Jack Blatherwick

Read/react skills are trained, just like physical skills

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

“Speed of hand, speed of foot, speed of mind; train for each of these...but never forget, the most important is speed of mind.” This advice came from Anatoli Tarasov, who’s philosophy was the cornerstone of Soviet hockey for 40 years, from its first appearance in international competition in the early 1950’s.

Imagine winning the World Championship each year for four decades! And the Olympics each fourth year, both with only a handful of exceptions — two of those coming in the Olympics of 1960 and 1980 at the hands of amateurs from the United States.

Herb Brooks knew how well the Soviet training philosophy worked, because he played on 10 national and Olympic teams. The Soviets practiced so fast — with so many instantaneous read/react decisions — that this became their comfort zone. Brooks knew that opponents who were psyched up for the effort of their lives would be performing all their skills and making decisions at a pace that was not ingrained from thousands of hours of practice.

“It was not easy (to practice this way),” Tarasov wrote. “The players did not like (the discomfort of practicing like this). But we told the players, ‘We do not care. If you want to beat the best opponents, this is how we must train.’”

I will use the term Overspeed Training for practicing all skills and decision-making at a pace that is faster than comfortable. After several months of this — combined with rigorous dryland training — if you can maintain a high level of execution for a two-hour practice, you are in the same shape as the Soviets.

All other definitions of endurance conditioning fail. Aerobic training is too slow. Whether this is cardio-conditioning on a bike, or running, or skating — it can not develop habits of quickness. On the other hand, tough, anaerobic interval training fails, because it results in poor execution of skills, including skating skill. 

If, like the Soviet teams, the goal is to maintain for an entire game — the fastest possible execution of offensive and defensive skills; the quickest, most accurate read/react decisions; and the highest level of mental toughness and creativity — the only conditioning that prepares a team for this is overspeed training on-ice.

This is why Brooks adopted Tarasov’s philosophy for the six-month preparation season prior to the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Movies have emphasized the torturous “Herbies,” the anaerobic stops-and-starts added for disciplinary reasons (meaning the coach was angry). This was an easy way for Hollywood to show in a short clip just how tough the coach was in practice. However, the major conditioning effect was from the tempo of difficult, but skillful practices — most of which lasted longer, and were much tougher than games.

Recent studies by neuroscientists have given us some idea why this works. First, the improvement of skills is a function of precise practice — repeating as perfectly as possible the exact movement and speed of movement that is desired in competition. We know that the nerve cells (neurons) carrying information from the Central Nervous System to the muscles communicate the messages to other neurons and to muscle cells at junctions called synapses.

 Much of the learning process in skill development results from: (a) the timing of messages arriving at these synapses; and (b) the proliferation of synaptic “connections.” The timing of electrical signals is enhanced by myelin insulation surrounding the long limbs (axons) of neurons. It is possible to actually see the increased myelin with a special “microscope,” whether the skills are those of a world-class violinist, gymnast or hockey player.

Neuroscientists have also discovered much about the learning that allows world champion chess players to make quick decisions with as many variables as a crowded chess board. A hundred years ago, a chess master (Jose Capablanca from Cuba) competed with 28 others simultaneously. He had only 2-3 seconds to make a decision at each board; the opponents had unlimited time. He made his decision and walked to the next board, made a decision within a couple seconds and moved again. He won all 28 matches!

His feat inspired the study of chess decision-making processes, and scientists have concluded that the greatest players (a) make correct decisions quickly, and (b) focus on the most important variables, not the entire maze of the chess board. More importantly, studies have concluded: this skill results from repetition, not innate ability. Practice.

Obviously, a hockey player makes decisions more quickly than two seconds, but the conclusions are the same. For players like Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby, this read/react skill is acquired through years of practice — not from some genetic gift.

