Skill Development

The manner in which you address and develop skills is one of the things that will define you as a hockey coach, as these are essential elements of play. If your team or a player is having trouble executing a given skill/skill set, or if the skill has the potential to become a weapon in their overall strategy, you may see the need to construct a practice plan (or a series of plans) to elevate their level of execution. You must ensure that the concepts, basics and fundamentals of the tactic are understood and have been drilled for illustration. Equally important to the outcome is the level of technical ability and overall athleticism your team possesses.

Skills need to be closely tied to fundamentals (team and individual) and thus have a component that has the potential to be conceptual. Certainly skills need be isolated, however it should be the goal to practice skills with game-like scenarios at game speed. Skills should be slowed for the player only to demonstrate proper technique, learn and rehearse movement patterns, highlight concepts, and to experiment with options and alternatives.

Technique falls under the general headings of athleticism and ‘sport-specific’. We say a person is athletic (or shows athleticism) when they display proficiency with respect to balance, agility, strength and endurance, mobility and stability, and energy economy/efficiency. These qualities have their origins in posture and movement symmetry. Functional movement is a term that refers to the general and reflex/habitual gross motor patterns that a person displays in musculo-skeletal mechanics. We say a player is a good athlete when they are able to exert more pressure on their opposition than they have on themselves to play the game. Remember an important fundamental of competition: “force your opponent to play the game under pressure”. The implications of this statement are enormous. There are as many examples as you can imagine, but one thing that can make a player out-perform his opponent when he is not especially athletic, is that he is a great athlete – he can manipulate situations in his favour. A power lifter can show great athleticism and not be a particularly good athlete.

In most sports there exists the opportunity to incorporate a transfer of skill from another sport, or to draw from what you could call a natural or functional human activity. A basketball player doesn’t have to learn new running mechanics to play wide receiver. Much of what a hockey player does is unique and specific. Your treatment of technical instruction and use of your knowledge of human mechanics will help your players develop athleticism. Your ability to transfer athleticism to hockey specific movement in game situations will give your players the foundation upon which to build their skill sets, and become great athletes.

There are numerous practical reasons for a coach to concentrate on developing efficient and effective functional movement habits and monitor and correct the activity of his players to ensure kinetic principles are being implemented. The transfer of movement patterns from one skill to another is a major benefit of maintaining correct posture and executing movement sequences with precision. The player will learn and execute skills faster and with greater proficiency, and will find it easier to adjust to changes in posture while executing because the adjustments to be made will be in smaller increments. You will not have to ‘teach’ and correct many aspects of a skill because of the players athleticism and athletic ability. Furthermore, when you develop a language with the player and he becomes more knowledgeable, he effectively becomes more ‘coachable’.

Technical instruction and practice must be done in an environment of relaxation and concentration. A tremendous attribute of any great coach is his ability to create a teachable moment. The rate of assimilation needs to be monitored. The player cannot feel hurried or pressured by the need to consider game pressure conditions. When a player exhibits an acceptable level of technique, he can be moved into other situations – perhaps by introducing factors such as support, pressure, and skill sets. In some instances this may take days or weeks, or it may take minutes. It is a never ending process.

A hockey player can have his hands in the optimum position on his stick, and also be correct in his use of skate edges, and not be able to pass or shoot in stride due to mechanical inefficiencies (energy leaks) caused by poor posture and power producing ability. Or he may not make the play in a game because he is violating the offensive fundamental of adjusting his angle of approach to create clear passing and shooting lanes to best take advantage of his refined technique. One of these examples illustrates the skills/technique relationship, and the other illustrates the skills/fundamental relationship.

