Coaching dilemmas in new teams

This is my first piece for Self–pass.combut for the past 18 months I have written my own hockey blog (bcuckowanalysisandcoaching).  My background is that I am English, studied Sports Coaching in Wales and have moved to the Netherlands to pursue a career in hockey.  
 
Many coaches each season have to face one of the following two scenarios.  First being a new team: this is either a change in team, for example moving from coaching the under 18 second team to coaching the under 16 first team at the same club, or result of moving to a new club.  Second being a large percentage of new and often younger players into an existing player group within a team: for example eight players changing age groups and therefore having to integrate an influx of new players into the team.  Both result in a process of re-education for the team, including the coach.  
 
During my studies I coached at Whitchurch for their U15 and U18 boys teams and as an assistant for the U13 boys and girls teams, and at Cardiff and UWIC for their U9, U11 and U13 boys teams.  Having moved to the Netherlands following graduation in 2012 I paired my video analysis work at HGC with coaching their u16 second team (JB2).  This was a big change for me personally as I had to get used to a very professional mentality and set up from the boys (compared to the youth teams that I had worked with in the UK), plus I had to deal with the fact that I hardly spoke any Dutch at the time.  Luckily most of the boys were at international schools so spoke almost perfect English.  Training three times per week for 90 minutes each was another difference to my old club’s men’s first team, who only trained twice per week for 90 minutes each. To match this professionalism I had to get planning, both my training sessions and targets.  This process went well and the team slowly started to play how I wanted them to.  Unfortunately pressing and corners were something we rarely got right, relying on raw hard work and ability to regain possession as they did not understand the press I wanted them to play, and that we didn’t have any stand out players in the corners.  We only scored 4 corners all year, the same variation each time, no hits or drag flicks went in.  
 
As a result of some supply teaching I had done at the British School, I was asked to coach the school first team (U18) for the 2013/14 season.  I took the job as it presented new challenges that I wanted to face.  Challenge one: and the biggest one in my opinion, it’s a girl’s team, I had never before coached a girl’s team, I have been a trainer and an assistant, but I had never run the show. Challenge two: the team has been league champions for as long as any of the current players can remember (so in reality about 5 years), but I was receiving a very young set of replacements for the current squad who left a legacy to live up to and I came with a reputation to live up to.  Challenge three: very little time (8 training sessions) to select a squad and prepare them for the International Schools tournament, for which the school had been Champions 3 years in a row, a tournament record, but the girls came good and we retained the cup for a fourth year.
 
On day one of the school year (the official squad was not selected until this time) I emailed all the players with a document about how I want them to play.  Leaving very few stones un-turned; it covered style of play, pressing, corners, responsibilities of players and my aims for the year.  Game one, two days into school term and only had one training session in extreme heat on day one of school, this was expected to be a challenge.  I also had only 11 players as so early in the year not everyone was available.  We were 1-0 down early on as the home team started fast having trained for at least 2 weeks more than us.  Luckily the girls toughed it out and won the game 1-14!  We were simply far too good at basic level hockey for the other team.  I told the girls due to the crazy nature of our tactics and the fact that half the team did not play in their normal positions that this was a great result, also they had done a great job of organizing themselves as at that point I still didn’t know half their names, let alone skill levels or positions, so I gave them time before the game to organize themselves, which they did fantastically, especially as our first choice keeper played her second game outfield ever as sweeper because she felt more confident that day to play outfield than our other keeper.  Due to an admin error we ended up in the wrong division, the third division instead of the second division, this destroyed the girl’s confidence and in the weeks after retaining the ISST cup, we had a slump, five points from four games that we should have taken 12 points from.  The final game before the winter break we played the best team of the season so far, we won 1-0 with the goal coming from the keeper come sweeper and this time come centre forward, a great way to finish and be in a positive state for the second half of the season.
 
