ADM Coaching Education: The “Uncoaching” Approach – Part 1 – Station-Based Practices
This is our 4th article on the philosophical problems with the American Development Model, or the ADM as we call it. These articles are best read in sequence, in order to have the complete context of the issues being discussed. Here are links to the previous articles:
- ADM: What is Our Objective?
- ADM: Teaching Competitive Drive – The Practice-to-Game Ratio
- ADM: Teaching Competitive Drive – Travel Hockey Recommendations and Ages
In this article we’re going to explore ADM’s practice recommendations, as well as discuss an alarming trend that is being promoted among the USA Hockey coaches; I call it the “Un-coaching Approach.”
The un-coaching approach is a philosophy that de-emphasizes the idea that a coach needs to know what he or she is doing, and places too much emphasis on the practice structure and types of drills being run. This is seen in USA Hockey’s push in two major aspects of practice structure:
- Station-based practices
- Over emphasis on small area games
I want to discuss some of the pitfalls of these two ADM staples; station-based practices in this article, and then small area games in the next one. This is scary stuff, and I believe it is sending our nation’s hockey development backwards in a big hurry. So buckle up… it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
The ADM promotes station-based practices for Mites and Squirts, where there are 5-6 stations, and players rotate through each station in groups of similar abilities. The ADM recommends a 50-60 minute practice slot, which means about 8-10 minutes per station.
Here’s a quote from usahockeymagazine.com:
“So what can coaches, parents and players do in the near term to start advancing and implementing portions of the ADM? I would encourage coaches, if they haven’t already done so, to run a five- or six-station practice with 60 or more Mites and Squirts and “embrace the chaos” that comes with so many kids skating, shooting and handling pucks at one time.”
ADM also recommends at least two or three of the stations be Small Area Games, which we’ll talk more about in the next article. Here’s a quote from USA Hockey’s document, Basic Structure for 8U Mite Practices:
“Out of these six stations, two to three at least should be in a games format.”
Based on the literature, here are the supposed benefits of this type of practice structure:
- More kids on the ice, keeps costs down
- More engaging, less boring
- More opportunities for individual coaching
- Every kid gets exposure to the top coaches
- More game-like situations
- More repetitions
As usual… sounds great on paper, right? Who wouldn’t want these things in their kid’s program? But, once again, we see a much different picture once we put this into practice.
The Reality of Station-Based Practices
Before we get too far in, I want to point out that, as in previous articles, I am talking about a TEXTBOOK implementation of the ADM. Meaning, what does it look like FULLY implemented based on the ADM literature and recommendations.
My local program actually used to run nothing but station practices, exactly according to the ADM. So I’ve seen this recommendation fully implemented first hand, and have participated as a coach. After a year and a half, I finally had to say something, and was able to get some tweaks implemented that have helped a lot.
When you actually put station-based practices into effect, you notice a few big problems with the structure. We’ll talk about these individually, but here’s an overview to get started:
- No accountability from station to station
- No flexibility to hone in and take more time on a “problem area”
- Limited ability to work on progressions
- Equal exposure to good coaches also means equal exposure to bad coaches
- Confusion with inconsistent coaching instruction and terminology
- Limited mentoring possibilities among coaches
- Un-motivating for coaches in a number of ways
- Players don’t get to know their teammates or coaches
- Game day confusion for players
I have experienced each of these first hand. I’m not just making a mountain out of a molehill here. In fact, I think this practice structure could be the single most devastating thing to our kids’ development of any aspect of the ADM!
No Accountability from Station to Station
I’m starting with this one because there are a number of other problems that link into it, as you’ll see in the next few paragraphs. Next time you find yourself watching an ADM practice, try this experiment:
- Look around the ice, and find a kid who’s goofing off in line, or being lazy in a drill, or performing a skill wrong. (It shouldn’t be too hard to find at least one, there are usually 60+ kids on the ice in an ADM practice…)
- Once you find one, pay attention to whether or not the coach corrects him (hopefully the coach does, but that’s not the point yet)
- Now wait until the next rotation, and follow that same kid to his next station.
- Did he go right back to goofing off? Or being lazy? Or doing the skill wrong?
