USAH DIRECTOR OF YOUTH HOCKEY KENNY RAUSCH EXPLAINS HOW MAKING MISTAKES IS GOOD.
USAH Director of Youth Hockey Kenny Rausch speaks to hockey families in Massachusetts.
Earlier this month, 23-year-old New York Rangers defenseman Neal Pionk took a puck from behind his own net and, with pressure bearing down on him, whipped up a spin-o-rama within a few feet of his own net in a 3-3 tie game.
The clip went viral, of course, leading to what could have been a referendum on what constitutes a mistake in hockey these days.
In the eyes of Kenny Rausch, the former Boston University standout and current Director of Youth Hockey at USA Hockey, this was no mistake, and he let the Twitter world know.
Rausch is part of a vanguard movement to not only embrace mistakes, but also to encourage them. In his worldview, along with a growing number of others, outscoring mistakes is a whole lot more enjoyable – and important to player development – than eliminating them.
“Especially at practice, if you’re not allowing kids to try things where they might fail, they are never going to succeed,” he says. “A player who learns to play safe will restrict their ceiling for sure.”
A 2-1 win is not Rausch’s cup of tea. No, he’d like to score seven. In fact, he’s set that as the goal for his high school team. And if the other team scores eight, so be it.
“Are they going to do it every game? No,” Rausch says. “But they have to be creative and take a lot of risks to score seven goals. I know I’m making them better hockey players, and people, by allowing them to try their own things and succeed – instead of being robots on the ice. And, quite frankly, the kids have way more fun doing it.”
Still, making mistakes isn’t always fun for players. Mistakes can sting. Mistakes can lead to players putting unnecessary pressure on themselves. According to Rausch, it really doesn’t have to be the case, and he has an interesting turning of the tables for a player who commits a mistake that ends up in the back of his goaltender’s net.
“I say, ‘Learn from it … and you owe your teammates two,” says Rausch, who played his college hockey for the legendary Jack Parker and remembers the high-scoring Hockey East days when his Terriers once allowed 14 goals during a weekend series against Lowell and walked away with a win and a tie. “I didn’t care if they made a mistake. If the kid tries to spin-o-rama and that doesn’t work the first time, next time, he might figure out how to make it work.”
Rausch hasn’t necessarily always preached such freewheeling hockey. And he understands there are coaches who are thinking about wins and losses. He just doesn’t buy that players are best served by looking to grind out that 2-1 win with safe hockey. Rausch credits longtime friend and Babson head coach Jamie Rice for helping his own evolution, along with Bliss Littler, now with the Wenatchee Wild and the one who shared with Rausch the idea of coaching his players to outscore the mistakes.
“Unfortunately, with sports being the billion-dollar industry that it now is, too many parents and too many coaches are still measuring success on wins and losses,” Rausch says. “We know by now that not everyone on a 12-year-old team that wins every game will become a professional athlete. So we have to be athlete-centered and not outcome-centered. Let the kids try things and fail and learn and develop.”
Coaches can help their players take steps toward that development by not punishing mistakes or the experiments that might have led to mistakes. That may mean more small-area games where decisions and puck movements have to be quicker, including the under-handling of the puck. Under-handling the puck and moving it quickly isn’t easy, either, and it likely will take players some trial and error to get it right. Small-area games set that stage.
Ultimately, the more a player can learn through making mistakes all over the ice, the better for his or her development.
But when is it time to start coming down a bit harder on player mistakes? When should a coach start talking about making sure his or her players are playing it safe?
“In Game 7, triple overtime of the Stanley Cup,” Rausch says with a laugh. “We don’t take a timeout every 30 seconds and draw a new play in a huddle. It is a read-and-react game of constant mistakes. It’s about who can overcome them or capitalize on them. Unless you’re in Game 7 in triple overtime and a mistake is going to cost you, it might be OK to play a little bit safer in those instances. But somebody still has the score a goal.”
And if you find yourself coming out of your own zone and pressure is bearing down on you, give a spin-o-rama a try. Just think, if Neal Pionk was trying his first spin-o-rama in a tied NHL game at the age of 23, that might have been an entirely different and much more unfortunate mistake.
GOLD MEDALIST AJ MLECZKO SHARES HER COACHING GUIDANCE
Two-time Olympic medalist? Yes. Patty Kazmaier winner? Yes, again. Groundbreaking NHL analyst? Yep. Coach on each of her four kids’ youth hockey teams? Yes, yes, yes and yes.