Over the winter break I prepared a new guide for the girls.  This was because no one really understood the press as pressing is very difficult to train, and some girls didn’t have the hockey intelligence to even know what it was I was asking of them, let alone to be able to do it.  Our corners were hardly working, so I made a new set of corner routines taking into account the team’s strengths rather than my dream set of corners plucked from Hoofdklasse and international hockey.  Essentially I made the document from the start of the season into a presentation of around 80 Powerpoint slides, with animations.  Our training sessions since then have been more focused and we do much more talking about tactics than before.  Four games into the mid-winter competition and the benefit of this preparation is that the girls are playing some great hockey against the strongest teams they have played all season.  The press and tactics are no different to what we have been doing all season, but the girls now all understand what I am asking of them, and its working.  Corners we haven’t practiced once yet due to limited training time. So at this point in time we stand in a strong position, two wins and two draws from 4 games.  Considering win 1 was a given as we know that team and have beaten them before.  Win 2 was a great all round performance.  Draw 1 was the second toughest team we had played until now and a very physical game, a draw was fair.  Draw 2 was the toughest game any of the girls had every played, playing a team that had won 18 games in a row and winning each game by 3 or more goals, a 1-1 draw whilst missing our 3 best defenders is a really great result for the girls.  We go into the final game needing to win and the team from Draw 2 needing to lose.  Realistically it won’t happen, we will keep up our end of the margin but the other team will return to winning ways and we will finish second.  
 
Despite all this success I am still trying to identify the differences in boys and girls and the subconscious preconceptions/prejudices that I have been conditioned to hold.  On one occasion I did go a bit nuts in an almost Sir Alex Ferguson-esque rage during and post game in our slump phase.  I was wrong to have gone off on one in the way I did, regardless of the gender of my players.  However, I did afterwards speak with the girls, they themselves did throw the “we are girls” out there as a reason for me to “be nice”, but I believe they understood my frustrations.  One thing it is not in my nature to do is over do the positive feedback; however, I have found that having made more of an effort to give positive feedback to the girls, they do respond better to it than the guys I have coached in the past.
 
So five months into my third new team in three years I have come up with what I consider to be a rough guide to how to integrate into a new team:
  1. Give the players an element of ownership of how they will play.  This is basic good coaching, but it really helps the transition process as they are used to one thing, you are used to another.  Allow them to play their way and then step by step move to your way, when that element is game ready.
  2. Make it clear what you want from them, and give it time to be game ready before you use it in a game.  PowerPoint’s, videos and even extra training sessions are great for this, take the time.  It’s really worth it.  My last set of PowerPoint’s that I sent to the girls took at least 10 hours of work to make, but the results have made it more than worthwhile.  
  3. Team bonding is a must.  Teams can go off and have a drink or a day at the beach, but especially school teams are restricted in this for obvious reasons.  I have found simply sitting together and talking about anything and nothing to work very well, and it means you actually bond, not just share a drunken experience that no one remembers.  
  4. The team must respect you.  This can be based on several points.  In Wales my teams respected me because I was studying Sports Coaching and played for the best local University.  At HGC the boys respected me because I had worked with the Welsh U16 and U18 teams and worked with their own first men’s team.  The girls of course respected my reputation, but now that I have structured things better and made things much clearer, they now simply respect my knowledge and that I am good at what I do.  That is the most important type of respect, as it is something that is not reputation based or performance based, it is actually based on the fact I am good at what I do.  Also one thing they have commented to me is that they like the equality I have brought in after the Christmas holidays, when I make them run, I run with them.  It is a very simple thing but they respond well to it.
  5. Present a challenge.  Sport is all about the challenge, but if there isn’t a ‘process’, morale can quickly drop when ‘goals’ are not being achieved or too easily attained, thus goals have to be regularly reassessed, made realistic, achievable and measurable so that everyone understands the measure of success.  Again this is basic coaching but it is doubly valuable for new teams.
  6. Forget the gender differences.  Each individual is just that and that makes each new team different, so you need to treat them that way.  
 

Luckily, I will not face this problem next year, as having had such a young team this year, I will only lose a few players so it is simply a case of educating the newcomers into an existing system that everyone else understands and supports; but that will be a different challenge.

Blake Cuckow

Twitter: @BlakeCuckow

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