For the 1980 Olympic team to compete with the Soviets, they had to maintain physical and mental skills at high quality and high tempo for an entire game. Brooks’ answer, stolen from his opponents, is now being verified by scientific studies: effective endurance is gained from high quality repetition... not from traditional low-quality, brain-dead, slow conditioning drills that have slowed the progress of team sports.

 

For more, visit www.overspeed.info.

 

 

 

Wolf packs: A great example of interdependence and synergy

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack

– Rudyard Kipling.

 

Before the winter season ends, hockey teams and wolf packs that haven’t learned the lesson of interdependence will run into harsh times. 

Interdependence has two elements: successful teams must all have catalysts – players who make others better. Deceptive playmaking was Wayne Gretzky’s greatest gift to hockey, and it is how the pack gains strength from an individual wolf.

The other half of the formula is dependence – each wolf gains strength from the pack. It is difficult for the most talented young players to grasp this, because they have the ability to create offense on their own. However, in the playoffs or in future years, every player must depend on teammates to be effective. 

Interdependence is a win-or-lose lesson for hockey teams and a matter of life-or-death for wolf cubs who might think they can hunt alone. The smartest goal scorers in the NHL use teammates as tools to accomplish a difficult task, just like carpenter’s tools. The earlier they give their linemate a perfect pass, the better chance he can return it at precisely the right moment.

Soviet teams lived by Kipling’s advice, and dominated international hockey for 40 years. The puck seemed to move magically from one stick to another as they attacked with synergy that has never been equaled.

Definition of synergy: When the pieces of a team are put together in an effective way, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. This means 2+2+2 can add up to more than 6. Individuals can make others more effective than they’d be without the team.

Individual sports like wrestling, track or swimming do not provide opportunities for synergy. Certainly, individuals can contribute emotional support for each other, but an outstanding high school wrestler cannot make his teammate better by sneaking up and holding back the arms of an opponent.

On a track team, if one runner has a personal best time, others may be inspired from watching the effort, but a runner cannot step out on the track and push teammates along or lower the hurdles for them.

On the other hand, in a team sport, every individual has the ability to physically make teammates better. Good blocking by an offensive linemen in football makes the job easier for the running back. A basketball player can pick a defender, allowing his teammate to drive for an easy layup.

In hockey, when one player screens the goalie, his linemate might score with a shot that wouldn’t score if the goalie was able to see the puck. A brilliant forward might draw a defenseman out of position and allow his linemate to attack when the D is at its weakest. A defenseman makes the goalie better by keeping opponents from screening, by clearing rebounds, or by covering a receiver, so the puck carrier has no option but to shoot. The goalie can then play the angle more aggressively. 

This is synergy: 2+2+2 adds up to big numbers when players are trying to make their teammates better. “Once a team practices interdependence for several weeks, it develops synergy,” said Herb Brooks in discussing how the 1980 Olympic Team accomplished its miracle. “A bunch of great players does not make a great team. The coach’s major job is to create synergy.”

“This is accomplished by the way you practice,” Brooks continued;  “… by the way you play in regular season games, and by the camaraderie among players – by the trust they have in each other.”

Trust. Interdependence. Without these, there can be no synergy, no success in postseason competition. The old poet, Kipling, may never have seen a hockey puck, but he certainly understood the importance of competing as a team. Championships will be the eventual prize for teams that hunt like a pack of wolves.

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

 

 

 

 

 

X’s & O’s: How much is enough?

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

I overheard some PeeWees talking enthusiastically about their greatest ambition in hockey. One said, “I want to be just like Sidney Crosby.” For another it was Ovechkin. Names like Datsyuk, Phaneuf, Kane and Chara also came up. And then the shocker … one of them said, “I want to be an X, or maybe an O.  I haven’t decided yet.”

Huh? Then I woke up. It was a bad dream, and of course, we’ll never hear that from a young player. But they hear it from us all the time. We draw X’s and O’s on the board so often it might seem that the mission for each game is, “Be a good X.”