The coach must initiate and perpetuate a cycle of learning that works from the end to the beginning, and from the beginning to the end. This factor will allow the player’s to ‘revisit’ and ‘relearn’ skills with respect to technique without compromising their execution of systems and fundamentals as they develop in their knowledge of the game and the increasing pressure under which they must play. They must accommodate changes in physical/mental ability due to gains in strength, size, and the weaknesses exposed by the ever-increasing ability of their opposition. Expanding a players understanding and recognition of systems and fundamentals is absolutely vital to the execution of technique in games (or game scenarios) because reading the game (thinking speed) must be done instinctively or you will experience a breakdown of technique, as players will hesitate, relax their posture and release control of their body during periods of indecisiveness.

The cycle the coach creates must incorporate systems and fundamentals – regardless of age (as soon as players are at the age when they play games). Using the example of the most basic forecheck in its simplest form, at any age, you are going to tell your players to go check the player with the puck. This act may seem ‘natural’ or ‘fundamental’ to us … but you are identifying a system as soon as you designate the number of players you want going after it (at the earlier stages of play you are quite likely to get all 5 guys going in deep). So you tell them “just one guy, or two”, which is a forechecking system. There is a long list of defensive fundamentals you will have to teach to support your philosophy on this tactic. The fundamentals would include steering to establish a defensive angle, take away the puck carriers ability to make direct passes (inside/outside positioning and lane control), match the offensive speed of the player you are checking and use your body position to prevent the player from skating past you with the puck (angling and gapping), etc. These are elements of play that must be executed regardless of the system being used if your team is to be successful.

There are a number of skills that a player must incorporate to execute these fundamentals. He will need to be able to glide skate, make turns in all directions, make body contact, skate quickly under control with his stick in a passing lane, etc.; the list of skills and fundamentals is long. The coach must decide which skills to practice and which fundamentals are key. Linking skills with fundamentals as they relate to your system is the key point to consider for the coach. This information will determine what the skills actually are, how they are best executed, and the teaching progressions you will use to drill them.

The coach must instruct the player in the proper posture and body movements to control his actions in executing skills. His methodology must support his philosophy and reflect the goals and developmental stage of his team. If your team experiences minimal success executing systems, it will be because they are under-skilled (or unbalanced) in terms of strength and endurance or technique, or they are lacking in understanding of fundamentals. It may also be that you are not linking key elements of play – especially the technique to skill, and skill to fundamental relationship. With or without this connection, the system becomes arbitrary.

When developing technique, defining the skill in terms of how the player will use the skill will tell you what to teach in terms of a qualitative biomechanical analysis (examining a skill from a biomechanical perspective without measuring or quantifying it’s characteristics). Measurements are basically made through observation. The first step in a qualitative analysis is to describe the ideal technique. This will become the reference point for the athlete. You need to establish what is important and what is unimportant, what is effective and what is ineffective, what is possible or impossible, etc. The next step is to identify the purpose or goal of the skill and define that purpose in mechanical terms. What is the athlete trying to achieve during the execution of the skill? This is the most important factor!

Using the activity of skating around a pylon as our example … the goal of the skill in mechanical terms might be to maintain mass stability outside the base of support to create a rotational force around a non-fixed axis while achieving maximum mass directional velocity by concentrating and releasing all mechanical and potential energy to create positive inertia at the critical instant. That’s a mouthful, and you probably wouldn’t say it like that. What you might say is … turn the upper body first with the arms, head, and core under control in hockey position and push with a hard inside edge as the lower body rotates in the turning direction – using the momentum generated by the upper body to initiate and direct the force etc. Use whatever terminology works for you and the athlete. The language you use for yourself and your staff does not have to be the same for the player. The point is that when you characterize the activity in mechanical terms, rather than just saying the object of the skill is to go around a cone as fast as you can, you clarify it in terms of technique. Take care in choosing your terminology as this definition is what becomes your key teaching points, the criteria for evaluation, your presentation to the player, and most importantly, the focus for the player.

