5 Keys to a Successful Off-Season: Coaches Edition

July 10, 2024

Matt Thomas

We ask our players to return in September recharged, prepared, and excited. Let’s do the same for ourselves as coaches.

Last month was “5 Keys to a Successful Summer Off-Season” (https://thehockeythinktank.com/5-keys-to-a-successful-summer-off-season/). So, in the spirit of off-season growth for everyone, let’s focus on the coaches.

As hockey creeps towards a year-round cycle, coaches aren’t totally immune themselves. The same summer tournaments, leagues, showcases, and compulsory club obligations plaguing their players means coaches are often compelled into service, if not actively driving that tempo themselves. And just like players and their parents, coaches can feel the long-term effects of the never-ending hockey season—strained support systems at home, lack of time for growth and development, and eventually diminishing returns and fading motivation.

Here are some tips for coaches to reclaim your summer, maximize your off-season, and best position yourself for a great season come September.

Recharge

Whether you’re an industry professional or a part-time volunteer, the hockey season extracts a toll from every coach. Consider the sweeping impact to our lives… In order to devote the time and energy to do our jobs well, we ask our families and friends to share us, to be more independent and resilient, and shoulder responsibilities ordinarily our own… Travel and scheduling demands force bargains and shortcuts in our diet, nutrition, exercise, and sleep patterns… We neglect or postpone projects around the house, medical and dental checkups, and celebratory milestones. The grind is real.

So what do you do? Take a vacation. Heck, take a few vacations. Send your spouse on a vacation. Jump back into daily routines and parental obligations and lighten the burden of those in your inner circle. Commit to personal health goals. Turn off the phone (either routinely or for big chunks of time). But whatever you do, shatter that in-season routine and replace it with something designed for the neglected aspects of your life.

Reflect

It’s damn hard—maybe impossible—to adequately reflect on a season while you’re in it, so the offseason is a great time to take stock in the previous one. You’ll find you have more tools and fewer roadblocks: with some time and distance comes perspective, you have more time to devote to introspection, you’ll be less distracted with the daily grind, and egos are less guarded as we look back at choices we made during the season.

Organization is a choice before it’s a skill, and some of the best coaches in the game are diligent and relentless note-takers who have a leg up on this reflection process. Looking back at practice plans, daily notes, game notes, and any other form of professional journaling effort is a great head start to evaluate your season. But whether you’re a prolific note-taker or not, we can all look back and ask ourselves hard questions. Was I prepared? Was I consistent? Where did I fall short? What do I want to improve upon? If I had been a player on this team, how would I grade my coaching? If I published this volume of practice plans and daily notes, is this a season I would be proud to have authored?

Reflection is a practice where you don’t have to be perfect to be effective. Merely trying to reflect leads to a variety of positives; asking hard introspective questions destroys the fallacy that we’re experts, humbles us into a mindset of continuous growth, enhances our self-awareness, and increases the likelihood we’ll self-correct and improve in future instances. And if we’re looking to be role-models for our players, note that everything in the previous sentence is at the core of coachability—a player humble, hungry, and willing to confront their own challenges.

Seek Education & Inspiration

Coaches who win championships need the off-season the same as coaches who finish last; you’re either looking for new ideas and challenges or new reasons to love the game. How do we feed that process?

We live in a golden age of sports media and content. Live sporting events broadcast from around the planet 24/7 through streaming and on-demand channels. Documentary all-access series seem to be multiplying on a weekly basis. From our screens and devices we have podcasts, books, fiction, film, journalism and a non-stop social media commentary. Open-source player data has inspired an entire ecosystem of arm-chair analytics and radical new coaching theories. Cutting edge practice planning with drills, games, and skill progression concepts are all over the internet. The average Kindle or ereader device can hold thousands of books, with a screen you can actually read at the beach. The opportunities to find inspiration and education are literally everywhere.

So fill your summer with enrichment of the mind and soul. Seek out (and steal) new professional ideas. Bask in the Olympics this summer and remember how much fun this should be. Return to hockey with full heads and hearts.

Plan

While a big part of the offseason should be spent recharging and looking backward, we also need to look forward and prepare. In our list so far we’ve addressed past and present, covering the mind, body, and soul. So what of the future?

As stated earlier, organization is a choice before it’s a skill. Consider making the choice to get organized. Drawing on experience, resources, best practices, lessons learned, and perhaps collaborating with fellow coaches or stakeholders—start planning. Start big and work small. Where do we want to go? Ok, how do we get there? What is our identity? What are the likely challenges with this group? What do we want to look like at the end of the season? You don’t need to plan every minute of the season, but having a high-altitude mission and vision coupled with a practical plan for the first month goes a long way to putting a rewarding season into motion.

Stay Connected

Teddy Rosevelt once said “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. The summer is a great time to build relationships with periodic and low-stakes contact. Even in the summer, you’re the coach of a team at some stage of their lifecycle— either your squad from last year preparing for fall tryouts, or the squad you selected back in the spring. Contact doesn’t have to mean micromanaging or babysitting, we aren’t looking to overload the offseason for you or the player. Simply connecting on a personal level, taking an interest in their lives, and encouraging them to build a healthy off-season are all major building blocks in a relationship you’ll want to have once the season starts. That gesture is also a subtle reminder to your players to keep their team in mind through the summer.

The list above is for every coach—paid or volunteer, young and old, instructional or competitive. We need more great coaches in this sport, and a big part of retention is our ability to achieve repeatable balance within our lives. If you’re lucky enough to have a schoolteacher in your personal life, take notes. They are perhaps the gold standard for purposeful (summer) off-season habits and lifestyles because their profession requires that balance.

We ask our players to return in September recharged, prepared, and excited. Let’s do the same for ourselves.

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