The Root of All Problems In Minor Hockey Today? Coaches Are Too Well Trained!

Editorial By:
Robert Kirwan
President and CEO
Infocom Canada Business Consultants Inc.


How’s that for an opening headline to catch your attention? Yet, it’s true! And if you sit down and really "listen" to old-timers who coached minor hockey kids thirty or forty years ago, I’m sure they will provide you with many arguments that will convince you that we have gone way overboard with the training and certification of coaches. I have a Masters Degree in Education; taught kids up to the age of 14 for over 28 years; raised three sons who were all gifted hockey players; coached everything from Atom to Bantam, house league and Rep; and yet, because I don’t have Level I certificate, I couldn’t even open and close the bench door for any minor hockey team in Canada. And yet, some punk who couldn’t run his nose, let alone a hockey team, can sit in a classroom for a day, get a binder with plenty of impressive written chapters and diagrams, and become a head coach in charge of impressionable young boys and girls. What we need to do is focus on getting "qualified" coaches back into hockey instead of worrying about their certification levels.


That’s right! Hockey is a simple game. But over the years we’ve made it so complicated that it is no wonder kids are dropping out and parents are becoming frustrated. As stated in the opening, I firmly believe that the root of all problems in minor hockey today can be traced back to the fact that we are doing too good a job of training our coaches. Even people coaching entry level children are equipped with dozens of books and coaching guides designed to develop hockey skills in young players. The drills that are being used at the tyke and novice level were once only even tried at the Junior or Professional levels because of their complexity. Today, it is like a three-ring circus at some practices. It is almost as if a coach is judged by how complicated his drills are. The coach who simply goes through a few skating drills; some shooting on the goalies; and then using the rest of the time for scrimmaging is considered to be unqualified. Yet, there is nothing wrong with using this kind of practice to develop hockey skills in minor hockey.


When you add everything up, hockey is all about trying to master a few simple skills:

you have to know how to hold on to your stick;
you have to know how to balance yourself on your skates, even if you are being pushed or shoved by other players;
you have to know how to skate forward and backwards;
you have to know how to shoot the puck, with accuracy, along the ice and in the air with a wrist shot, a backhand and a slap shot;
you have to know how to receive a pass without having the puck bounce off the stick;
you have to know the rules;
you have to know how to play the different forward and defense positions;

So if that is all you have to know in order to enjoy hockey, why do most coaches make their practices so complicated? Have you ever seen some of the practice drills that have been published for coaches? It takes most of the practice to have the kids learn what they are supposed to do in the drill.


This is a concern that must be addressed before we kill the sport of hockey. And in order to find the answer, we certainly have to look no further than to the "systems" that minor hockey players are being forced to learn. These are systems that are being used by professional clubs which are judged by the number of games they win. Unfortunately, the coaches who run minor hockey teams have begun to implement the same kind of systems at the younger levels. This means that we have witnessed a decline in end-to-end rushes and players who hold on to the puck while weaving in and out and around their opponents. Now, a player is told to stay in his position and dump and chase the puck into the corners. Get over the red line and dump it in. And if you do try to hold on to the puck for any length of time, you had better be prepared to get hammered by two or three members of the opposition who have learned that it is easier to hook, hold, trip, slash and check than it is to skate hard to catch up to you. Defense has become the top priority in most teams. Keep the other club from scoring and take advantage of any mistakes they make. In the old days, you tried to outscore your opponents. Today, you try to keep your opponents from scoring and hope that you get a couple of bounces or rebounds. Kids are afraid of making a mistake so they avoid taking chances.

The irony of the whole situation is that most practices are all about the development of offensive skills. The skating drills and passing drills emphasize offense. But during a game, the emphasis is on defense and playing your position. We have to give our young players a green light to become more creative.

The photo at the left shows three of the most creative hockey players who ever played the game. Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur and Mark Messier all knew what to do with the puck. They didn't simply cross the red line and dump the puck into the zone. They held the puck and learned to stick handle
Gretzky has said in the past that the big problem with young kids today is that they are being forced to pick a 'position' while they are still developing. How does a child at the age of six know whether he wants to be a forward or a defenseman. Even Gretzky was a defenseman when he was thirteen. 

Give the kids a puck and let them have fun, especially in practices. If they have the talent and the desire to become professionals, so be it. At least everyone will have fun playing the game they all love and perhaps hockey will return to the sport we all remember.



