When it comes to running practice for even the nation’s best teenage hockey players, Danton Cole said a lot of the same principles he preaches can be applied at younger levels, too.
Cole, a Pontiac native and head coach of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Under-17 Team, says practice should be “the lab” - a place where players can try new things without fear of making a mistake.
That's no easy task for Cole, considering the best 16-year-old players in the country had previously been accustomed to everything going so well with their respective youth teams.
“With our guys, from a mental standpoint or psychological standpoint, they put a lot of pressure on themselves,” Cole said. “They want everything to be right. That’s a hard hurdle to get over. The practice should be the lab. It should be, ‘I go down and I try it,’ a little bit of the Goldilocks principle: ‘Hey I tried this, OK that was too much and the next time I go, I tried it, it was too little and the third, OK that one’s just right.’ And then you’re in a different situation and that’s how practice should be. It should be experimental.
“That’s where you want to make a mistake, but you also want to learn. But if you keep making the same mistakes over and over, then you’re not learning, you’ve lost the lesson. They need to look at practice that way. It’s an attitude, an effort, they have to bring and if you make a mistake it’s OK... And from a psychological aspect, in terms of learning, that’s a good process to go through. Teaching your guys to accept that and be OK with that is kind of a hard thing. They want everything to go right all the time. That’s a normal 16- or 17-year-old, these guys aren’t used to failing… There’s going to be failure and it’s how I react to it and how I get better from it is probably way more important, and we put them in those situations in games and practices. They learn to learn.”
That's a message that often gets lost in today's game; if a player is trying something new and putting the effort into it, it's still OK to make mistakes.
Within practice, Cole said multi-faceted drills can create the chaos necessary to force players to think on their toes. Given the unpredictable nature of hockey, it's fitting.
“You have to create a little chaos because that’s what hockey is; it’s not chess and not baseball,” Cole said. “Baseball’s a lot of static situations, where hockey flows and goes. I think it was Bob Johnson that said the team that makes the most mistakes wins. There’s some truth to that in there’s a lot of mistakes… We do set up a lot of stuff whether it’s 3-on-2 drills or 2-on-1 or whatever it is where you’re starting from different places or there’s a little bit of chaos. And then you’ve gotta come out of that and make a play. And you can incorporate that in a practice pretty easily, just put them at a disadvantage or an advantage, change the angles on stuff. That’s how they learn, that’s how the brain – you’ve got to hardwire it. It’s a very unpredictable game, but there are patterns and there are rules, but if you can learn them and learn them at a high speed, you can constantly put yourself in a good position.”
The same goes with small-area games, too. Cole uses them for his practices and said they make an excellent learning tool for youth hockey practices as well because of how dynamic they can be.
“You can get into a situation – we played yesterday, had two nets 20 feet apart – you can get into an offensive situation 20 times in 10 minutes that you might not get into five times in 20 games. You can practice that, it’s quick, it’s close and you have to make that play. We find that, just from a learning or overlearning (perspective), to get them in those situations, we can build out whatever we want. You can work on something without it being precisely that. The close area one, we wanted a lot of contact, so we played two-on-two in a tight area and then moved it to three-on-three. There might be other ones where you want to create more of an offensive situation so it’s 3-on-1 and then the next group goes and it’s 3-on-1 the other way.”
It's not just the games, drills and off-ice workouts that constitute a player's ability to improve.
When it comes to youth hockey players, many habits start off the ice before a player even picks up a stick, with regards to training in the mental side of the game. Cole said that not enough kids are students of the game today.
“I think one of the things – I think we’re all aware of it – there’s been a pretty drastic change in what kids do in their free time,” Cole said. “The phone alone takes up so much of their time. That’s replaced watching Saturday-night hockey. When you’d watch way back when, we’d watch the game, watch 20 minutes, the first period’s over and you go down in the basement, you’d shoot and (emulate) whatever move you saw Bobby Clarke do or Phil Esposito. You’d see them do those things and you go down and try (them). I think that familiarity with the game and understanding it is somewhat lost. People talk about how kids don’t play on the pond enough. I think it’s the same type of thing, just being exposed to it and seeing it. We try to show the guys as much NHL stuff as we can because they do a lot of things right, but in terms of making plays and doing things, that’s a great place to start.”