AJ Mleczko sees a lot of hockey these days. Between commuting from suburban Boston to 20 Islanders games as a studio analyst for MSG, along with keeping up with the busy slates of her kids – daughters 14 and 12, sons 10 and six – the former Harvard star doesn’t go many days without a trip to the rink this time of year.
And she’ll bring some well-formed opinions with her.
One of them is a firm belief in moving players around the ice to expose them to different positions. Once Mleczko even kept a spreadsheet for tracking where she’d put players during a long squirt season to insure they were seeing the ice from different places.
“I’m a huge believer in moving kids around,” she says. “Maybe more so than any other coach I have met or worked with. For my daughter’s 12Us, I move them around constantly.”
Wings play center—and D. Centers play wing—and D. Defensemen play up front, and the shifting continues.
Even from her earliest days as a coach, Mleczko approached the game as a way to introduce all parts that she loves to her daughter and her friends.
“Primarily, it was development,” says Mleczko, who won her first Olympic medal as a forward and her second while playing defense. “I felt like these kids have no idea what position they play. They might say they want this or that, but they’re 8- or 9- or 10-years-old. What I found was kids had a little more fun and it took pressure of them.”
Mleczko said it's not without its challenges, though.
“Some kids don’t handle [moving to uncomfortable positions] as well,” she says. “And it’s not so much their ability as it is their confidence. What I learned with my second child is that I can still move kids around, but, with some, I have to be a little more patient. I can let them know it might be for a certain number of games so they won’t just close their eyes and try to get through it or worry about making mistakes. They can explore a little bit.”
The trial and errors begin at home with her own daughters, who she implements the importance of playing multiple positions on the strongest.
“I really feel strongly that my oldest daughter is a defenseman, just the way she plays and sees the game. And she plays mostly ‘D’ now, but I put her at forward whenever I can,” Mlecsko said. “And when she plays forward, she wants to play center because it’s the most similar to defense. And she hates playing wing. So I put her at the wing.”
Still, Mleczko is not, as she puts it, “in the business of making kids hate hockey.” Quite the contrary. So while some players benefit at different rates, it seems so many not only eventually do, but their teams do, too.
“When they have a little bit more experience [in different positions], come February or March when the games ‘matter more,’ kids are more resilient,” says Mleczko. “If a defenseman rushes the puck and a forward gets stuck back there, they know what to do. They know how to play defense. So it benefits the team in the long run.”
Moving kids around is also a most effective way not only to build better, more well-rounded hockey players, but also to build players with some empathy. In addition to the player development benefits, a player exposed to multiple positions is less likely to commit hockey crimes that range from not backchecking to winging pucks around the boards on a breakout.
“Whether or not they end up at the position I put them in,” Mleczko says, “I think it helps them tremendously when they go back to the position where they’re most comfortable.”
Mleczko’s benefits of moving up front:
“When a defenseman moves up to forward, it can feel like you’re a chicken with your head cut off. As a forward, in the offense of zone, you have less time – but I don’t mean to make it sound harder because all positions are hard for their own reasons. As a forward, it’s more reactive. At center, if everyone is playing their position, you’re the only one going goal line to goal line. Centers can be constantly weaving. If you’re moving up to wing, it’s more stops and starts physically.”
Mleczko’s benefits of moving back to ‘D’:
“If you’re playing defense, you generally have more time. But there is generally more pressure on each decision, too. For a forward going back to ‘D,’ it’s skating. But it’s agility skating, not speed skating. It’s constantly pivoting. And it’s having the puck on your stick. It’s vision. You have to be a better passer. Forwards don’t agree with me on that, but I think that first pass is critical. So if I put a very offensive forward back on ‘D,’ it can be scary as a coach. They can be trying to spring themselves. And you have to be thinking defense first.”
Mleczko’s benefits of playing goal:
“My son wants to play goalie because his older brother is a goalie. I’m not sure I can handle [being the mother of two goalies], but I think it is good for them to play. For all the same reasons. You can appreciate how hard it is. It’s really easy to be critical of a goalie until you get in their shoes. The good part for my older son … is that he loves it. So, even as a mite when he just got to play occasional games, he was so jazzed. He woke up early. And this is a 7-year-old. He was into it. If he’s going to be excited about it and it keeps him coming back to the rink, then I’m all for it.”