Decisions, Decisions: How to Train Your Players to Make Good On-Ice Decisions
by Dr. Larry Lauer
Decisions, decisions. Make the right decisions in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and you could be a hero. Make the wrong one at the wrong time and you will most likely be a goat. That is the funny thing about the “GOAT” title – the difference between “Greatest Of All Time” and just a goat is slim and happens quickly.
Pros are faced with many tough decisions at a high rate of speed. “Should I pinch along the wall or stay back? Should I forecheck and provide puck support or hang back so we don't get caught defending an odd-man situation? It's the end of the shift, maybe we could get a 3-on-2, or maybe I should dump it and go for a change. Should I go out and play the puck behind my net or stay in the crease and let my defense take care of it?” Play it safe or not. There are many choices to be made that decide the fate of their team. Players make hundreds maybe thousands of decisions in the course of a game.
A decision a player makes can turn the tide of a playoff series. In the 2011 NHL playoffs Vancouver and San Jose faced off in a physical, penalty-filled series. In Game 2 Sharks veteran Patrick Marleau decided to fight the Canucks Kevin Bieksa, who is more experienced at throwing fists. Why would Marleau fight someone who is more adept at fighting? The purpose was to change the momentum in the game; to give his team a lift. To Marleau it was worth risking his jaw and well-being to pick his team’s energy and focus up. However, a few moments later Shark Ben Eager took a checking from behind penalty because he was fired up from the fight. His inability to manage his emotion led to an Ill-timed penalty. During the intermission retired NHL great Jeremy Roenick said that if the Sharks came back Marleau's decision to fight "a scary" Bieksa was the thing that made it happen. However, poor decision making from Eager muted Marleau's attempts to lead. Vancouver regained momentum, scored later on another Eager penalty, and dominated 7-3.
Coaches also make decisions that affect the course of a game and a series. Philadelphia Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette called one of the most important and famous timeouts in recent history when the Flyers were down 3-0 in Game 7 of their 2010 series against the Bruins. James Van Riemsdyk scored soon after and the comeback of all comebacks was unfolding. Laviolette is credited for refocusing his team at a most crucial time. In a more controversial decision Canucks Coach Alain Vigneault decided to sit Luongo in Game 6 of the 2011 first round series versus the Hawks. It was widely criticized by the media as a move to protect Luongo's confidence. Chicago would win Game 6 in OT after Luongo had to come in to the net after an injury, but Luongo bounced back to play well in Game 7 and win (thus saving the organization from some serious second-guessing about goaltender moves). The life of a coach is full of dilemmas and second-guessing; you can make what you think is the right decision at the time and either get loads of credit when it works out or slammed when it doesn’t.
On-ice decisions (and even pre game decisions) are certainly one of the most important factors in winning and losing. Thus, it would make sense that coaches would spend a great deal of time working on it. But, how can you train decision-making? How can a coach ensure that his team will make good decisions in pressure situations?
UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden’s Eight Laws of Learning
“Explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition and repetition.”
To make good decisions, as one of the greatest coaches in all of sport John Wooden emphasized, the tried and true practice of repetition applies. Coaches pound a philosophy and a system into the brains of the players through constant repetition and communication. This consistent effort to coach and
play a certain style creates habits that the players can fall back on during high speed affairs on the ice. It becomes a default method of making decisions. When Tampa won the Cup in 2004 the default was "Safe is death". Coach Tortorella's players knew to attack and keep attacking. This provided the Lightning a mindset to play an aggressive style even when under pressure.
Visualize Scenarios, Options, Consequences, and Success
Another method many hockey players use to make good decisions on the ice is to pre-play or visualize game situations and the "correct" play. A defenseman will visualize playing a 2 on 1 or 3 on 2. A forward will visualize their positioning in the defensive zone. A goalie will visualize coming out of the net and being aggressive. Visualizing prior to the game (and even during breaks in the game) helps players to make good decisions under extreme pressure and with very little time and space. Here are two examples from NHL players from a study conducted by Barbour and Orlick (http://www.zoneofexcellence.ca/Journal/Issue02/
I spend about 20 minutes before the Game picturing myself in my mind going through every possible scenario of the game. Me coming out of a one-on-one where I take the guy and the puck gets picked up by one of our guys, ...me in their end taking a shot that goes right by the goalie. I imagine myself as invincible.
I try and get a mental image of who I’m going to be playing against. I was primarily a checker last year, so if we’re playing a real good team where they have a Gretzky or Lemieux, I’ll start thinking about things that I can do to help the team in stopping them. ...’What am I going to do if Gretzky goes behind the net? or if Lemieux starts to steamroll down the wing, am I going to go right at him or should I pick up one of his wingers because I think he’s going to pass off, that type of thing.
It would be in your best interest as the coach to train your athletes to visualize how they should play the game right down to specific situations they will face. For those youth hockey coaches reading this newsletter you may be thinking “this is too advanced for youth hockey players.” If you are thinking this I would say you are right and wrong. The concepts that you are teaching cannot be too difficult for young hockey players to understand. The first step in learning is the ability to create a mental or motor map of the movements required to perform a skill or task. Just because young players have the ability to visualize does not mean they will comprehend how to trap in the neutral zone. However, teaching simple aspects of the game like puck support or a triangle attack allows young players to visualize their roles. Do not underestimate the visualization powers of youth. They are often more creative than adults. The coaches just need to figure out how to put it in a language that unlocks their ability to visualize success.
Good Role Models Enhance the Learning of Good Decision-Making
Repetition and visualization are two key ways to teach players to make good decisions. You can enhance your efforts further by providing your players role models that make good decisions. Watching Niklas Lidstrom with an informed hockey coach that is describing the subtleties of Lidstrom’s brilliance can be a great lesson for youth. They can then visualize how to make plays and use Lidstrom as a point of reference. The emergence of YouTube has really helped us as coaches. Players can now in an instant download a video of Nik Lidstrom to their phone and watch it prior to a game or practice.
Use Questions to Train Decision-Making
Finally, a great method for developing decision-making in adolescent, and even youth hockey players is to use divergent questions. These questions require the players to think. For example, you can take a situation and describe it to your team, such as the puck is in your corner and you have a guy in front of the net. You are standing halfway in between them. What choices do you have? What are the consequences of each decision? What would you do and why?
Do you see the effectiveness of this method of
teaching? It requires the players to come up with answers and provide a rationale for their answer. Just as important you are teaching the player to evaluate situations, weigh the consequences and thus the risk/reward ratio, and then make a well-thought out decision. What you will find when you use this approach is that your players will begin thinking the game better on their own and coach themselves on the ice. Is that not something that we all want?
A very quick decision in the Vancouver-San Jose series by defenseman Kevin Bieksa spurred the Canucks to a win over the Sharks and eventually to a series victory. With the game tied 2-2 Bieksa was super aggressive when he decided to jump up through the neutral zone. He caught the Sharks by surprise and went in on a breakaway. It was an aggressively good decision. Bieksa then made another great decision to shoot quickly and low at goalie Niemi's feet on the breakaway catching him moving and off guard. The result was a 3-2 lead. Vancouver may not have won handily if not for Bieksa's quick thinking. It was good decision-making made on the fly. This is exactly what we want from our players; the confidence to trust their decisions and play aggressive.