I’m no expert, by any means, when it comes to teaching hockey to kids who are smaller than their equipment bags.  In fact, I wonder why they have so darn much equipment they need fathers or wheels to get the bag from the car to the rink. But that’s another topic.

Should beginners be taught how to line up for a faceoff before they know what to do after the puck drops? Should there be right wings and left? Defensemen and forwards? Should we teach breakout systems before kids can receive passes? Power plays before deception, creativity and interdependence?

What about a 2-1-2 forecheck before they can skate the length of the ice to get to the offensive zone? Heck, what about an inflexible forecheck system at any age?

I’ve watched these X’s and O’s forever, and then I see smart players do what seems to be a pretty smart thing — go where the puck will be next. Try teaching that with X’s and O’s.

I make no argument against teaching good, sound defensive systems at certain ages. The important question is: at what age do we teach various systems? 

Craig Johnson, from Hill-Murray and the U of M,  eventually played NHL, Olympic and European professional hockey. He now coaches 8-year-olds in Los Angeles and sends Christmas greetings to old friends in Minnesota. He also had to let us know they do play hockey in places where coaches head to the golf course after skating instead of heading home to shovel the sidewalk.

Having just coached against a team of 10-year-olds that used the neutral zone trap, Craig, and all players who have competed at elite levels, would like youth coaches to realize that this over-emphasis on systems at young ages is a sure way to stunt the development of their players. 

“It’s a shame,” he said. “Defensemen not allowed to join the rush — forwards taught to dump it deep and forecheck only one (X) — chipping the puck out of the defensive zone without trying to make a pass.”

Johnson relays a story from a Swedish coach who has been instrumental in shaping the direction of their youth program. A few years ago, another European country (we will not name) wanted desperately to “pass up the Swedes” in developing great players. So they had their youth coaches teach systems more than ever, in order to gain a “winning spirit.”  Sure enough, their young teams beat the Swedes. But there was no panic, as the Swedes went about teaching skills, athleticism, creativity and synergy in their small-sided scrimmage drills. For a picture of what this looks like, watch any NHL game, and you’ll see Swedes demonstrate how to play hockey. Better yet, replay the last Olympic gold medal game.

Of course, as these same players (from the un-named country) got older, they started to lose to the Swedes, and eventually were not able to compete with them at all. Swedish development is not about winning games at young ages. In the U.S. our emphasis on winning deprives children of the oppportunity to learn by trial and error. It also encourages coaches to teach systems before developing competitive skills.

Adults have an unhealthy need to win in youth sports, making it difficult to accept the mistakes and failures of their children. Johnson points out that getting beat — personally and as a team — then bouncing back is as much a part of the development process as having success. 

“For every highlight goal by a forward, there is a defenseman getting beat, and given time to develop, that defenseman might become a Scott Niedermeyer,” Johnson said.

There is a proposal brewing to limit the number of games, but a rule about two or three games per week is missing the point. It’s not the number of games, but the way they are conducted that is destructive. There should be no games where adult egos are more important than youth development and fun.

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

 

 

 

The real geniuses

Are there geniuses coaching in the Olympics? No. True genius is required in youth hockey.

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Winning at any level is about how good the players are ... and how good the coaches and experiences have been for a lifetime. Hockey coaches cannot control game action to the same extent they can in a football game, so the major contribution of any coach is largely determined in practice.

Since Olympic teams have very few practices, the coach with the best power play will not have brilliant tactics; he will have the best group of five players, working together more effectively than other teams. 

The best breakout will belong to the team with the best defensemen — those who put passes on sticks more often than throwing it around the boards or on the glass. 

The best penalty kill?  This will probably be the team with the best goaltender for two weeks of February.  That’s what it takes to win in the Olympics ... the best players.

To a youth coach, this must sound remarkably like coaching your team in the state tournament — with one important exception. The abilities of the top offensive players in the NHL or college were NOT developed in those later years. It happened much earlier. 