My guess is that the answer will be YES more often than not. You see, young players are like electricity… the vast majority of them are going to take the path of least resistance. If it’s easier to stop one way, they’ll usually stop that way; If it’s easier to pivot one way, they’ll usually pivot that way; If it’s more comfortable to skate straight-legged, they’re going to skate straight legged… That is, UNLESS A COACH FORCES THEM TO WORK ON ALL SKILLS, INCLUDING THEIR WEAKNESSES.
In a station-based practice, every 8 minutes the kids have a new coach, who usually isn’t aware of what’s already been addressed with any given kid. So, even if the previous coach has attempted to correct the lack of knee bend in a specific player, when he moves into the next station it’s a clean slate again. Many, many, MANY corrections fall through the cracks because of this.
No Flexibility to Hone in and Take More Time on a “Problem Area”
I’m a big believer in flexible practice planning, especially at the younger age groups. There are times when it makes sense to develop a single drill sequence for up to 15 minutes or longer. There are also times when a concept is acquired more quickly than expected, and you see that your players are capable of progressing to the next step sooner than you had anticipated. In either case, coaches having the ability (and capability) to be flexible is important to their players’ development. This flexibility is extremely limited in a station-based practice.
What good does it do a player to try something for 8 minutes, do it sloppily, then move on to another drill? Unfortunately, we see this more often than not in station-based, ADM practices.
You might be saying “Ya… but these kids are 8 years old. They don’t have the attention span of a 16 year old. So quick changes are more engaging.”
Perhaps they’re more engaging sometimes, but at what expense?
Vince Lombardi said “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” When we allow our players to sloppily work their way through 6 different drills, without stopping and insisting it be performed correctly before moving on, we not only fail to instill a good habit, but we actually reinforce a bad habit! This happens week after week… and the players get used to performing the drills and skills incorrectly. PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT!
I’d prefer to see a practice plan where the coach has the ability to spend an extra 5-10 minutes on a drill, to make sure the skill is being acquired properly, before allowing the kids to move on to something else.
In a traditional practice plan, I am very loose with the timing on each drill. I have a general sequence of drills I’d like to get through, that generally run through a progression of skills and applications. But I don’t move on until I can tell that the players are ready and able to move on. This may mean we only make it through 2 or 3 drills in a practice. THIS IS OK! Good coaches can still make the practice motivating and engaging for their players, by managing the MINDSET of the players.
This is probably a topic to explore more deeply another day, but I feel it deserves a quick explanation. By managing the mindset of the players, I mean managing their expectations of fun. “Fun” can mean different things to different people. It can be haphazard, carefree activity; it can mean entertainment; it can mean causing a raucous for some players; or it can mean satisfaction in improvement and hard work.
The last one is the one we need to instill in our youngsters. As a coach, you can make your practices fulfilling and engaging by creating a culture of “developmental fun,” or fun in development. Players will feel themselves improving, and see their shots getting harder and more accurate. This translates into more control and greater success in games. THIS IS FUN.
Limited Ability to Work on Progressions
In the above paragraph, I outlined the basics of an ideal practice structure for me; one that is progressional. I also stated that the drill transitions should be defined by the progress, not the stopwatch. I’m talking about a structure that offers the flexibility to stop and focus on a certain skill, if needed; one that is based around the players’ development.
You can probably see another reason station-based practices frustrate me: Because they are seldom progressional. In fact, they really can’t be.
Let’s outline a hypothetical example of how this might look if I needed to address a problem my team has been having in games. I say “hypothetical” because within the ADM structure, we have multiple teams on the ice together, and the teams are split up amongst each other. Plus, the coaches aren’t planning practices for their teams, because of the fact that the teams are intermingled. So the ability to actually ADDRESS an issue your players are having is severely limited.
But let’s just pretend… Here we go:
Based on my team’s last game, I notice that many of my players have a hard time maintaining control of the puck when changing directions on a quick stop or a power turn. So I plan a practice to address that. I want to run a sequence of drills that focus on both the skating fundamentals AND the puck-carrying fundamentals of executing a power turn with the puck.
The sequence will start basic, and will progress through to a game-like situation at the end. Here’s an example of the stations I might run:
- Station 1: Power turn basics, both directions, without the puck. Focus on foot positioning, knee bend, etc. Lots of reps!