Robert, you just hit a homerun with me.  This is exactly what's happening in minor hockey today.
You attend a classroom session and you come out a coach or an assistant coach.  Give me a break - do a police background check on me, check with my employer, someone who knows my character,  all of which would be fine with me. 
Not only did you hit the nail on the head with that but also the fact that some of these coaches with these certificates are running practices that forget about the basics and are running breakout patterns for six and seven year olds is beyond me.
I'm 46 years old, played hockey or have been involved in hockey for many years and I have received my Level 1 coaching certificate and my Speak Out certificate but I'm just furious with this system.  I'm one of the assistant coaches on my son's hockey team and I'm hearing that I will need to attend another certification course, which on my behalf, won't happen.  I love being on the ice and working with our coaching staff but to waste my time and money to approve of my knowledge and willingness to make the game enjoyable for these kids is insane.  Again, I can't tell you how much your editorial was right on the money for me.  You summed up exactly how I feel. 
                                                                 Mace Soroko
                                                                 Golf Teaching Professional
                                                                 Supply Teacher
                                                                 Level 3 Referee
                                                                 Power Skating Instructor
I totally agree with what you said in your article.  I have Major Junior playing experience, am an elementary school teacher, and have several years coaching experience.  I completed and received my NCCP coaching certificate years ago only to be told this year that I had to attend Speak Out (which I believe is a valuable session), and Initiation to Coaching  before I could coach my five year old's team. Then next year I will have to take another Coaching clinic to coach novice.  It is so frustrating especially when I have completed my coaching (NCCP hockey) course years ago only to be told it no longer qualifies me as a coach.   No wonder minor hockey has so much trouble finding coaches!  However, for the love of the game and to see the smiles on the "little tyke's" faces, it is more than worth it.  I agree with your statement that by simply going out and getting all of these certificates and sessions, and a criminal background check it does qualify you as a "good" coach.  There is more to it than knowing drills and defensive systems.  Let the kid's go out and have FUN first.  Too much emphasis and pressure is being placed on winning.  We are putting too much pressure on these little kids. For example, I see parents buying tyke and novice players two hundred dollar composite sticks when they are still trying to figure out whether they shoot right or left, I mean come on people!  Let's get back top where the kid's learn their real skills..... the outdoor rinks.  Also with the cost of equipment, ice team, and entry fees, no wonder so many of them are  leaving our wonderful game.  Develop the skills through a variety of fun games. From experience I have witnessed talented OHL'ers "living the dream" only to wake up one day without an education and/or job to fall back on. Remember it's just a game. 
Don't get me wrong there are still many wonderful volunteers and coaches out there spending countless hours for the love of the sport and who do this for the kids. But as mentioned there are many people out there that don't have the necessary courses and documentation that would coach and make a world of difference for the kids if given the opportunity.  Character references, background checks, and criminal background checks should be mandatory for coaches, but offer the other courses for those wishing to take them rather than making them mandatory.  Or set up a mentoring program for coaches wishing to have extra help rather than forcing this stuff down their throats.      
G Geisler
Hi Folks,
Great piece from Mr. Kirwan.  I stumbled up this in a google search and it was well worth the read.  Having been a minor coach for only a few short years I agreed with so much of Mr. Kirwan with respect to complexity of practices, virtual elimiation of creative offensive play and locking kids in to positions at a young age.  The most compelling point that I agree with is that we no longer play to out score our opponents.  While this is so true, offensively gifted players should challenged to develop their defensive skills just as we should encourage growth of offensive or 'with-puck' skills of more defensive minded players.
Thanks for the read,
D. Hamilton

Responding to your editorial about the problem with coaches would take a day long hot stove session. 

I have come back to the article several times to see how I could respond to those points I agree (several) with and those points which are out to lunch (lots).  That would take more time than I have but I cannot let your editorial stand without some comment:  (with all due respect to Mace Soroko who is respected for his decades of experience teaching sports and involvement in hockey, and from whom I have personally learned by watching his practices)

My first impression of the editorial and the comments on it : I’m afraid what I see are several old time hockey people who are bitter about changes that have evolved over the years in an effort to improve the team environment for minor hockey players.  Most coaches do not have a teaching background like you do.

The basic implication I get from your editorial and the responses is:  if you don’t have 20+ years experience coaching and you don’t have a teacher’s certificate. Don’t bother trying to coach minor hockey because you are not qualified.   OR  Even though there are thousands of volunteer coaches who can benefit from the certification process, because I feel I am qualified, the whole system is all wrong.

So, here I am starting out as a volunteer coach—enthusiastically taking the Speak Out and the Initiation coaching course; then, dedicating a weekend to taking the Development 1 course.  I talk regularly with experienced coaches, watch and learn from others; and, explain to irate parents why we don’t have a power play in novice.

why do most coaches make their practices so complicated? Have you ever seen some of the practice drills that have been published for coaches” From your comments, I gather you have not seen the practice drills for the age groups nor seen many age-level practices.  The drills are simple, show progressive skills development and have fun drills built in.

The old timers learned lessons and became “qualified” at the expense of the kids they first coached.  In fact, the common comment I hear about old time coaches is that they would have gone to jail for some of the mean and cruel things they did to their players.   The certification courses provide a start to a coaching career so there is new blood and energy brought into the minor hockey associations.

So get a grip- don’t be bitter:  Keep providing some constructive support to coaching development; support the certification programs which help to get coaches started;  provide some protection to coaches from rep team-type parents, who expect the NHL style practice drills and power plays; and advocate for fewer games and more of the practices where coaches can make sure the kids have fun and are creative.

Congratulations on creating a forum for this type of discussion on minor hockey issues.

David Shaw
, Ontario



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