Coaching a Baby Ice Bear

Coaching was elevated to a whole new level 3 months ago as I hovered teary-eyed and a little overwhelmed above a bassinet in the birthing unit of Blount County Memorial Hospital. Hours earlier, I watched as my girlfriend Haley gave birth to our son Bradley and in the minutes that had passed since then I cannot recall thinking “what do I do?” so much in my entire life.

The staff at the hospital had informed us that since little Bradley hadn’t had a pee yet, we’d probably have to spend another night waiting on clearance for his circumcision. I guess they like to make sure all the pipes are connected properly before they start removing pieces of the little engine. We’d already been there 36 hours or so and all Haley and I really wanted was to take our little Chunk home and get started with the next phase of life. Which…. I should mention, I have continued to think and ask aloud “what do I do?”

So that brings us back to me, hovering over the bassinet and looking at a day old child wrapped in a tiny little hospital-issued blanket and still dry as can be below the belt. The coach in me thought it was a good time for the first pep talk of Bradley’s career and what better reason than to book us a ticket home immediately should he respond?

I unwrapped him from the blanket and was greeted by the unmistakable odor of a newborn child’s doo doo and had a moment of elation as I peeled off his itty bitty diaper to investigate, hoping perhaps #1 had led to a timely #2 as well. Aside from the black goo that reminded me of those sticky hands toys from back in the day residing in the rear of the diaper, there was no sign of wee wee, so I launched into the most important inspirational speech I had given yet.

“Listen little man, your mom & I are going to kill each other if we don’t get out of this place soon.” I whispered to him as Haley chatted with the nurse behind us. “All you have to do is pee. Just a little pee. Come on buddy, I know you can do……..” BOOM – just like that. With my lips in a semi-circle from enunciating the word “do” little Bradley fired a rocket stream of pee directly into my mouth as I leaned over top of him. Gives whole new meaning to the term "piss-rocket" that some of my baseball buddies will understand. I sputtered and coughed in glee with my hands deflecting the steady squirt away from my face and amidst cheers from Haley and clapping from our nurse, we were cleared for circumcision and eventually release.

I’m almost positive it was the cold air that caused it, or probably the fact that he hadn’t peed yet in his entire life and anatomy is a pretty proven force. But it was the first of many instances in my young fatherhood experience that I can relate to my job and the many relationships you have with players, staff, officials and anyone else I come across on a daily basis. I’ve come up with a list of vital lessons that have been consistent so far to both my job as the head coach of the Ice Bears and my life at home learning how to be Bradley’s dad.

Timing is everything. My kid isn’t on much of a schedule yet, nor does he have any concept of what time it is, unless of course you count bottle-time as an actual time. When he wants a bottle, he wants a bottle. When he needs his diaper changed, you better change it or deal with the consequences accordingly. I’ve learned quickly that there are times during his day to day existence that are just better for certain things. Like cutting his nails for example; he’s got to be mellow and maybe even half asleep for that task to even be considered. By the way, Haley has take to chewing his nails when they need to be cut in favor of my shaking, Derek Sheppard-like surgeon hands. Is that normal or nasty? We’ve recently transitioned him into an Excersaucer where he’s surrounded by animals, mirrors, noisemakers, etc and can balance on his own legs while being supported by a cloth seat. He loves it and it’s a chance for mom & dad to get a break from holding him, but if he’s got a bottle on his mind….. forget it, you have to pick your spots.

I liken it to teaching spots in hockey or disciplinary decisions. Some players don’t respond well to in-game messages and some do. That turnover through the middle of the ice may be better tackled on video the next day or during the intermission privately than on the bench during play in front of teammates. There are also times when a clear message on the bench is needed and effective; fans of the Ice Bears may have noticed last Thursday a particular instance on the bench when I was quite emphatic with my message to our powerplay unit about certain elements of their efficiency and execution or lack thereof. That particular unit is 4 for 7 since my little outburst that ended with my Halls stuck to the back of Todd Hosmer’s helmet and me gasping for breath. Perhaps a profanity-laden tirade is just what Bradley needs too?
Attention to detail is key. Whether it be the temperature of that bottle, the extra half inch you pulled the diaper tab too tight or a couple of your fingers being cold when you pick him up, little Bradley feels as if the smallest imperfection makes a world of difference when it comes to results. He could be warm, he could be fed, he could be watching his favorite donkey spin around on the mobile, but if there is a wet diaper in the mix and its pissing him off, pun intended; nothing else matters.

Hockey and hockey players are exactly the same. I’ve definitely come to learn over the years that the small things are more important than the big things when it comes to preparation for a hockey team. It’s much easier to tell each player their specific responsibilities on a faceoff – first step toward the dot, anticipate a loss, check your opponent’s feet, etc – than it is to say, “win this draw, pass it here and shoot.”

There is so much you can try and cover when preparing for a hockey game or even developing a team over the course of a year. Hopefully while the practice time starts to build during the season you can address as many of the areas you want along the way, but as a general rule for me I try to select a handful of systems and structure that will be our team foundation and make sure the attention to detail for those specific areas are flawless. I blame a lot of our early struggles in Knoxville this season on a lack of this. Every team and every coach will identify certain areas within the game as their “systems” or “style” and I’m looking forward to a more favorable schedule in the coming months that will allow us to pay more attention to the details of our proven systems.

You have to do whatever it takes. A child, and especially a newborn becomes the focal point of your life and will require changes to almost every aspect of your day to day. Sometimes my little Chunk needs a 45 minute bubble bath – whether you have 45 minutes or not – to calm him down. Sometimes there is only one pacifier in the entire universe that will suffice and it doesn’t matter if it’s under the couch stuck between two iron levers and covered in dog hair, that’s the only one he wants. I’m learning that being a parent to an infant doesn’t come with limitations or restrictions, you just have to do what works, even if that means singing “One Little Duck” at a dinner party in front of people you’ve never met before.