- Station 2: Power turn basics, both directions, with the puck. Focus on hand and puck positioning during the turn. Lots of reps!
- Station 3: Game application, no pressure. Both directions. Run through a sequence mimicking times in the game where they’d use a quick turn back with a puck
- Station 4: Game application, with token pressure. Both directions. Put token pressure on the players, and have them execute the quick turn back with the puck.
- Station 5: Game application, with full pressure. Teach players the instances when they SHOULD use the quick turn back. Set up a drill that mimics a game situation, but with full pressure (designate a forechecker for example). Players have to read whether or not to do the quick turn back, then execute at full speed.
- Station 6: Small Area Game application. Set-up a free-flowing small area game that forces the players to make use of the skill they just developed.
Looks like an ok practice plan, right? And it is… I’ve actually ran through sequences similar to this with my own players, and it really gets the development happening.
But here’s the problem: In a station-based practice not everyone starts at station 1.
In fact, only 1/6 of the players do. So this practice becomes less and less effective, depending on where in the sequence you start. Station-based practices nullify the power of one of the most effective training methods, the power of progressions.
Equal Exposure to Good Coaches also means Equal Exposure to Bad Coaches
One of the so-called benefits the ADM and it’s “believers” tout is that station-based practices make it so ALL the kids get exposure to the top coaches, not just the handful that land on his or her team. Again, sounds good on paper… but the reality is that this also gives ALL the kids access to the bad coaches too, or should I say, the less-experienced coaches.
There’s nothing wrong with being a less-experienced coach. Everyone starts somewhere. But a typical organization may only have 1-2 experienced coaches at each age group. The organization I’m currently with has 3 experienced coaches in the Mite program, and I think that’s fantastic!
But here’s what I’m saying: In my situation, with 6 stations, each player would only be exposed to the experienced coaches half the time. That means they’re exposed to the less-experienced coaches the other half of the time. This structure compounds the problem we mentioned above in inconsistent coaching, and leads to confusion and frustration among the players and coaches.
I’ve experienced this firsthand with my own kids, where I had to “unteach” skills, and fix bad habits that they’d been taught wrong by inexperienced coaches. Furthermore, there have been many times I’ve taught a skill or a concept to a group, then sent them to the next station only to see them go right back to their previous ways, without a word of correction from the coach in that station. It makes me think “why bother?”
Confusion with Inconsistent Coaching Instruction and Terminology
Even in the best-case scenario, where all 6 coaches are experienced, there will be times when one coach teaches something differently, or uses a different terminology. This can be confusing in the mind of a youngster.
At worst, some coaches could be flat out teaching a concept wrong.
After one practice, my oldest boy (who is pretty astute) told me that a coach was teaching backward skating wrong. I asked what was taught. He told me that the coach told the players to “just wiggle their butts” to go backward. This was very different from the proper way, which is to have a deep knee bend, and execute strong, powerful C-cuts, while driving the heels into the ice, etc.
Sadly, this happens more often than I care to consider. Youth hockey is a volunteer program, but instead of focusing our efforts on instruction and mentoring these new coaches, we’re sticking them in a station by themselves and telling them to “just run a small area game.” Without the hockey background to know what they’re even looking at, it’s next to impossible for many of them to actually help a player to improve, even with the best of intentions.
Limited Mentoring Possibilities Among Coaches
As stated above, the station format isolates new coaches. They don’t know what they’re doing because they’re new, but they can’t watch the more experienced coaches at work because they have to run their own station.
USA Hockey tells us that a benefit of stations practices is that each player gets access to the best coaches, but I feel it would go further to have EACH COACH get access to the best coaches. This is much harder to do in a station-based environment where the beginner coach is only working on one drill the entire 60 minutes, and isn’t able to see and hear the more experienced coaches working with the players.
Un-motivating for Coaches in a Number of Ways
In my three years working as a coach within the ADM structure at the local level, I have found station-based practices to be extremely un-motivating. I’m going to lay it out straight here, and you might consider me selfish, but I’m willing to bet that I’m nowhere near the only one who feels this way!
