth hockey coach Jack White, who has turned out many pro caliber players, was to take a skill, work on it, then build on it, with each subsequent drill that night having the original skill at its core. By the end of practice we may have completed 15 or 20 different variations of that same skill. This certainly got the players thinking while they worked, and gave practices a good flow.

Good practices seem to go quickly, while bad practices, like bad coaches, seem to go on forever. The coach who sticks with the same three or four drills for a whole practice, thinking this will force his players to “make it automatic,” is really more of a drill instructor than a coach. One needs to be a little more creative, if he is to avoid “blowing their mind, or their body,” as Gadowsky put it.

Since virtually all pro roller hockey players play pro ice hockey through the winter months, Gadowsky emphasizes practices at the start of the roller hockey season designed to get his players more comfortable on their wheels. “Eventually we might see a situation where we will see roller hockey players and ice hockey players, but now the best roller hockey players are professional ice hockey players. You don’t want to get into a lot of tough 1-on-1 battles when guys are still trying to get comfortable with their turns and stops. Initially there is a bit of a difference there, (from ice to sport court), where a lot more emphasis will be on just basic skating.”

Gadowsky also mentions how in ice hockey you can cover up your mistakes by stopping and going the other way, whereas in roller hockey you don’t have that luxury. “A lot of our drills are based in terms of proper angles, and reading the play as early as you can because once you commit yourself to an angle you can’t change it.”

Roller vs. ice

Those who play roller hockey regularly know that at the higher levels of roller you see more side to side movement as opposed to ice hockey which is more up and down your position. For those who can make this transition from the ice to roller, there are a lot of opportunities opening up which didn’t exist as recently as a couple of years ago.

Coaches who demand more from their players, may not be the most popular guys to play for. Players who get in the habit of doing enough to get by, will never be happy with a demanding coach, because what was your best yesterday, isn’t good enough today. “Business as usual” never enters the rink of the demanding coach. Players who seek out that level will never find it from a top coach, because it’s always changing. Players who have trouble accepting this will find it difficult to advance to the top ranks in hockey.

In discussing two brothers, life-long coach John Olver once told me, “This one brother, who appears more talented today, won’t ever make it. The other brother will, because he’s coachable.” You must be coachable, meaning willing to always learn more, if you are ever to make it to the top.

The bottom line for a coach is this: Your players don’t have to like you; they have to respect you. There is nothing that will earn their respect more than being able to get more out of them than they ever thought possible.

If that is what it takes to get the most out of them, coaches must be willing to sacrifice some friendship with their players, . Be it ice or roller hockey, remember, “you play the way you practice.” So get in the habit of pushing players past their level individual comfort levels. It’s only by stretching their boundaries that they can move on to the next level.

This first appeared in the 11/1996 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
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