Players only

There was an interesting article from Pittsburgh Penguins’ beat writer Rob Rossi yesterday, in which he alluded to the Penguins having a “players-only” meeting after the team’s most recent loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. The Pens can apparently feel things sliding in the wrong direction.

From TribLive:

Rob Scuderi said the Penguins lack “passion.”

Matt Niskanen said they are short on “pride.”

Brooks Orpik said some words will remain part of his private address to teammates after the Penguins lost 3-2 to the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center.

The Penguins are troubled, and with only 10 games remaining before the Stanley Cup playoffs, there is a sense that a once-inspiring season is headed for another early postseason exit.

And so, the players meeting. That’s where words like passion and pride are bandied about.

In my experience there are two types of “players only” meetings. You have them because when the head coach is talking, everybody is just listening. It’s not a two-way conversation. You’re being told things by the general, and you are the subordinate, whether you’re older than him or not.

That leads to a lot of discontent, particularly if the players don’t care for the coach, so sometimes it’s good to air out the issues. Only…there’s a right time, and a relatively pointless time.

Post-loss full gear meeting

These meetings tend to arise organically, if I may use a stupid buzzword. It’s rare for a team that just lost to walk back into the dressing room, and start taking off their gear and begin chatting. The majority of guys will spend some time, even a few minutes, slumped in their stall in full gear, reflecting on what just went wrong.

Coach will come in and say his piece and leave, and that’s when you usually hear from a captain, particularly if he feels the coach didn’t give an adequate post-game debriefing.

“Guys, I don’t know what the problem is, but there seems to be a serious lack of a give-a-s**t in here.” …or whatever the problem is. Too soft, too slow, too dumb…whatever it is, it’s coming out. It will also involve some iteration of the standard cry “Eff that guy, we have to do this for ourselves,” while gesturing to the coach’s office.

The problem with these meetings is everybody’s still amped up on adrenaline, so there’s real potential for inter-team snippiness. When you lose, you almost always have a guy or two in your head that were to blame (it’s never you, right?), so it’s tough to sit there, here one of those guys chime in with something inane, and not tell them to stuff it.

I found those meetings relatively pointless, and the more you have them (and you have them a lot on bad teams) the less weight they hold. Maybe meaningful change can come from one if you only have one or two a year. Beyond that it comes off as motherly nagging from a captain trying too hard to play captain.

Next-day pre-practice players-only meeting

When you arrive at the rink the next day with a good night’s sleep under your belt, some breakfast in you and a clearer head, “players-only” meetings tend to be more productive. (Though at some point it’s still mandatory to say ”Eff that guy, we have to do this for ourselves” and belittle the coach in some way.)

They’re usually “chaired” by the guy who felt it necessary to organize the town hall, and everyone is encouraged to talk.

Only…it’s terrifying for those players who aren’t of “status.” For a rookie or fringe player, it’s public speaking, except the guys you’re speaking to aren’t used to hearing you be serious, and they don’t necessarily consider you someone who should be doling out advice. That, and you know they’re all sarcastic a-holes the majority of the time, so…it’s scary.

But in the end, that’s what makes them productive – new voices getting their issues off their chest so the team can work through them.

You hope to accomplish two things: one, snap the team’s focus back on the importance of doing things right and sticking to the plan (it’s real easy to drift mid-season), and two, provide the team with a checkpoint, a moment that feels like a fresh start.

When you’re losing, it feels like you’re never going to win again, and it’s a mental drain. Totally exhausting. A meeting like this can be a defibrillator jolt to the heart of a team that was dying. You always follow that up with a more serious, spirited practice and hope it carries over into the next game.

Nothing changes personnel-wise, but sports like hockey require a lot of daily mental effort, so these meetings act as a group-wide ammonia sniffer to snap things back into focus.