5 Things Bad Hockey Coaches Do

(Not calling Iron Mike a bad coach here, his reputation just syncs up with my final thought.)

(Not calling Iron Mike a bad coach here, his reputation just syncs up with my final thought.)

If you’ve ever played a sport, you’ve had a bad coach. That doesn’t necessarily mean that coach was a bad person, in fact, it likely means you just didn’t like him or her and you didn’t get the playing time you thought you deserved, but straight up bad coaches do really exist.

For the purposes of this post, I’m not talking about a specific coach who’s done something wrong. Sure, I’ve had my head shaken with a cage-grab as a kid, I’ve had pucks shot at me in practice as a teenager, and I’ve had a stick pinning me against the glass under my neck too, but y’know, that stuff happens. I’m talking about the type of typical mistakes your average coaches make during your average seasons. Things that don’t take major corrections, but can have negative effects.

For starters, here are five things bad hockey coaches do. Feel free to add yours in the comments below.

They let the score dictate their tone and direction

We’ve all been there. Your team has gone out in the first period, put the throttle down, and hounded the opposing net. Their goalie made some great saves, and somewhere along the way, your goalie wasn’t able to come up with the same level of play (maybe you have Bryzgalov in net). Hell, maybe something really unlucky just happened (maybe you deem having Bryzgalov in net as unlucky).

Whatever the case, you’re losing 2-0 after the first period. Maybe the shots are close (even though you kept your opponent to the outside and theirs were harmless), so the scoreboard, on the whole, is not that complimentary to your group despite a pretty good period.

And here comes coach into the room during intermission.

“Bulls**t lack of effort on the forecheck”

“F***ing hit somebody”

“Bear down around the net” 

And on and on and on.

Wasn’t he watching the game? It gets disheartening.

Bad coaches see the game through the score, regardless of how their team is playing. All you can ask as a coach is for your team to play your systems to a “T,” work their bags off, create chances and limit them in your own end. Luck, both good and bad, happens.

Smart coaches see this. Bad ones do not.

They don’t listen

I’m not of the mind that your coach needs to be your friend, in fact, I believe nothing close to that. It’s different for assistant coaches (who generally take more of a “players’ coach” role), but for the head coach, I believe there’s value in preserving a boss/employee relationship, where their words have real weight, and not following said words has real consequences.

The problem here is that some coaches take that too far and run their teams like dictatorships, which is not what I’m suggesting anyone do at all. Hockey players today, as I’ve written many times before, are not built as they were in the past. They’re not happy to get off the farm and “have a shot.” They’re groomed from birth, told how great they are constantly, and are a lot more sensitive.

You can pine for the days of yore all you like, but it doesn’t change the fact that one of your jobs as a coach is to get the most out of players, and to do so today, you have to know what’s going on with them. You have to listen for cues about when guys need a pat on the back, and when they need a kick in the ass. You have to listen for which guys are feeling good on a given night, and which aren’t. You have to listen to your assistants to get a feel for what’s going on at the other end of the bench. You have to listen to the ref to know when to rein in your team’s aggression. You have to, in sum, listen.

You can still be a leader while listening. It’s becoming a mandatory part of the position.

They wedge rosters into systems that don’t fit

I’ve given John Tortorella flack for his “old school” style of coaching in the past, but I really respect that he’s coached teams of his to play differently in the past (Tampa Bay’s motto of “Safe is Death” when he was there was hardly that of the Rangers’).

Often you have a coach who falls in love with the success he had using a certain type of system – maybe he had an ultra-fast team that had success forechecking aggressively – so when he gets his next job, he employs that same hard-forechecking philosophy…only his team is full of Brenden Morrows who can’t get to the puck carrier in time, meaning that forecheck is actually counterproductive.

I believe, as Tortorella said he would do in Vancouver, that the best thing is to assess what you have for talent and play to your strengths. It’s kind of a no-brainer, actually. If you have the luxury of being the GM as well, you can bring in the personnel you desire to play the system you like, but most are just handed a roster and told to win. And, that’s tough to do when you’re trying to stuff a square peg into a round hole.

All that said, if you’re a coach who doesn’t know multiple systems and can’t coach a few of them decently well, you’re probably already in the “bad coach” category, and aren’t too worried about this concept.

They don’t let their assistant’s coach

In particular, I’m talking about practice. Not every player responds to the same stimuli, and given that most coaching staffs are usually comprised of a number of smart hockey minds (if this is not the case you’ve got bigger issues), I think it’s healthy for the players to hear from everyone fairly frequently. A balanced advice diet, if you will.

