One of the biggest mistakes I have made in my coaching career up until recently was that fact that I didn’t think outside of the box. Through trial and error, I have been able to adapt and overcome many obstacles that hinder the message a coach is trying to present to his players. One of the things I have never identified myself as doing wrong was my coaching of systems.
When it comes to system play in hockey, it is broken up into several categories. Power play, Penalty kill, defensive zone, offensive zone, neutral zone. Those are then broken down further into specific types of schemes, plays, and such. For instance you would transition from a defensive zone coverage system into a breakout system when your opponent loses control of the puck to your team.
One thing that most coaches have a tendency to do is break everything down into a systematic way of doing things. We often forget, however, that the game is too fluid for such reasoning to work correctly. For instance in basketball, when a basket is scored, the teams reset, the ball is inbounded and the team moves methodically down the court with a player calling for a specific play to be executed. The team then executes that play until they can get a shot and then there is period of time when the teams reset again (basket is scored) or a transition can occur with possession going to either team (rebound).
Similar things are found in football where each player has a specific role and follows a set of plays. They usually engage with the same type of players and the only time there is an abrupt transition period is during a turnover (fumble, interception, block). In baseball after every pitch the ball is given back to the pitcher in essence resetting the gameplay. Transition in baseball only occurs after a team commits three outs. This could be within 3 pitches or 20 minutes.
I am not trying to take away from the other sports mentioned, just trying to paint a clear picture for you. When you think about hockey, you think about speed, transition, changing on the fly among other things. The game is strictly about creating turnovers and trying to capitalize on your opponent’s mistakes. With this in mind, systems are needed, but to what extent?
Systems should be incorporated in the hockey team more as a general direction of where a player should be on the ice. They should be used and taught collectively so that players understand the options available to them. Given the fluid nature of the sport, when teaching systems during ‘chalk talk’ this assumes that the puck is stationary, which we all know is not the case.
If the players are taught to think rather than play under a system, this will complete a player who not only has a high ‘Hockey IQ’ but one that can read and react with the game. A player with these intangibles will think outside of the box and be more creative. Creativity can lead to mistakes, turnovers, and anything else that makes a coach pull out their hard, however, it is also the bedrock of a well-rounded elite player. The Gretzky’s, Orr’s, Lemieux’s and any other Hall of Famer or NHLer for that matter is a creative individual. They would have not gotten to where they are had they not been. They understand the game in its entirety and have been given reign to use their skills to produce extraordinary results.
Coaches, think about how you are teaching your systems. Are you lining your players up at the blue line and walking them through hours or offensive and defensive zone strategy? Are you barking at your players during the game for being out of position or in the wrong scheme?
It is time for us to cut the chains and give our players some leeway. Allow them to be creative. Maybe they are in a certain area of the ice because they saw a play developing that you missed. Perhaps they saw an opening in the opponent’s defense and went for it. Instead of criticizing them for not following the system, ask their perspective of the game. Make them think, allow them to be creative and watch them grow.