It is likely that S&C coaches are familiar with the four coactive model of athletic performance made popular by Fergus Connolly: Physical, Psychological, Technical, and Tactical. In general, the S&C coach lives in the physical pillar and the sport coaches live in the technical and tactical pillars. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, during the final month of our women’s hockey season at Brock University, I was asked to be an interim assistant coach by our head coach Margot Page. That meant for two regular season games and five playoff games I spent a large amount of time immersed in the tactical and technical pillars of player and team performance. Below are a few observations from my experience as an S&C coach who is a former player, but has never coached from the bench.
1. Things happen faster on the bench
Even though I’ve never coached, I’ve watched a lot of hockey in my lifetime. It is very easy to be a coach (or referee for that matter) from the cheap seats, that is, from the couch at home or in the stands. When you’re watching the game on TV or from the stands, the game appears slower and the sight lines tend to be better. When you’re at ice level, the play moves faster and anything along the bench-side boards is hard to see. More importantly, your attention is always being spread between what’s happening on the ice, the rapid movement of players changing lines, and giving players feedback as they come off if needed. Fortunately for me, Margot called the lines so I could focus on what was happening on the ice and giving the players feedback. It took me a full game to get my coaching legs under me and as well as get a feel for how to manage the organized chaos of watching and coaching the game from the bench.
2. Just because you played hockey at a high level doesn’t mean you can coach it
I was fortunate to play NCAA hockey and spend several years playing with our Women’s National program. That was several years ago, and despite still being deeply immersed in hockey as an S&C coach, I don’t live in the technical and tactical daily mindset like hockey coaches do. When I watch the game through the lens of a former player, I tend to focus on individual players or on team outcomes (i.e. Did the player make a skilled play? Did our team score on the power play?). When I watch the game as an S&C coach, I tend to focus on a player’s skating ability, strength on the puck, and stamina. When I started assistant coaching, I had to change the way I watched the game. I had to learn how to zoom out and focus more holistically on team and player tactical components. Margot is a very detailed coach and she helped me with the onboarding process of learning the team systems so I could be prepared to coach them.
3. Player to player communication on the bench is often more impactful than coach to player communication
The teammates that came off the ice and talked to each other about what they did well and adjustments they should make, were more successful than those who didn’t. After observing this, I tried to facilitate more of these player-to-player conversations as opposed to me giving top-down feedback. This aligns with strategies I use in the gym on occasion when I get players to coach each other through an exercise or debrief a drill. The more athletes are engaged with teammates during the process, whether on the ice or in the gym, the better they seem to perform.
4. The coach’s impact during a game
I’ve heard many people talk about how the coach’s impact is in the longer-term technical and tactical preparation and is minimal on game day. In my short experience, I saw that the coach does have meaningful impact when the game is being played. First, managing the players during the game is monumental for keeping the bench organized during changes, getting favourable match ups, handling special teams scenarios, and managing player ice time to minimize fatigue. If coaching mistakes are made in any of those categories, it can cost the team a game. The players are still the ones on the ice who need to make plays and execute, but player management matters in hockey. It was enjoyable to watch Margot, a true professional who has been doing this for decades, manage the team in real time.
A coach’s impact can also affect the team’s mood on the bench and between periods. A single game of hockey can be an emotional roller coaster, whether from lead changes, big saves, missed opportunities, or questionable refereeing. Coaches are there to stabilize the team’s emotions, keep players from getting too excited after a goal, and losing focus to making sure they don’t get too low after challenging situations. I remember watching the National Women’s team during their gold medal run at the most recent Olympic games. The cameras would often flash to the bench after a goal. The head coach, Troy Ryan would be completely stoic after a goal either way. I found myself riding a roller coaster along with the players, throwing fist pumps when we scored and getting frustrated after something didn’t go our way. That’s probably still the player in me, but as a coach, perhaps I should try to be more even-keeled.
5. Catch the players doing something good
One of Margot’s mantras for the coaching staff is to catch the players doing something good. In my experience, athletes, and especially women, respond more favourably to positive rather than negative feedback. Players know when they have made a mistake. Although sometimes it is necessary, going to the player as soon as they get off and telling them what they should have done isn’t usually very productive. What players don’t often realize is that the small, positive plays they make have a large impact on the success of a shift. Something that appears minor, like pinning an opponent on the forecheck or a quick tap pass on a breakout, often gets missed, but are the plays that lead to team success. I tried to direct a large part of my feedback on these aspects. I believe an S&C coach can be impactful in this regard as well. Even though S&C coaches might not be on the bench, when the team cools down after a game or are back in the gym the following week, complimenting players on these small positives of their game can still be a big mental boost for them individually. Most of the players aren’t going to score goals or get points in a game, but they can draw confidence knowing that they made a positive impact on the play and were acknowledged for it.
6. Playoff fitness is different than regular season fitness
I’d be remiss not to include at least one point directly related to S&C. It’s obvious that the intensity of playoff hockey is heightened compared to the regular season. The game becomes more physical and is played at a faster pace. Every 50-50 puck is now a hard physical battle and there’s meaningful body contact while battling for all of the pucks along the boards. This means the energy output of each shift is higher, not to mention the energy being output from the mental and emotional arousal of the season ending, or being extended, based on the game result. On top of all of this, at some point during the game the bench may be shortened, that is to say the team’s best players may get more ice time. Our group was playoff fit, but we weren’t National-champions fit. It was eye opening for the players during Nationals to experience how physically demanding those games were and learn what it takes to physically compete for a National title. It takes years, not months, to build the fitness needed to win at the National level. I think that the experience has helped our group commit even further to the big-picture training process in hopes of giving themselves an opportunity to win in future years.
Our season ended early at Nationals, but we made some history on the way. Having the opportunity to wear a different type of coaching hat during our run and be immersed in the game action was an incredible experience. It increased the already high level of respect I have for hockey coaches. Even though it was incredibly fun, and I learned a lot from spending more time in the technical and tactical pillars of hockey performance, I’ll be promptly retiring from coaching hockey unless extreme circumstances mean they need to call in the third-stringer again.
Vicki Bendus is a Lead Sport Performance Coach at Brock University where she works with the men’s and women’s hockey teams, as well as soccer teams. Since 2016 she has worked with both Next Gen and Senior athletes as a Strength and Conditioning Coach with Hockey Canada and Wrestling Canada. Vicki is currently pursuing her PhD that will be focused on identifying, measuring, and improving off-ice KPIs for linear skating speed.