Why do I coach? There are many reasons why folks coach; Maybe you coach for the “love of the game,” maybe you coach “to give something back,” maybe you have a different reason…
My core reason isn’t quite so noble. Yes, I love the game. And yes, I like giving back. But the main reason I coach is because I want MY OWN KIDS to have a good hockey experience, because I had a good hockey experience. As much as I love hockey, I most likely wouldn’t be involved as a coach if I didn’t have kids involved.
Yes, my motives are self-interested. But here’s the other half of the equation: I recognize that hockey is a TEAM GAME, and that for my kid to have a good experience, he needs to have good teammates. So by nature, there are going to be 14 other kids along for the ride, each and every season. These kids will all receive excellent coaching––as long as I have anything to say about it.
I’m not alone. I’d venture to say that most coaches out there start coaching because they have a kid playing. So, as a parent-coach, concerned with my own kid’s development, station-based practices make it so that I’m only able to work with my own kid 1/6 of the time. Not only that, but I can’t even watch him or her while they’re at the other stations. This one drives me nuts. By volunteering as a coach, I actually have less impact on my player’s development than if I were just watching in the stands. At least from the stands I could yell at him if I see him being undisciplined or lazy! This is un-motivating for me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Team development. I felt this one to an extreme a few years ago, which led me to put up enough of a fuss that we got a few tweaks implemented in the local program here.
Station-based practices make it so nothing can be developed as a team. This is un-motivating because a good coach should see things going on in games that he’d like to address in practice. This can’t be done in a station environment; a) because the players aren’t grouped as teams; and b) because the coaches don’t rotate through with the players. So a coach may see something that needs development among his players, then he can’t work on it in practice, and in turn can’t re-evaluate in the next set of games.
Another problem with this is that the coaches aren’t as motivated to really work with players in demanding discipline and proper execution of drills if the player isn’t on their team. Here’s an example, and I want you answer the question honestly:
Have you ever had a kid at a station would wouldn’t quit horsing around? At first, you asked him to focus, then you gave him push-ups, but the bad behavior continued. You’re finally at the point where you might toss him off the ice, but you look at the time and see there are only two minutes left until the next rotation, so you say in your head “well, not my team, not my problem… I’ll just pass him to the next guy in 2 minutes.”
Maybe you’re a better person than I am, but I can honestly say I’ve done that. And I could rattle off a list of other coaches who have as well. Now, what is the kid learning from that circumstance? I can tell you what he’s not learning! He’s not learning discipline, hard work, or respect for his coaches (plus he might not even know who his coaches actually are!). He’s just learning that he can be a “punk” kid, disrupt practice, and get away with it.
Players Don’t get to Know their Teammates or Coaches
One of the best things about hockey is having friends on the team. When nothing but station-based practices are run, players don’t get to know their teammates, and they don’t get to know their coaches. And worse, their coaches don’t get to know them! One aspect of effective coaching is to know your players and to be able to structure the development around their capabilities.
Again, I’ve experienced this problem firsthand at the local level. The collectivist mentality that grows from station-based practices is not healthy for anyone’s development, including the coaches, and it robs coaches of the motivational reasons they volunteered in the first place.
On-ice collectivism takes the responsibility for the player’s development off his coach, and puts it onto the group––the community. Coaches don’t feel bad about being late, or not showing up, and players don’t have anyone they really have to answer to. It happens. I’ve seen it. I’ve felt it. When on-ice collectivism grows, complacency reigns.
Game Day Confusion for Players
As mentioned above, station-based practices create a disconnect between players and their teammates, as well as between players and their coaches––particularly at the Mite level. Game day becomes meaningless, because the players have no sense of team unity or pride, no scores are kept (a topic for a future post), and the coach can’t reference anything that was focused on in practice that week… or that will be focused on in the next week, because nothing in these practices is team specific.
Basically, the players show up, scrimmage for two hours (jamboree style) with players they don’t really know, sometimes being bounced from one team to another to make the organization’s numbers work, then they go home.
Station-based practices can be good in certain situations, like development camps. But in order to make them effective, there needs to be a lot of planning ahead of time, cohesion from station to station, with experienced coaches at every station. If you don’t have the coaching depth in your organization to make this happen, you’ll not only be leaving development on the table, but will actually be creating a detrimental environment where players develop bad habits, and get worse over time.