This last weekend was our Thanksgiving tournament. I was optimistic Jr Ducks Mite A & B could make it to the semi-finals with 3 replacement players for each roster.
I was wrong.
Chalk it up as a learning experience. Whenever there are replacement players there is going to be a disruption in the flow of the team as a whole. Each player has certain tendencies both intentional and unintentional and the existing team members have to learn those tendencies so they can anticipate that members’ actions. We like to coin this phenomenon as “chemistry”.
Unfortunately, “chemistry” is not developed overnight. Although some players naturally complement the style of play of others, this is rare, and not the case in this situation.
As much as I strive for attainments, attainments are not the goal for this age group. I hate losing and was reminded regularly of their level of play in comparison to the competition by the scoreboard. Fortunately, I had a nagging voice of reason in my head, “This age group is about development and doing things the right way” versus the competitor in me who hates losing, “Okay. You’re right.” I forcefully pushed down my hatred to lose and zero back-in on the reality of the situation.
I have three Mite B players playing in the Mite A division so I could expose them to the intensity of the competition. With increased intensity comes limited time and space requiring decisions to be made faster with more accuracy. It also means more effort is required to create opportunities to take the puck away from the opponent and more effort to generate time and space for yourself to have opportunities to score. This type of exposure is crucial so players know where the standard is. I followed up with each of the replacement players about the energy of the competition and the energy required of them to compete. Each one agreed the competition was much faster and required them to consistently put forth more effort.
As far as the rest of the Mite As, they were learning how to play with patience and escape pressure using their feet. After Day 1, I had them focus on protecting the puck, not forcing passes, and creating space by skating fast with the puck.
The Mite B team quickly began to realize without the older players, four 2011 birth year skaters, they had to pick up the slack and they were responsible for the outcome of the games. It is easy to hide in the background when you have other teammates you rely on to carry you. Now, those teammates were gone for the weekend. Who is going to carry you? Who is going to play defense? Who is going to score goals? Who is going to attack the puck? Who is going to make passes? YOU.
Thanks to the parents on the team, they reinforced this message and got to them to realize the ownership they have to take if they want a different outcome. It was amazing because each game we were getting better and better. They were skating faster to attack the puck. They were skating faster with the puck. They were beginning to make passing plays. They were beginning to protect their goalie. And, EACH GAME, was better and better which is the trend we were looking for!
In conversation with a parent, I was reminded of my own philosophy (sometimes we forget about the values we hold dear for short-term gratification) developing good habits that will serve them in the long-run. Time and time again, we faced teams that had set “breakout plays” and “offensive tactics” (pass the puck to the front of the net). While tactically these teams are correct to get points on the scoreboard, I’m looking at the individual and wondering what skill set did they acquire in completing those tasks?
This is where I have to be “Okay” with taking losses because I’m reminded that my job is to build the player’s individual skill sets. Do they skate fast? Do they understand space and where they are on the ice? Do they skate with the puck with their eyes up scanning for teammates and/or recognize open ice to skate the puck themselves? Are they creating passing lanes to receive a pass? Are they attacking the puck? Are they supporting the puck? If there are no passing options, are they throwing the puck away or are they patient and attempting to create more time and space? How is their shooting ability?
I filter a player’s actions based on this criterion in my head. Our players have to make decisions when they have the puck and when they don’t have the puck. This process is not fun because like most young minds that have to exercise independence to think and independently make decisions there is a struggle because there is a lot of fumbling and making mistakes. This is part of the process and I have to have a strong enough stomach to endure losses, parent criticism, and outsider ridicule for “underperforming”. I don’t mind as long as we are bought into the marathon philosophy. As long as we understand it is about these children learning to make decisions for themselves and not I nor their parent can make those decisions for them. They have to understand why they are doing something and how their actions affect the big picture. And it is my job to help them understand why various actions are better than others and teach them the dichotomy of when those actions are applicable and when they are not. They will have to learn by trial and error, they will have to make poor decisions that lead to mistakes so they can learn from those experiences and change their approach to make better decisions the next time those elements present themselves, and they will.
One example, I don’t mind if a player didn’t pass the puck because he had his eyes up and identified no teammate was open. I have a problem when a teammate has a better scoring angle and the player identified their teammate was open and elected not to pass.