Bob Richardson is an NHL scout and longtime developmental coach in the Boston area who has helped many players reach the highest levels. A few years ago he was asked to fill in for a speaker at a youth coaches’ seminar;  the topics were ‘Power Play’ and ‘Breakout.’  When he started with the words, “I’ll show you the best power play in the NHL,” everyone reached for pen and paper, expecting some tactical inside secret.  “But first,” he continued, “we must cover a few of the building blocks — the pre-requisites for a great power play.”

These “building blocks” are the qualities an Olympic coach must identify — and a youth coach must develop. So who’s the genius here? The coach who wins the gold medal next month, or the youth and high school coaches, or other people who nurtured these qualities at a young age? I use the word ‘nurtured,’ because many of these concepts are not taught in a conventional way. Concepts aren’t found in a book of drills. Perhaps they were developed on an outside pond or by a coach who emphasized trial and error when others were insisting, “Get it deep. Don’t make mistakes.”

What are the qualities that make up the most successful power play in the Olympics, NHL or college? This is Richardson’s list of building blocks that must be developed at young ages. He asks, “Is your youth team ready for a tactical power play? Or breakout? or any X’s and O’s?”

Besides the obvious skating and stick skills, here are some building blocks that make any tactical offensive plan become a winner. Many would say these “intangible” qualities are uncoachable. Richardson feels they are the top priority for any great coach.

 

Passion. This is the first, and most important quality developed in youth hockey. Richardson’s challenge: “Your players should leave the practice rink saying, ‘Wow, that was fun. When’s our next practice?’” 

Passion is the single most important reason Alex Ovechkin scores goals. It is not because of his skating, his size (which has nothing to do with his scoring) or even his shot. In a stationary shooting contest, he does NOT shoot better than others, but he has the uncanny ability to release shots in every possible awkward situation. Why? Because he has done it in every practice drill of his entire life. This is what he lives for.

Richardson asks, “What is your youth program doing about developing passion to score? This must certainly come before any tactical PP.”

 

Rink sense, deception, creativity, confidence, poise. Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Pavel Datsyuk and Marian Gaborik are just four of many who will demonstrate this in the Olympics; because they acquired them when they were young. Competitive small-area drills: keepaway games, small and large scrimmages (etc) are a start. Learning to fake and “look the opponent off,” comes from competitive situations.

Wayne Gretzky’s father knew that a rink in the backyard could develop these qualities. Roseau’s North Rink and Warroad’s Gardens are used free of charge, 24/7; and therefore these small towns produce more brilliant, creative hockey players than would be predicted by their population. The suburban equivalent could be the new inexpensive fabric roof buildings. I’d like to own a franchise and sell five of them to each youth program, because “competitive instincts” are not instincts at all — they are learned in competition.

 

Synergy or Interdependence. “Playing together,” in Richardson’s words, is critical for any tactical situation. Using all the tools available in a creative, deceptive way will be the offensive hallmark of the Olympic team that wins the gold medal next month.

Interdependence on defense is obvious and relatively easy to teach. But it is not easy to convince a youthful superstar who has the ability to score on his own, that he will be most effective when he learns to use team-mates to create more opportunities for himself and for them.

 

The physical skills — skating, stickhandling, shooting, passing, receiving, checking — are important projects for youth hockey, of course. However, every player in the NHL has great skills, and the superstars are often not superior in this respect. The difference is that those on the power play – the ones leading the league – find ways to accentuate their skills in games, because they have a greater combination of the intangible concepts listed above. The real geniuses in hockey are youth coaches who find ways to nurture these qualities while others are calling them “uncoachable.”

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

 

 

 

 

Teach creative deceptive offensive attack

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Anatoly Tarasov, the father of Soviet hockey, was the most successful international coach in history. His passion was creative, deceptive offensive attack, and this continues to dominate developmental coaching in Russia and Europe today. So it should not surprise anyone that they produce a disproportionately greater number of the world’s most creative offensive geniuses.