Now you can break the movements down with the intent of ensuring that the actions and positions of the player are beneficial to the outcome (in terms of the purpose and key teaching points) and not a hindrance, and have the athlete go through the motions in ideal conditions with you in an advantageous viewing position. Then you interpret what you have seen and make corrections. Your evaluation must take the form of cause and effect. Are there deficiencies or left/right imbalances in strength?, is the starting position or approach correct?, etc. With this information you can ascertain what is the best way to overcome inefficiencies. By now you have read and understand the article on posture, and with the experience and knowledge you already possess combined with your understanding of mechanics, you will be able to identify and correct any problems a player has with technical execution.

When you define the skill of skating around the cone in terms of fundamentals, success becomes dependent on how the player controls the space between himself and the defender (how will he maintain body position or protect the puck?), what changes of pace or direction will he employ?, is he on offence or defence?, is he driving inside or outside?, etc. The key points for the same skill in terms of systems would be where is the support?, what are his options if he is unsuccessful?, what does he do after he gets around the cone?, etc.

Any and every skill needs to be looked at in this manner. The seemingly simple task of a defenseman driving into the corner to grab a loose puck and getting turned up ice to make a clean first pass is an example. Construct your practice plans around the key points derived from answering these questions: What are the techniques of the skill/skill sets? What basics and fundamentals must the player consider, and how will this affect the way he is to execute the skill? What are the game conditions and elements of our system that will alter his general movement patterns? (where is the support?, where is the first pass going?, can he move to his forehand?, should he be prepared to skate with it?), etc.

Evaluating and teaching skill should be done using similar methods used to teach fundamentals and systems. That is to say … when you formulate a practice plan to work on breakouts, you construct effective drills with key points. The key points might include: getting a player to anchor the first pass in a position that gives him a high level of control, tape your passes when possible, make sure one forward stays below the puck until you make the second pass (or their D bail out and leave the zone), set a pick on backcheckers, no-matter-what … make sure the puck leaves the zone, communicate verbally, etc. The most effective way to teach skills is to equally detail your key teaching points.

The activities you employ to drill elements of your system are critical to the success of your team play. Here’s an example: let’s say you’re going to practice ways of moving the puck over the offensive blueline. You must identify the roles of the various attackers, and experiment with their entry options and net drive routes for success. When you are practicing the skills to pull this off … organize the drills in such a way that the players will be executing the system while they work on each component. If a player has to drive the mid-lane without the puck … do some skating drills where they approach the blueline from a given direction and go hard to the net – making sure they control their body and expose their target when they accelerate their stride. If a player has to drive with a puck to gain the blueline and cut hard and delay one way or the other once they gain the line … then do some high rep drills in the appropriate space that gives them a chance to perfect these moves – this will also give you a chance to monitor their execution level. There are many opportunities for a coach to take a team tactic and dissect it into pieces that will act as themes for high quality, high tempo, high rep skill developing drills that directly translate to game scenarios. And the skill purpose of each one of those drills can be implemented in terms of technique, fundamentals, and strategy. When you have a drill that works well for your purposes, your focus as a coach should be to execute the drill with precision in terms of technique, fundamentals, and style – all at once. This may take several practices so don’t shy away from repeating drills until they get all of it. When you condition your team to play at that level, you have done a great job as a coach.

If you want skating, passing, or checking drills, you don’t have to get them from a book – although drill books can be a useful tool from the standpoint of the set-up and ice usage principles they demonstrate. Look no further than your own coaching philosophy and your teams style of play for how to design drills for your team. Break down these six elements of your game: offensively … breakouts, zone entry options, quality offensive zone possession and net drive options. Defensively … forechecking, backchecking, and defensive zone coverage. Your team must be able to transition seamlessly between any and all of these – not just transition between offence and defence. If they cannot do that, perhaps you’re asking them to do something that can’t be done! Here this loud and clear: “skating and passing drills that deviate from strategic movement patterns are only useful as formats for technical instruction, or perhaps conditioning”. If you are going to have your players skate without concentration on technique and without correction by your staff … then ask yourself if that time could be better spent. Personally, I believe that a proportionate amount of technical instruction based drills (skating and puck handling) should mimic what you want to do in a game, or at least follow the path of some part of your system. Then you just introduce pucks for skating drills and fundamentals using the same skating routes, and you are on your way to having players that will execute technically, and read and act as well as react – and your task of teaching systems will virtually be done for you. This methodology will hard-wire movement patterns into your players.

