Why Your Hockey Players Are Like Popcorn

When it comes to developing hockey players and managing your hockey team this season, I suggest thinking about popcorn!

Your team, like a bowl of popcorn, is made up of many varied individuals or kernels. Each player, like a popcorn seed, contains the potential for greatness and most likely also has a few flaws.

Similarly, each player comes with his own goals and expectations. And, perhaps most importantly, each and every player shows up with small but important differences. Like individual popcorn kernels, each player brings to your team a unique background and origin story. This is the joy of working with a team...and cooking a bowl of popcorn. You don't know what you are getting. But, like an uncooked bag of popcorn, despite individual differences and despite the needs of each individual, every seed often looks the same. The truth is they are not. Nor is every bag of corn the same. What worked last season, your recipe for success, might not work as well this year. 

As a coach and sports leader, like when you put your chef's hat on, you likely begin with a general picture of what your outcome should be. For example, it could be developing an impressive bowl, but regardless of your goals and planning, more often than not when you start, you don't know exactly what you're going to get and a prediction of outcome if not more than that an estimate.

When you picture your team, as a sealed bag of uncooked popcorn kernels, the mixed bag can be regarded as a complex ecosystem that interacts dynamically. When opened, the bag spills out an exciting expectation. Each kernel or player falls into an initial position on the team collectively contributing to the whole. So, be careful not to limit the individualism and creativity of a single seed! Instead, take some time to carefully appreciate each unique kernel and as you do, the entire bowl benefits.

To make good popcorn, like a good hockey team, you as the coach will be required to consider and add additional ingredients. These ingredients may include handling individual seeds while you consider and weigh how the selected raw elements of your team can and must be added to the pot. As a coach, you will have to ponder concentrations, volumes, and the intensities you add. What is the right time? What are the correct measures? What are the best combinations?

Too much or too many; too soon, or not enough; too much oil and heat will lead to failure. But, with the right application, a good bowl is assured.

Even before you begin to tinker with your team's depth, the right measures are necessary for the right start. Often when handed players, or after they are picked from a draft or a selection camp, like popcorn, we don't know what we hold in that bag of kernels until it all begins. So, we need to do additional work to vet out the irregular kernels. The ones that don't hold up to scrutiny and that could spoil the bowl. When the best possible seeds are determined, when cooked, buttered, and seasoned, they will please even the harshest critic.

But remember, the best seeds aren't always the most well-packaged and advertised. Sometimes it is the most marketed that show up as stale, or just too green to be good. These green or stale kernels are often poor performers no matter what you add to them. They just won't pop right. 

This is perhaps why at professional and elite U-21 levels of play the best teams choose to work with well-rounded squads of athletes. Those individual athletes appear as varied in skill, physicality, and capacity. Think of the teams in your levels and categories that were most successful last season. It has been said that good coaches see players not as they are but as they could be. It is perhaps best to embrace the unique strengths and weaknesses of each player to build a high-performing team.

When it comes to those players/kernels that you have carefully measured (returning to the popcorn analogy), we may say that they then sit in a state of total readiness. As individual kernels, we must now include a plan to add to the environment around each seed so that it can realize its true potential. As a coach or popcorn cook, you will therefore need to decide what type of popcorn (team) that you, or better yet, that the team wants! Will you be content with a plain bowl of popcorn, or will you be adding some special spice before serving it up? Is it possible to make that bowl of corn something special? Just what are your goals here? And, most importantly, have you contemplated if you are even ready for what you are about to produce? After all, an unanticipated overflowing bowl of spicy corn is hard to manage.

And the oil and heat you add...is it also just right?

The concentration of each of these standard ingredients should be carefully and correctly added and never rushed. Burning out means you applied the heat much too early. And it is the popping of each kernel consistently and unanimously that is most important!

But, like a team, popcorn can fool even the most experienced maker. This is because even when the environment, ingredients and heat are right. And even when everything seems to be progressing well. Each kernel of corn only pops when it is ready. It is only the individual that knows when it is ready to pop. And, although popcorn looks as if it pops all at once or that when a group pops the others follow, the truth is an individual piece of corn only pops when its internal temperature causes the microscopic water droplet within to rapidly expand. When it does, it does so dramatically, impressively as an individual reaching its ultimate potential.

Last, if you have ever noticed that even when you think you are done popping, with the heat off and most of the corn done, it is then that suddenly a kernel or two pops and jumps right from the bowl surpassing all others. This late bloomer just met its potential and just may be the best piece in the bowl.

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