Decades ago Tarasov observed that North American coaches were so preoccupied with defensive systems, they hardly bothered to teach offensive attack, except for the power play. This is true today at every level of American hockey, because it is the quickest route to win, and it is much easier to draw X’s and O’s on the board than to train for skills like those of Pavel Datsyuk or Sidney Crosby. 

Encouraging creativity is a sure-fire way to lose in the short run at the youth level, because skills are not yet perfected.  Losing is not tolerable in a youth system of “big event” games, a system that continues to hurt development in the U.S.  It is precisely the opposite in Europe and Russia, where a youth coach would be fired if he emphasized winning over development.

Even after high school hockey in our country, coaches become judges of offensive talent, more than developers. So if a competitive, fast, strong, hard-working college or professional player lacks just one offensive skill, he is assigned for life to a defensive role.

What if football or basketball coaches ignored offensive attack and simply worked on defensive systems? Ridiculous, you say?  They’re up all night thinking of new ways to create offense. Does this mean they ignore defense? Of course not, but somehow in hockey, it is fashionable to say, “Games are won by good defense.”  Period.

What about good offense along with good defense? For a quick laugh try this Google assignment: type the words, “Offense hockey.” Obviously, Google has an American — not Russian — bias, because the first 10 suggestions on their list all start with the word, “Defensive…” 

Bobby Richardson, longtime NHL scout, college coach, and developmental coach to hundreds of players in the Boston area, writes about the deceptive offensive attack of the New Orleans Saints, comparing it to European and Russian hockey. The Saints use many different formations, personnel groupings and pre-snap shifts to confuse the defense. Then as the ball is snapped, there is always an effort to deceive linebackers into taking a fatal step in the wrong direction. They use fake runs on pass plays, stutter steps one way and counters the other way on running plays — anything to deceive the defense for a second. 

They pass in traditional “running” situations, and they run when the defense expects a pass. Coach Sean Peyton designs each fake and stutter step to look exactly like the real thing and speaks of this extra little effort that makes the offense successful.

The phrase “extra effort” in North American hockey is most often reserved for a defensive play like blocking a shot or backchecking hard; or on offense, to describe someone crashing the net for a rebound, all great plays, of course. However, unlike Coach Peyton, we don’t teach the little extra effort to make a realistic fake, drawing a defender one way while passing back in the oppposite direction; yet, this is the very reason players like Crosby and Datsyuk rise above the average.

Tarasov employed the same concepts in hockey that the Saints use in their offense…extra effort directed toward deception and creativity. Today, at most levels of North American hockey, when an attack faces an even-man defensive alignment at the blue line, players are told to dump the puck deep and forecheck. In other words, against a good defense, “Give up on this attack opportunity and wait for another one.” Imagine this in a basketball or football game, if the other team happens to get the allotted number of defenders, forget about trying to outsmart them; forget deception; forget offense — just punt on first down and wait for another opportunity.

“Keep it simple. Never make mistakes with the puck.” That’s offensive hockey American style. But, the greatest coaches of all time say things like, “The team that makes the most mistakes is taking the initiative, and they will win later in the season.” That was John Wooden’s philosophy, and it captured 10 NCAA basketball championships in 12 years! Imagine that; then consider his question for youth coaches, “How can a real teacher not indulge mistakes?”

“A (hockey player) has to be a sort of magician to outwit and outplay the opponent,” Tarasov said. “The main objective of a coach (in the future) will be the development of the players’ fantasy (imagination/creativity).” It’s been 35 years since Tarasov hoped for such a future in hockey, and creativity has not become the main objective in American youth hockey. In fact, if a player tries something creative and fails in a weekend PeeWee tournament, creativity may be rewarded with a long, cold lesson — sitting next to a coach who didn’t study great teachers like Tarasov or Wooden.

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.