Game coaching – Part 1
Posted by Dean Holden at March 13th, 2013
by John Russo, 6 March 2013
Note: This will be one of the articles (Chapter 8: “The Game”) in John Russo’s soon-to-be published new book “Best of Coaches’ Corner – 26 Years.” Watch for it in 2013.
This article is the first of a two-part series on game coaching the “unique and critical situations” that I developed in the 1990s.
Most coaches prepare their teams to deal with normal games, not the abnormal. Very few games are normal, however. It is performance in these critical or unique game situations that helps make or break most coaches. The best way to handle them is to confront them in advance and to know what a good choice (we never know what will be successful for sure) response will be. In the frenzy of a game, it is difficult to come up with high impact decisions on short notice. Coaches that put some emphasis on the unique or critical situations (the list will come soon!) will not only have better game results but will also be educating their players in how to better analyze and respond to shifts in the game – and at what points in the game special efforts will pay off best.
It has been my feeling for years that teams that put out a hard effort throughout an entire game will lose to teams (all things being basically equal) that know when to concentrate their efforts. That is an easy concept to understand in its broadest sense, but the big questions is: When do teams concentrate or pull back?
Well, it is now time to lay out the list of situations. I should note that most of the items on the lists are times of games, not occurrences. They happen often in games and must be properly dealt with.
Unique and Critical Coaching Situations
1. Preparation period just before each game, including warm up.
2. Beginning of each period.
3. End of each period.
4. Anytime a goal is scored by either team.
5. You score early and are 2-3 goals ahead in the first period with a competitive team.
6. Your opponent scores early and is ahead 2-3 goals in the first period.
7. You are playing what you consider to be a team that is truly better than yours (skills and team execution).
8. Either your team or the opponent scores two quick goals (in the middle of a close game).
9. The score is tied with 5-6 minutes left.
10. Your team is ahead by 1 or 2 goals late in the game.
11. Your team is behind by one goal with 2-6 minutes left in the game.
12. One of your goaltenders is having a very poor game.
13. The other team pulls their goaltender late in the game.
14. Pulling the goaltender.
Remember that identification and preparation in advance is the most important thing. I have suggested my response to these situations. You may want to revise these based on your philosophies.
1. Preparation just before game, including warm-ups. This is the time when teams (all individuals) begin to feel good, confident, prepared, etc., (or not) about the upcoming game. It is a time for calm visualization in the dressing room that settles players down. It is a time when a good on-ice warm-up gets them ready by giving everybody a puck to warm-up with. It is the time to set goals for the game. Coaches totally control this time before the game and can let it be chaos or a time to optimize game performance. The difference between a slow starting and fast starting team can win or lose a game.
2, 3, & 4. Beginning and end of each period and after any goals are scored. These are constant situations and should be dealt with each time they occur, because they are proven times of potential letdown and momentum shift by either team. This is a combination of items 2, 3, and 4 on the list of situations.
Teams are often not fully prepared mentally and/or physically to perform at full effort at the opening face-off of a game (and sometimes beginning of a period after a resurface break). It is sometimes possible to analyze the other team by observing the spunk and structure of their pre-game warm-up. A pre-game warm-up by the other team that involves a considerable amount of standing in line waiting to shoot can give your team the opportunity to gain the early momentum; and can be worth an early goal. I like to have my “best” or fastest starting line on the ice at the opening of the game and each period – with a plan for what they are trying to accomplish.
Teams also often start letting down one or two minutes before the end of the first and second periods and give up late goals. This must be guarded against and, in fact, should be turned to an advantage when opposition teams let down. The Soviets will never forget Mark Johnson’s goal two seconds before the end of the second period during the 1980 Olympics. Again, a high intensity line – whether they are your big scorers or not – is in order for the last shift of each period.
“Goals are often scored after goals are scored.” This simply means that teams are often more vulnerable to be scored upon right after they have scored. The scoring team gets a little comfortable, and the other team a little more determined. I was reminded of this situation while I listened to a University of Minnesota game recently. In the second period, the other team, down 2-0, scored to make it 2-1. Minnesota scored 34 seconds later. I prefer to change lines after scoring a goal, unless the game is not at risk or that line is aware of their vulnerability and has proven that it does not let down after scoring. After the other team has scored, I want my best line and defense on the ice to try to take advantage of their possible letdown.
