So it’s summer, sort of, but curling is always on my mind, specifically coaching in curling. So while I’m watching the Bruins take their best shot at winning another cup, I’m watching how the coaches go about their jobs. Hockey coaches have a much different set of conditions than curling coaches under which they ply their craft. The biggest difference is during actual game play. Curling is almost unique in that the coaches duties are extremely limited during a game and frankly I believe that’s the way it should be. It’s the nature of the game to have it directed by the players themselves rather than by the coaches. I believe as well that this model helps curlers mature faster with respect to their decision making because they simply get more competitive practice at an earlier age.
Watching the Stanley Cup playoffs is a fascinating study of coaching styles. This year we have two truly interesting styles at play in the finals. On Chicago we see the versatile and experimental Joel Quenville facing the Bruins Claude Julien with his faith in established systems. Which is better?
Well, those who know me know that my answer to that question is complicated. No two teams are the same even from one season to the next so the challenge for coaches regardless of what sport they are involved in is to develop a style that will allow you to motivate, educate and empower your athletes so that they can realize their full potential. A coach needs to understand their athletes as people before they can hope to accomplish this. Back to the NHL. Does Quenville’s style of mixing and matching lines constantly really help his team? Absolutely. The Chicago Blackhawks are a creative, free wheeling group of offense first type of players. This group values creativity with the puck and thrive when they are allowed to use their talents in an open way. The Blackhawks succeed when they are given the freedom and trust from their coach. Would this style work for their opponents, the Boston Bruins? Possibly, but unlikely. The Bruins team is more of a grinding team, one that thrives on established systems. They are a team that is very dependant on each other and are content with established roles. Their coach trusts the in those roles and so empowers the whole team.
Interestingly, there is a common element to both styles and that is trust. Both coaches trust their players to fulfill the roles defined for them. More on this in a minute.
You might be tempted to say that this is a “chicken and “egg argument, that the Hawks for instance are freewheeling because the coach made them that way rather than saying the coach adapted his style to fit the team DNA. That might be partially true but if that we’re completely the case then neither team would be as successful as they have been so far. Why? Because of a little something called values. People will only perform in a limited capacity in an environment that runs contrary to their value system. The old adage “a leopard can’t change his spots” has some kernel of truth in it. You know personally that if you don’t believe in a cause you aren’t very likely to support it. This is what we’re talking about in the coaching context. Your preferences for all things stems from your personal value system. For instance, you can teach an offensive minded player how to play defensive but they will only use that style when they cannot use their preferred style. Good coaches know this and empower their athletes by supporting the athletes preferences that are born from their value systems. Part of the difficulty is first understanding your players as human beings so that you gain some insight into their values. Too many coaches don’t bother to get to know their players that well as people.
Now, you may be asking, how did we get on to players? Weren’t we talking about coaching styles? Sure we were and that is the second major difficulty we face as coaches. We too have a set of values that drive our behaviour and that will influence how we perform and what decisions we make. In a perfect world, your values will align closely with your athletes and together you will have to make a minimal number of adjustments. Let me know when you find that perfect world… It is a coaching duty to figure out your players so that you can teach them effectively but in order to do this well you need to stay true to yourself and your needs. It’s complicated business.
The best advice I can give you isn’t my advice at all. In fact it comes from yet another hockey coach, Paul Maclean this years winner of the NHL’s Jack Adams award for the coach of the year. When asked about what makes him such a good coach, he simply replied “you just have to be yourself”. I couldn’t agree more.