We must have the ability to question our methods and make changes without getting caught up in a make change for the sake of change mentality – and we have to interpret our results based on our goals. If we are practicing skills, we must make certain of the purpose or the results may not be what we want or expect. The way we most often see the instruction of backwards cross-overs will illustrate this point.

Backwards cross-overs are instructed and practiced going around the circles a large majority of the time – we have all taken part in this activity. A quick analysis will reveal that in order to have success doing these, the player must remove his upper body from the support base and rotate directionally into what essentially becomes a turn. The player is actually initiating and facilitating momentum in a rotational context, including looking back over his shoulder. There are many other aspects of this exercise that can be uncovered using our knowledge of mechanics, but that in itself is enough to show this point. If you think about where this skill is utilized in a game, you can see that a backwards cross-over is primarily a defensive manoeuvre a player uses to adjust laterally to a new position to account for a movement of the puck, or to face and close the gap on a player without loosing peripheral sightlines. The skill is also to control an area of the ice and to keep from stopping, such as when a player is getting open in front of the opposition net or buying time in a transitional state. In either case, you don’t actually utilize a turn – the player is making lateral movements. In other words … it is more of an explosive action in which the player maintains his upper half posture to control his stick positioning, with the major adjustments and compensations made by the lower half.

Now we’ll fast forward to a game and assume your player is confronted with the task of checking a puck carrier with speed near center (the example is relevant for a player covering an opponent off the puck as well). As a side note … your player knows to make contact with the puck carrier before the blueline, so he closes the gap to 1 stick length and mirrors the speed of the attacker. When the attacker makes a move to beat the D, the D tries to stay shoulder to shoulder and may need to use a cross-over to accomplish this. The problem is that the D must explode into this move because it is reactionary, and when he does … the training he received by going around the circles tells him to turn his body in that direction rather than adjust laterally. The attacking player simply goes the opposite way (catching the D from the side) or just keeps driving wide and forces the D to remain ‘frozen’ in that position (this prevents the D from pressuring the puck which makes the job of puck protection easier). As another side note, we normally don’t like to see a defender cross-over when his check is less than a stick length away.

We as coaches look at something like this and see a need to reinforce our backwards skating and cross-over technique. We usually do so with more of the same reps (which will most likely not change the habit of rotating in a cross-over), or to set up some 1 vs. 1 scenarios to correct the weakness, which involves teaching a different technique. Either way, you have to ask yourself if you are getting good ‘bang-for-your-buck’ out of the circle drill. Not that the circle drill is a ‘bad drill’, because there is really no such thing as a bad drill … it’s just not being used properly. You may find doing backwards cross-overs in a circular motion more beneficial if used as a format for developing athleticism – having a player discover proprioceptive balancing, stabilization, and learning what role arm movements play in counter-balancing, etc. It can also be useful for studying edge control etc., but don’t think it will help your players explode laterally to achieve good checking position. The hardest job for any coach, in any sport at any level, is to get his players to execute what they practice and how they practice in games. You can run over systems and skill developing exercises until they can do them in their sleep, but the level of execution always comes down to how well they can maintain their technique under pressure and in a state of fatigue. Compartmentalized training does not account for the transfer of practice habits to games – that goes for all aspects of training! You must be able to put it all together. As a coach, evaluating your teams needs and the ability to teach a skill in terms of various and definite key teaching points is the best way (if not the only way) to physically prepare your team for competition. Your job of preparing them mentally will be very difficult if they are not physically confident.