It's only December, and the NHL has already seen five head coaching changes (Kings, Blues, Oilers, Blackhawks & Flyers). While that may seem like a lot, it represents only a small percentage of the coaching changes that are currently being navigated this hockey season. In fact, the trickle down effect of those five changes alone have generated a flurry of promotions and role shuffling reaching through minors and into junior hockey. Hockey is a small community, and the ripple effect is felt by all.
A head coaching change can have a major impact on the life-cycle of a team. In fact, for the NHL teams opting for personnel changes, a major change in team dynamics and performance is what is hoped for. A new coach can bring fresh ideas, or inspiring energy that can rejuvenate processes that may have become stagnant. With a new coach, players can seize at the opportunity to play a new role and emerge feel like they are getting a fresh start.
But very little is ever discussed on the true impact of a coaching change. How it is perceive by the players. How the loss of a team's central leadership structure is coped with and rationalized, especially when the terms of the change require more explanation than "the team wasn't getting the job done".
In my next three entries, I am going to discuss the process of a coaching change from the perspective of the players, and how important questions should be asked of the team throughout the process to ensure they come into the change with acceptance, optimism, and without grief, regret, or fear of the unknown. Losing a coach must be seen as much more than a performance decision, and acknowledged as an emotional experience that if handled appropriately, can bring a team closer together.
There are three primary reasons for a coaching change: 1) promotion/ life changes, 2) response to a specific incident, and 3) inevitable change due to poor performance. The first category, "promotion/ life changes", involves a coach that is leaving their team on good terms, and for agreed upon reasons. Perhaps they have the opportunity to coach at a higher level, or have found a situation that better suits their family situation. In these cases, the change may be sudden, but it is not traumatic. Team members view the coach with compassion and collectively grieve the loss of their leader, but quickly accept the circumstances under which they are leaving. Regardless: despite being more acceptable, the coaching change is still an emotional experience, as players may be left with great uncertainty as to who will take over, and what that means for their standing on the team.
The second category of coaching change (response to a specific incident) involves the rapid response and mobilization of a team (or management structure) to replace a coach who has in some way acted inappropriately or has breached the terms of their contract. This category of coaching change moves fast, involves private discussions, and has the potential to drive a significant wedge between members of the team. On one hand, the coach being replaced may have a strong emotional response to the decision, and may attempt to recruit allies in the locker room to advocate for their cause. This can confuse team feelings of unity on the decision to move on. There are also a lot of private discussions happening during this type of change in which players are making their own conclusions based on rumors and hearsay. If kept too much in the dark, players may begin questioning the management structure of the team, eroding confidence in the club itself.
Overall, the sudden removal of a coach should be viewed as a traumatic event. Players should be expected to have thoughts and opinions of the decisions being made, and should be given the opportunity to share those opinions in an appropriate setting. If left unattended, players are left to solidify their own opinions of a dramatic event that inevitably will be projected onto the next coach who is introduced to the locker room. This is a very common occurrence and can delay team growth through already difficult times. (Strategies for leading a team discussion following a sudden coaching change will be discussed in my next post).
The third reason for a coaching change involves the gradual change due to poor performance. The squeeze out. When the writing is on the wall. This category of coaching change usually occurs at the end of a season, or when a significant milestone has been missed (e.g. rivalry games, tournaments, playoffs, etc.). Although occurring due to negative circumstances (akin to category two), this type of coaching change can be met with a sense of relief from the players and the organization. All of the negative emotions and feelings about the season almost seem to be packed up (although momentarily) with the coach as they walk out the door. And while the talent and personnel doesn't necessarily change, optimism towards new possibilities can have an immediate positive impact.
As is the case in all coaching changes, this too is a very emotional experience for players to go through. Although a different style of grieving, the team is still experiencing a loss, and the appropriate discussion at the right time in the correct setting can make a huge difference for when the team does decide to move forward. And given the rapid pace of competitive sports, there might not be much time allotted to process the change before the team is expected to perform again. And it is when these highly emotional events go unprocessed, are not discussed, and no opportunities for healing are provided, that teams experience an extension of the problems they were hoping to rid themselves of through the coaching change in the first place.
In my next post, I will discuss potential solutions to players and teams going through coaching changes that deliver collective optimism and shared direction in times of extreme uncertainty.