Coaching is exactly the same concept. Maybe standard video review and repetition at practice isn’t working with certain players and it requires taking them to watch a squirt game to get the message across. Every player learns differently and at this level, most guys have been taught just about every fundamental aspect of the game in many different ways. You have to manage personalities and find out what techniques work with which players. I had a coach in JR hockey who would write specific reminders on sticky notes and hide them inside my helmet so that when I needed a reminder, he’d tell me to look in there…… kind of an off the wall idea right? But so effective at certain times. Every day is different in the hockey world and each guy on your team is going to be different each and every day. The key is accepting that you have to break the mold and be creative sometimes. If you’re willing to do whatever it takes, chances are nothing is going to seem impossible.

Time management is the most important aspect of your day. Without a doubt. If you’re expecting to get to work on time and not look like a character from Zombie Apocalypse in doing so, time management is imperative. Little Chunk has a very specific goal setting system lined up at the Craigen compound. When he wakes up, his primary goal is to get fed and until he does, every living being in the house and likely neighbors on each side will know the minute he wakes up and the minute he gets his bottle after waking up. He’s a very vocal young lad and I don’t foresee any issues with him speaking his mind in the future.

You’ve got to get the bottle into him, get him burped and then get his attention dialed into something that will keep him content while you make the mad dash for the Keurig machine, a toothbrush, pack the diaper bag without forgetting essentials and then if you’re lucky a shower and a bite to eat might work their way into your morning. If you spend too long on steps  1 through 3, chances are you’re not going to get that bowl of cereal and your “I’m going to stop eating fast food” promise can wait until tomorrow. I can’t count how many full or half full mugs of coffee are left around downstairs at my place during the morning rush while everyone tries to get out the door. The art of enjoying the microwaved coffee has officially been established around here.

Similar to what I touched on earlier about spending time on the things that matter the most for a hockey team, time management is so important for a team of athletes. You have to spend ample time on team oriented systems, but also can’t forget that a team is only as good as the individual skillsets within it. I might add, that several of my guys - including our athletic trainer Andy Clark, have shown some above average skillsets in handling and interacting with the newest member of Ice Bear Nation. Chunk loves hanging out with the boys at the rink, and we even passed one of his diapers around during our 7-game slide to symbolize our performance.
You make time for the things that matter in life, so you have to prioritize the same way with hockey. Spend time on the things that matter, even if it means you miss out on some other areas sometimes. If you’ve got 15 games in 30 days for example – just a random example, not referring to any SPHL schedule in particular – you’ve got 4 or 5 practices in a month to work on things, well you better make sure that practice time is used wisely. Time management.

Have a regular look in the mirror. I had a quick peak in the mirror yesterday and realized I had a splotch of puke on the shoulder of my sweater. As I rubbed my hands over and around my eyes to try and flatten out the bags under them, I also noticed a yellowish-brown stain of sorts on the outside of my pinky finger. Without an intricate smell test, I can’t confirm the nature of the stain, but I’m certain it wasn’t highlighter.

So much goes into the day to day care of a newborn, especially when you haven’t done it before, that the time spent on personal hygiene and individual matters can really dwindle. Haley came home from work today with two different socks on, and while that’s a common occurrence for many people, particularly her, one of the socks was mine and purple compared to her small white one on the other foot. It happens! You want to be the best parent you can be and sometimes along the way you forget about the simple things that are important to your life without a child.

An SPHL schedule is a long, grinding journey from the day training camp kicks off through the hectic 3 in 3’s, the hours spent on a bus through the night, the 4 game weeks, the suspensions, the injuries and everything else you’ll see over the course of 56 games. Every team in this league is judged on their results by 90% of the fans at this level. If you’re winning, you’re having success and if you’re losing, well…… you’re doing everything wrong. I’ve found that it’s a good practice to get into regularly to give yourself a solid, genuine self evaluation. Sometimes you’re winning in spite of certain things; top players not producing, penalty kill not keeping opposing PP’s off the board and poor goaltending. Other times, you’re losing despite certain things; great goaltending, a strong powerplay, unexpected production from rookie players.

Taking a look in the mirror regularly and giving yourself an honest dose of personal accountability is a vital part of being a part of a sports team.

Nobody likes a crying baby. This embodies one of my favorite quotes, “success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.” I’ve noticed that when Bradley has a clean bum and he’s giggling, everybody wants to hold him and play with him, but when he’s crying or spewing and fussy….. You’re basically on your own.

The same goes in the pro sports business, and probably no more so than for any individual or group management who are tasked with the architecture and execution of a team that has a following of invested fans. When you’re winning, people want to talk to you, they want to read about the team, watch the team and talk about the team. People want to hear your thoughts and folks both inside and outside your team are generally in good spirits and in full support of you and your athletes. All your ideas are great when they work and even the bad ideas are deemed creative and original.
When you’re losing, even your strongest traits and best players get called under the gun. As a winner, you’re a great communicator. As a loser, you don’t communicate enough. When you’re winning, your coaching philosophy is great, when you’re losing you need to change your approach. When you’re winning, it’s just because you have great players, when you’re losing it’s because you have a bad coach.

Through it all though, the most important lesson I believe I have learned in the last 3 months, is one that many people would agree with. Do what you love and love what you do. So between our little chunk Bradley and the Ice Bears even on the worst of days in this industry, there are plenty of reasons to get up and get out the door with a smile on my face. Pukey sweater and poopy finger(s) included J

1 comment:

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