There’s also another huge factor that comes with this that coaches don’t take seriously enough: it prevents listener burnout.

Hockey teams are together alllllllll the goddamn time during the hockey season. Morning skate, team meal, games, practices, travel, it’s just you and your teammates and coaches in varying sized rooms face-to-face putting up with one another’s dumb voices and garlic breath. We often hear about coaches who “lose the room,” because it’s a real thing, and it’s related to that person-to-person overdose. Some guys seem afraid of their assistants getting “too much power” and overthrowing them like they’re running some downtrodden society and not a hockey team, so they talk to “their team” all the time, at every event, every skate.

By the end of the season, it’s like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher.

A coach who lets his assistants actually coach still has his voice heard come April and May.

And finally…

They think they have to be Ray Lewis

Hockey, like most sports, is an “every inch matters” game. If you get beat to a puck and it gets poked by you it can have bad consequences for the team. When players get too comfortable in their settings you’ll find guys who turn it on (offensive opportunity!) and off (back-checking) at will. This is not a good thing.

But still, when you’re coaching a high level of hockey, even junior and beyond, your role is not to be a Ray Lewis-level motivator. You’re allowed to expect guys to push themselves. I believe that coaches like Mike Babcock, who expects nothing less than a player’s best, succeeds in getting that best more often and farther into the season by rewarding effort and success with more than just words (and doing the same with punishment).

It’s kind of the “teach a man to fish” thing (“give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for life”). If you bench, scratch, trade and cut players who don’t self-motivate, the message is pretty clear that here, we self-motivate. Before long, the players are monitoring the players, because if I’m putting in my best, you better be too. If your team can only get up to work hard when you whip them like a jockey on a horse down a straightaway, you have to keep whipping them constantly. (And finally, Mike Keenan on a horse becomes relevant.)

…Nobody likes to be whipped constantly.

Be a pro and I’ll treat you like one. Seems like a pretty fair deal to me.

Comments (11)

  1. Oohhhh, and the strikeout for Randy Carlyle.

    • Would like to hear your take on what bad coaches do with the shootout?
      For example, leaving Gretzky on the bench.

  2. I have Peter Laviolette down for 2/5 but I don’t think he is a bad coach

  3. Justin out of all of the persons on this site, you are the one i appreciate the most because of your experience as a player and relating it to the game. However there are things here about coaching that i have to state that while valid points in the area are also prone to criticisms from the viewpoint of actual coaches:

    1. Score does dictate play, you have to make adjustments on an instant level because something is not working, even if you correlate it to luck: something went wrong and the person(s) who made that situation has to be told what they need to do to make that happen hopefully again and if that means shouting and calling them out for it then fine. The coach would just also have to state that there was good things as well but the score was 2-0 no matter how you look at it. So something has to change because the system isn’t excatly working, There is where you see the true ability of a coach.

    2. Your overall point of listening is EXCELLENT but your authoritarian coaching style criticism is valid but is also not a negativr. The authoritarian coaching style works based on discipline and proper organization (players knowing what their role is and know they must execute it or else). These coached are rough and yes some players will not like them (Torts) but they are shown also to be successful quite a few times for example Sir Alex Fergeson of Manchester United (who had/has more groomed athletes than probably the entire NHL) was the perfect example of this. But i have to remind you that a coaches’ style is based on his personality and philosophy. One coaching style is NOT better than another because the end point is that if the coach is able to explain is methods and reasonings clearly and understandably: then there should not be any problem unless personal.

    3. No complaints at all

    4. Listener burnout doesn’t have to occur if the coach is in their ear all the time. NOT because of it being the same person over and over. It is the coaches’ job to know when to be quiet and when to speak but to make sure that again it is revelant and the reason you have to sepak is about the topic or skill at hand. But yes assistant coaches do need to be able to coach the players as well. They just have to make sure to inform the coach what was told so that the head coach an make their adjustments in their training plans

    5. Motivation does not only come from self and reward and punishment is not always the best way to get true mental capabilities from an athlete. Why do you think now more and more there are sport psychologists for athletes an teams? To explore all the various psychological techniques that can be used and Ray Lewis type speeches are EXCELLENT no matter the age of the player. But with that type off motivation: you cannot do it all the time or else the effect will wear off but it does work. You think Mike Babcock or any type of coach who states what you said earlier did not tell them? Isn’t the promise and reward system was not told from before? It is a type of motivation from the coach! Not just from self, and not all athletes respond to that way the same. Literally everyone is different and have to be looked at it that way even though it is a team game. This is a huge principle of coaching: the principle of individualization

