This article was originally published 17 February 2014 on The Referee Developer. Updated 30 October 2017.
Over the years, I’ve participated in dozens of ice sessions, both as an official and as an instructor. The primary purpose of ice sessions is to give officials the opportunity to practice their skills outside of a game situation. While there is certainly no substitute for game experience, on-ice sessions are a great environment to develop officials’ technical skills. They also allow instructors to draw attention to details that might be overlooked in a formal supervision or shadow game. Having said that, ice sessions are difficult to run well, regardless of your experience as an official. Unless you’re part of a very strong organization, training for instructors is ver rare. Moreover, most supervisors are very good officials who have no idea how they got to be so good. This makes it difficult to go back and teach and mentor younger officials. With that in mind, here are five six tips (learned the hard way) that will make any ice session easier to run and more meaningful for the participants.
1. Start on time.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how few ice sessions actually start on time. Officials will drift on to the ice over a period of 5 or 10 minutes, then they go through a 5 to 10 minute warm-up skate, and only then does the ice session properly begin. The problem is that if we’re running a 75-minute session, we’ve just used 20% of your ice time and we haven’t even started on the drills; not an effective use of our time or theirs. We need to make it clear that everybody needs to be on the ice on time, go through a brisk warm-up, and then launch right into our first drill.
2. Have a plan.
In my time as an official and as an instructor, I’ve seen countless instructors (both novices, and experienced instructors) walk into an ice session thinking they can “wing it” and I have never seen that approach work out well. Just as teachers have lesson plans and coaches have practice plans, an instructor must have an ice session plan. Equally important is to write our plan down on paper; sketch out the drills on a rink diagram and jot down some key points. Writing our plan will give us practice explaining your drills so that we can communicate with our fellow instructors as well as the officials attending the session. The written plan will also serve as a reminder for us when it comes time to actually conduct the drill. It is easy to remember the drills and their order when we’re sitting at home, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget out on the ice.
3. Drills have to be applicable in a game situation.
For every drill an official participates in, they have to be practicing a skill that will be useful in a game situation. Further to this point, not every drill is applicable to every official. Wherever possible, instructors should attempt to separate officials based on their level of experience. For example, a basic end-zone positioning drill where the official goes through the three positions of the piston system will be extremely beneficial for a first-year official who is still learning the fundamentals of officiating. However, the same drill would likely have little or no benefit for an official with three or four years of experience. As officials gain experience and ability, we can make drills more complex so that an official can practice line change procedure, end-zone positioning, and/or penalty procedure in a single drill. As we plan our drills, we should have a very clear idea of how the official’s skills will be improved by participating and be able to explain it to the officials, as well as our fellow instructors. The best way to do this is to put it down on paper (see #2). If we can’t explain the overall purpose of the drill in one sentence, we may need to change up the drill.
4. Communicate the key aspects and the in-game application of each drill.
It’s easy to forget that officials won’t necessarily recognize the key aspects or in-game application of a drill; especially in the case of less experienced officials. For example: in a drill in which officials skate around the centre-ice circle, instructors simulate penalties, and the officials then make the call, officials often fixate on identifying the penalty. While identification of penalties is an important duty of an official, it is only a very small part of the drill as a whole. Instructors should be more focused on the officials’ penalty procedure (demeanour, signals, vocals) than the infraction itself. Before each ice session, all the instructors should meet and discuss the drills that will be covered, as well as the key aspects and applications of each drill. This can be done ahead of time or just at the rink, prior to the ice session. While different instructors may be leading certain drills, every instructor should be intimately familiar with every drill. Then 5-10 minutes prior to the ice session, conduct the exact same meeting with all the officials who will be participating in the ice session. Each drill should be drawn up and explained to the officials, as well as the key aspects and in-game applications. The officials will require a refresher, immediately before they are conducted, but it is much easier to communicate with people sitting in a room than standing out on the ice; a minute of explanation in the room will likely save us two on the ice.
5. Ice sessions must be fast-paced
A typical ice session can have anywhere from 10 to 30 officials in attendance and the ice gets crowded very quickly. Chances are that officials will start goofing off if they aren’t occupied, especially when it comes to younger officials. This isn’t because they’re disinterested per se, but because they’re out on the ice with their friends and that’s what kids do. The same phenomenon occurs in hockey practices and classrooms. The good news is that there are simple ways to counteract this and make sure our sessions are paced to within an inch of its life.
Explain the drills to the officials in the room before the ice session (See #4) to minimize the amount of ice time officials have to spend listening.
Split the officials up into smaller groups – most drills can be done at both ends of the ice. This decreases the amount of time officials spend standing in line waiting for their turn.
Have officials skate “one hard lap” (or two) in between drills. This is especially important when drills are done at 50-75% speed (in order to focus on technical aspects) because officials should break a sweat on the ice. It also has the added benefit of giving the instructors time to prepare for the next drill.
No leaning on the boards or hands-in-pockets – if an official is caught violating either of these rules, everybody skates one hard lap. I used to be unclear on the point behind this, but I now realize its about keeping the officials engaged. Having one’s hands in their pockets is the functional equivalent of texting in class, and leaning on the boards is the equivalent of sleeping in class; if an official is doing either of these, I guarantee they’re not paying attention. The added benefit is that once everybody has skated a couple of hard laps, the officials will police themselves and make sure nobody else leans on the boards.
6. UPDATE: Don’t be afraid to try something new!
This past August, for the third year in a row, I took part in Vancouver Female Hockey Association’s pre-season training sessions. Dairobi, their Referee-in-Chief, and Sarah, their lead mentor, wanted to try something new as part of their on-ice curriculum. This year, Dairobi wanted to utilize ice time to have his officials to practice bench communication. I was initially skeptical about the exercise. I wasn’t sure if it would be the best use of ice time but I was willing to give it a try and assumed the role of the coach. As it turned out, the drill was both a resounding success and critically-needed training for these officials. I was shocked to discover that even in the highly artificial environment of the on-ice session, more than half of the officials would not engage with (or even acknowledge) me. If they were too timid to engage with a supervisor acting like a coach during a drill, there was little chance they would be able to do it in a game situation. The officials that did engage with me gave Sarah (a veteran Level IV official and fantastic mentor) the opportunity to coach the officials on their responses and provide positive feedback.
I would still argue that for an association that is limited to only a few on-ice sessions per season, this might not be the best use of ice. Young officials require so much technical skill development and this exercise could be most re-created in a classroom environment. However, as a part of VFHA’s pre-season training, which consisted of several on-ice and classroom sessions over the course of a week, this was an extremely valuable exercise. It reminded me not to get too caught up in the basics of running a session and be willing to try something different… sometimes, it works!