Tactics: Building a Winning Culture
Be Happy, Have Fun, Play Well
Winning is fun, way more fun than losing.
In order to build a team that is able to consistently win games, you first need to recruit and develop good players, put in place a solid game plan but having a strong organizational culture is also crucial.
When implemented correctly, such a culture will not only empower players to continuously strive for improvement on the ice, but also motivate them to become the best version of themselves off the ice.
Setting the tone at the top, leading by example through empathy and getting everybody on the same page within the organization are key success factors.
Through 2 short stories, I will be sharing some of my observations and experiences with the implementation of strong organizational culture.
In recent years, I have been fascinated by the approach of the Czech national women’s team.
Through the brilliant work of Tomas Pacina, the Czech players were able to enhance their technical skills, allowing them to develop very strong foundational habits.
But beyond the great work of Pacina, the most recent Czech team, which won bronze in Denmark, was different in one aspect: its mentality. And this mentality was vital to their superb performances.
A specific passage of the above article which caught my attention was the following:
“The Czechs have scored 21 goals through the preliminary round, meaning that they have danced to Bzum-bzum breke-keke 21 times. […] it's always accompanied by the entire Czech bench moving their arms in sync to the beat.”
That last sentence embodies the new Czech mentality very well. Beyond the dance and the annoyingly catchy song, this habit is about the energy that the bench redistributes to the team.
When a teammate makes a big defensive play, blocks a big shot or scores a goal having the bench stand up to hype up this teammate contributes to motivating the team. It also tightens the bond between the players and overall contributes to building a positive culture.
As it is fairly easy to implement, when speaking to coaches about positive team culture, bench energy is a KPI I often bring up quickly.
However, as the Czech team exemplifies, this positivity is not restricted to the bench. It needs to be embodied throughout the various team activities, on and off the ice, for it to turn into a mindset. And with the Czech team, Carla MacLeod and her staff did an outstanding job of creating this positive atmosphere.
Be Happy, Have Fun, Play Well
A few years ago, one of my hockey mentors, Peter Smith presented a very simple framework to our players at McGill: Smile → Be Happy → Have Fun → Play Well → Win.
Beyond this mentality’s global contribution to building a positive culture, it indirectly provides two specific benefits to players which can be tied back to motivation and empowerment.
First, it facilitates role acceptance. Happy players who buy into the plan are more likely to “accept” taking one for the team by sitting some shifts out. Elite hockey players are all competitors, for the most part. But, happy players can more easily understand that sometimes they need to do what’s best for the group, rather than doing what’s best for themselves.
For instance, I was working with a Swiss national team player, helping her with video & skills development in preparation for the Beijing Olympics earlier this year. I never told her this, but in all honesty, I knew that her ice time was going to be somewhat limited at these Games.
So, my approach when speaking to her was very much revolving around the importance of having a positive mindset. And instead of directly telling her that she “needed to accept her role” within the national team, I simply advised her to smile, be happy, have fun, play well and (hopefully) win, no matter the circumstances.
This positive mindset allowed her to more easily accept the fact that she wasn’t playing much. Hockey being a team sport, the overall positivity that she (and her teammates) brought forth throughout this tournament tied into the second benefit of this mindset: relieving the pressure.
When hockey is played angry, it is played nervously and for obvious reasons, playing nervously is not ideal. Nervous players tend to hold their sticks tighter and might miss tactical or technical cues due to letting their emotions get in the way of clear thoughts.
In the tight quarter-final game that Switzerland played at the Olympics, it was apparent that the Swiss team was playing free of pressure, keeping a positive attitude on the bench. On the contrary, their opponents were emotionless and crisped on the bench. This translated to their on-ice performance.
And the rest is history.
There is however, a difference between playing angry and playing with a clear mind, while being hungry for the win. All in all, it’s about finding the right recipe by blending positivity to motivation in order to enable your players to unlock their full potential.
If you are a coach who wants to learn more about how to leverage hockey analytics efficiently at any level, Jack Han & I recently released a course that may interest you.
In this 2-hour course, split into 9 different chapters, Jack & I share our experiences working with different organizations worldwide and discuss best practices when starting to use analytics in coaching.