    You have it Justin, you have alot of the ideas and grasp them well and i commend you highly. What i think you should do is maybe look into doing some coaching courses in the future to get even a better understanding not only of how coaching works from a player aspect but from a coaching one as well because it would enchance the knowledge and clear some stuff up for you a little better. But again excellent piece

  4. Justin, as usual a great post.

    As said previously I am a British guy (we’re reared on soccer here) and the times where the word ‘hockey’ is mentioned, you can substitute that for ‘soccer’ (or football). I have been there when a coach has visibly (as we say) ‘lost the dressing room’. It’s ugly. That’s the most disheartening thing, following instructions and setting up in a certain way, opposing team kill us (through tactical nous of the opposing coach) and then get in at half-time and our coach hammers us and hits a midfielder in the balls! The guy lost the dressing room there and then, not through hitting the guy (it happens) but he lost all respect there and then.

    As per Justin, hockey’s loss is journalism’s gain. These insights are, I have just played beer-league hockey, marvellous. Thanks again.

  5. it’s just a game eh?

  6. Excellent points. I still play but coaching is becoming more of a passion and it can certainly be challenging at times. I have to thank some of my old coaches who did several of the things listed above for teaching me what NOT to do in my coaching career!

  7. My program was pretty successful, i did something right.. really really right

  8. DJB, I appreciate the time and effort that went into your comment, but I think you may have misunderstood a couple of things. For instance, point 1. I don’t think he’s saying that you can’t make adjustments depending on the score, but if a team is playing well and is using your systems that you gave them as a coach, sometimes you still end up losing a period here and there. The worst possible thing a coach can ever do is press the panic button too quickly. If you’re telling them at the start you want them to play a certain style, and then you lose faith in that and take it out on them after the first sign of trouble, how are they going to have faith and keep a belief in what you tell them? Sure, if you’re down by a goal in the third and it’s an important game, you switch it up a little and take some chances, but what he’s saying is that sometimes after a great game, back and forth solid effort by both teams, you’re going to lose a period. Maybe even the game. You have to be able to say like “I’m proud of the way you stuck to the game plan and kept focused. Great effort. Put that score behind you and remember how much fun it is to play as a team like that.” Point 2. He’s not saying you can’t be a hardass. What he means is that old school coaches tend to think that a player will simply be happy to be there, like you as the coach is doing them a favor for even letting them on the team. People used to respect teachers, police officers, and coaches just because they knew they had to. A coach could rant and rAve and coach by fear and he kid would do anything to try and get on a coaches good side. Now, a coach doesn’t automatically have respect. They have to earn it. That means actually making a connection to each player. Each player is different now, and not all of them are going to respond to a guy who is always in their face, in their ear. You have to give them space sometimes. Let them feel confident and independent instead of having them constantly worried about making a mistake. Sometimes you even just let the leaders amongst the players make the corrections. That’s why you have captains. That’s why you have assistant coaches. You said something similar yourself, so I don’t know why you would feel the need to counter Justin’s point here. This answer is the same for points 4 and 5. He’is saying kind of the same thing but with more clarity. Some coaches feel like they always have to give that speech, be the guy to make a change, be the guy who saves the day and has the answers. Sometimes though, players don’t need saving. Sometimes you just need to step back and let others handle things. If I have a bad period as a player, sometimes I don’t know what’s going on and i need help to refocus. Sometimes though, I just need to be left alone and get myself together. I’ve had great coaches that have just let me work things out on my own. I try and do the same thing for my players. Maybe a guy just broke up with his girlfriend or got kicked out of his house. Maybe he ran out of gas on the way to the rink. Maybe he’s just having an off night, simple as that. You know it. He knows it and nothing you can say is going to make him better for that game. You have to know when to leave it alone. Maybe you don’t say one word about it, but simply put him on the starting line up next game. That’s a nonverbal way of telling that player it’s ok to make mistakes, it’s a long year. I believe in you that you’ll bounce back this game. Sometimes that player just plain needs you to tell him to suck it up, stop ****ing around, get your ****ing head out of your ** and do something positive for a change! Sometimes. But you as a coach have to know which road to take. I think maybe there are some courses you can take on sports psychology and getting the most out of an athlete. It not only makes your individual players perform better. It’s really rewarding to find players who have played for you respect you so much as to remain friends with you years and years later even if sometimes you for them things they didn’t WANT to hear, because in those other times you were willing to take the time to recognize and tell them things they NEEDED to hear instead of biting their head off. For the most part you sound like a good coach with the right attitude. Thats something you can’t teach.
    I think this is not only an excellent article, but an important one.

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