Mission AZ focusing on intensity in practices, leading to stellar results come game time
Walk through the large glass doors into Mission AZ’s sprawling headquarters at AZ Ice Peoria in suburban Phoenix, and you may not notice much different from any other rink hosting any other youth hockey program in any other part of the country.
The sounds of skates cutting across the ice, sticks meeting pucks, whistles blaring and coaches barking instructions create a cacophony that is familiar and comfortable for hockey families everywhere.
Yet, look a little closer and you’re bound to see that things are done a bit differently here. Under the supervision of Mission AZ coach-in-chief Jeremy Goltz, who founded the program more than a decade ago, Mission’s coaches, players and parents have forged a unique path. It is defined by a philosophy that is not often seen elsewhere but that everyone at Mission is fully behind.
To put it simply, Goltz and his fellow Mission coaches employ a philosophy that putting kids in game-like situations as often possible is more effective than having them slog through endless drills. The thinking is that players develop at a similar or faster rate, and their skills develop in an environment that’s more akin to what they will face in games.
“Our whole purpose in our day-to-day practices is to re-create the intensity, emotion and situational play that the kids in our program are going to face in games,” Goltz explained. “Right now, USA Hockey’s hot-button issue is skill development. People equate skill development with putting down tires, bumpers and other props on the ice so players can skate around them, stick-handle under them and work on these skills in sort of fabricated situations.
“That’s great, but our belief is that those types of approaches take away from the competitiveness of kids. At the end of the day, this game is all about competing.”
Goltz used his 18U AA Red team as an example. They will play 60-plus games this season, but they’ll multiply that by approximately three times with the game-like intensity that they create in their practices. Kids are put in game situations competing against their teammates, and their skills naturally develop.
“What we’re doing is recognizing that the ‘perfect world’ scenario that’s present in most drill situations isn’t reality when you get into games,” Goltz said. “In those situations, there’s no pressure – you go through a route, pass the puck, get it back and take a shot. That’s great because you’re touching pucks and developing skills, but we have actually noticed with our 16U teams this year is that guys are getting into games and their shot isn’t heavy enough and it’s not quick enough. If you’re in the perfect-world situation, you’re taking that nice wrist shot when in fact a snapshot is what you need to get the job done when a defenseman is bearing down on you.”
Goltz spends most of his waking hours at the rink, and thus sees all of Mission’s teams practicing on a regular basis. He is convinced that there is nobody out there practicing as hard and with as much intensity as the kids in his program. That makes the transition to games that much easier, he said, because kids are used to performing at a high level and executing in pressure situations.
When you take nerves out of the equation and make the pressure of game-day feel familiar because it’s no different than practice, young hockey players are able to thrive, he said.
“It’s a bit of an old-school philosophy,” said Scott Farber, who coaches Mission’s Bantam White and bantam red teams and is in his ninth season with the program. “We try to put kids in game situations and develop all the basic skills – shooting, passing, skating, etcetera – within that framework. We do have separate skill sessions, but the majority of our practice time is spent in a competitive environment.”
Goltz said one of the reasons he has chosen to employ his competition-based practice philosophy is that it keeps kids engaged. No other sport has a season as long as hockey and finding ways to keep kids from getting bored by keeping their attention and competitive edge sharp is one of the hardest things coaches have to tackle on a week-to-week basis for 6-7 months.
“We’re not just dropping the puck and doing five-on-five scrimmages all day long – we isolate the forwards or the defensemen and work on situations, but it’s always in a competitive environment,” Goltz said. “Scores are being kept. Somebody wins and somebody loses, and the loser has to do some extra footwork or something. When you do that type of thing on a consistent basis, you can’t help but have a really competitive group.”
Coaching kids with traditional drills can lead to players focusing too much on their individual games without having a good feel for the team concept that is so important.
“The kids end up developing skills while they’re competing, and they don’t even realize it,” Farber said, adding that kids naturally want to compete and are often at their most engaged in practice when there is something on the line.
“We do it so often that when we get into games, they’re comfortable in every situation – in all three zones, outside the dots along the boards and with contact. I’ve been with some other organizations in the past where they focused too much on the perfect-world scenarios. It’s just unrealistic and not what kids are going to experience in games. We put incentives into everything we do, and the kids just eat it up. They love it, and they love to compete. There’s nothing worse than having 15 kids on the ice and 13 of them are standing around watching or listening to a coach do a demo that goes on and on. All these kids just want to skate and have fun.”
Goltz acknowledged that coaches with other programs may disagree with Mission’s approach, but he’s been at it long enough that he is confident in standing behind his methods. He has seen enough kids come through his program and move on to play at the next levels that he knows the development is there, even if it’s not being achieved by traditional means.
Players are on board, their parents have bought in, and Mission’s coaches are all on the same page. Anybody who expects things to change doesn’t know Goltz and his resolve to stick with what he knows has worked and will continue to work.
“It’s the polar opposite of what the trend is right now with so many other programs, but I’ve seen it our approach work in real-world scenarios with kids at Mission doing the same things for five or six years and becoming great hockey players,” Goltz said.
“I think the way we approach things has created out hard-working identity as a program. We have a grind-it-out, never-give-up competitive style with all our teams, and I correlate that directly to the way we practice daily. It has been like this for me since Day 1.”
— Greg Ball
(Nov. 6, 2019)