Coaches should also continually work with their entire team to eliminate these potential letdowns.
5. Your team scores early and is ahead 2-3 goals in the first period. Your team reaction certainly will depend on the strength of the other team. If they are weak, it may not be a unique situation. If they are competitive with you, you must decide why your team has jumped ahead so quickly. The possibilities include: your team is playing extremely well; the other team is playing extremely poorly; their goaltender is playing extremely poorly and/or yours is playing well; they have taken several penalties; one particular line on either team is playing extremely well or poorly.
Once your analysis indicates the reason(s), a strategy can be formulated. It is very unwise to back off early in a game with a three goal lead, but young players will often automatically do this. A coach that switches to a weaker goaltender or starts playing weaker lines on an extended basis sends a message to his own team that “the game is won.” This asks for a letdown and will shift momentum drastically. A three-goal lead can dry up very quickly with a momentum shift. Changing lines fairly quickly and warning the team is in order. It is also wise to continue to take advantage of the weaknesses (or your strengths) that created the early lead. Once the third period comes and the lead is more substantial, extra ice for weaker lines might be in order.
6. Your opponent scores early and you are behind 2-3 goals in the first period. Again, just like the previous situation, analysis is in order to decide why or how you got behind (use the same questions). Once the cause has been pin-pointed, then it is time to take action to correct or counteract. Some possible reactions might be:
• Take a time out to review overall problems, point out situations, to change systems and to slow down the other team’s roll.
• Briefly sit out a line or defense pair for a couple of shifts and spend time analyzing the game with them as it progresses. If sitting out is not possible, have them play several short shifts.
• Finish out the first period by playing much more conservatively so your team has a chance to regroup.
• Consider switching goaltenders at the end of the period.
• Change to totally different forecheck and zone coverage systems.
• Change the line match-ups, or change the method of coverage of the other team’s hot line or player.
• Try to slow down the game temporarily, to get through the period – by getting more faceoffs, tighter coverage, etc.
• Allow your team to work out of the situation themselves with minor help. Losing a game is sometimes a needed learning tool.
If your initial analysis determines that your team is actually better than the other team, the response above would mostly still hold true. If you determine that the other team is actually considerably better than yours, other responses would be in order.
7. You are playing a team that has truly better skills and execution than yours. Playing a superior team does not have to be loss situation. It can also be a great learning experience. It depends on what is to be accomplished in the game. If the previous game score was 9-1, a “win” should be a closer score than 9-1. If the objective is to actually win the game, then the opponent must be faced with something difference that can neutralize their superiority.
Suggestions when facing a superior opponent:
• A unique forecheck system or alternating forecheck must be used. I have been successful on several occasions using a zero forecheck (double trap), especially when the opponent’s defense does not carry the puck.
• The whole team must be prepared and committed to “overwork” throughout the game.
• Penalties must be kept to a minimum.
• Power play opportunities must be taken advantage of.
• The weak side wing must sag off of the defense in the defensive zone to protect the goal more aggressively.
• Faceoffs must be “tie up” situations to minimize clean possessions by the other team.
• Beginnings and ends of periods and post-goal situations must be handled to gain advantages.
These items must be prepared for in advance. In short, your team must do all of the little and special things better (faceoffs, power plays, lack of penalties, forecheck disciplines, etc.) and in addition, outwork the other team.
If the goal of the game is to be competitive and not necessarily to win, then all of the above things must be accomplished, plus the following defensive measures must also be in place.
• Defensemen should not take chances in offensive and neutral zones.
• One forward should play safe at all times in the offensive and neutral zones to eliminate 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 situations.
• Backchecking must be very close.
The key is close coverage and good defensive discipline – not giving the opponent any easy chances.
Being competitive in a game against a strong opponent is not a bad goal. With the proper mental preparation by a coach, a good competitive game can be very satisfying. The underdog team will have to work and think harder but will learn more as well.
John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin, and his Coaches’ Corner columns have appeared in LPH since 1986.