The pre-game ritual and its 7 keys to a successful season
By Rick Traugott
As former NHL and KHL Coach Mike Keenan once said, “the most important job we have as coaches is to get the right players on the ice at the right time.” Without question, this is crucial to team success—not only in the short term but in the long run as well. In the same presentation, Keenan talked about how preparation for the next game started as soon as the buzzer sounded in the last game.
When it comes to game preparation, nothing is as important as the few hours leading up to a competition. This is key coaching time to get a team mentally and physically ready for playing their best. Here is a checklist of things to consider in your season plan when it comes to your pre-game ritual:
1) Fueling the engine Nutrition and hydration are critical to being able to compete and perform at a top level. When it comes to their preferences about when to eat, all players are different; but as a captain or coach, you need to set some guidelines. There are lots of resources available on this topic for players of all ages. In a perfect world you would have your team eat as a group before a game, with a set menu. As well, encourage your players to have some healthy snacks close to game time and even between periods. You must make sure your athletes are not playing below their potential because they are not fueled properly.
2) Create pre-game rituals It’s important for players to understand the timing of pre-game. In other words, set up a schedule for what the hour or hour-and-a-half before the game should look like: Arrival time; pre-game talk; off-ice warm up; “dressed and ready” time; on-ice warm up; pre-game speech—all are pieces of the pre-game ritual that need to be scheduled and routine. One thing I would caution about is that players don’t like downtime that is created by arriving too early. Don’t make them be at the rink 15 minutes before they’re really needed just in case someone is going to be late; just make sure everyone is on time.
3) Communicate key points early I always get the team (and coaches) into the dressing room at the beginning of the pre-game ritual to talk about what is most important about that game. These might be things we need to focus on in our team play, opposition players we need to pay attention to, really anything that will contribute to our success that day. Whenever I talk to my team I do my very best to limit my points to just three. I might expand on those three points, but they can digest and continue to focus on three. Communicating these points early on allows players to think about them during the rest of the pre-game ritual.
4) Keep your warm-up organized For a warm-up to be effective you must have the right team leaders. It’s always best to have a coach or player who is experienced with running drills execute the warm-up. This is a key time for mental focus and as such should not be an opportunity for horsing around.
5) Turn off the music! Music blaring in a dressing room setting only contributes to a lack of focus. It simply raises the volume of everything in a small space. This does two things: it gets the energy level cranked up to a point where it is not productive, and it creates an environment that is distracting and unfocused. I always set a time when the music needs to be turned off—typically 15 or 20 minutes before the pre-game talk. If a player absolutely needs music to prepare mentally, they can use earbuds or headphones (and preferably ones that don’t leak music to everyone around them).
6) Communicate a countdown Make sure all players know when they have to be finished dressing. I will make sure to announce “dressed in 30 minutes”; “dressed in 15 minutes”; “dressed in 5 minutes.” This accomplishes two things: players aren’t panicked to get dressed at the last minute, and they are ready for the coaches to come in to say some final words before the game.
7) Being Knute Rockne Rockne was coach of the University of Notre Dame football team in the early 1900s. He was famous for his rousing pre-game pep talks, and his “win one for the Gipper” halftime speech during the 1928 Army game is one of coaching lore. As a captain or coach, you don’t have to be a perfectionist when it comes to your pre-game speeches. First, every game isn’t a critical one, so don’t feel like you have to be awesome every time you send your team out to battle. Sometimes just a smile, a quick joke, an instruction and a “let’s go!” is all that is needed. But, this is also a great time to review the three points you made earlier.
Second, when it comes to the “big game,” your athletes will know the magnitude of the competition. Truly, as a leader you don’t have to remind them that it is a championship game; they will be getting themselves ready without having to hear the big “rah rah” speech. Often, it is in these games that athletes need more of the settling speech than the motivational speech. The “Knute Rockne” speech usually needs to come at a time when you don’t think your athletes are as prepared, motivated and focused as you would like them to be.
Pre-season is a terrific time to put in place a pre-game ritual schedule for your team. Occasionally there needs to be some modification, but sticking to routines like this pays dividends throughout the season.
Rick Traugott is a veteran coach who has been working with young athletes in various sports. He has coached the varsity boys and girls programs at numerous schools, as well as the Brampton Thunder of the CWHL. Traugott has also served with Hockey Canada as a camp coach with both the National Women’s U18 and U22/Development teams. His teams have won numerous championships and medals in international competitions. For more information, visit his website, www.ricktraugott.com. Reproduced with permission of Rick Traugott.