There are many factors to preparing players for the brightest lights of the season
By Greg Bates, Special to AHAI
The playoffs are often referred to as “the second season.”
It’s a time for players to think beyond the regular season and start fresh. But there’s added pressure in the one-and-done playoff scenario. With so much hype leading into the playoffs, M.J. Laggis believes the head coach shouldn’t change the message to the players or add more emphasis.
A playoff contest should be treated just like any other game, noted Laggis, who is in his 22nd season as varsity boys hockey coach at Rhinelander (Wisconsin) High School.
“I think in the past, a mistake that I’ve made is putting so much pressure on them on that playoff game, so much is riding on this,” Laggis said. “I think sometimes the moment can get bigger than the kid and he doesn’t play well.
“One of the things I’ve tried to get better at, not just playoffs but in big games, I put the emphasis on: relax, focus throughout the day on the little things like tying up on faceoffs, like stopping and starting on a loose puck, like going through our systems in all three zones of the rink, thinking about your job on the power play. Then at game time, be confident, take a breath, relax and go do what you do. Instead of heaping more pressure on them, I guess I try to take a little bit of pressure off and get them a little more confident and relaxed.”
Laggis’ philosophy about preparing his player for the postseason changed about a decade ago. When he was a younger coach, he thought he knew everything. However, he’s realized there’s so much more to learn even as a veteran coach behind the bench.
“I’m constantly trying to learn more about the game and better ways to teach skills and systems in kids,” Laggis said. “Along with that, I think I’ve gotten a lot better at getting them ready to play and getting them in the right mental mind frame on gameday,” Laggis said.
For Wayzata (Minnesota) varsity girls hockey coach Jessica Christopherson, she’s spent a great deal of time with her players this year on fostering a positive mindset.
“I feel like we have made tremendous strides with our mental toughness and approach,” said Christopherson, who is also the president of the Minnesota Girls Hockey Coaches Association. “We have a game plan every day, practice or game, and we attack it. We have certain values and goals that we have come to know as our identity, and that’s how we measure ourselves and our success. Win or lose, if we feel like we have achieved our objectives and played to our style and plan, then we have grown on that day.”
In preparation for the playoffs, Laggis will change up his plan on the ice a bit. Instead of a normal hour-and-a-half practice in the days leading up to a postseason game, the guys will practice a crisp one hour. It will be a high-tempo session, so the players’ bodies are thinking about playing fast on gameday.
Along with on-ice preparation, Laggis is concerned with how his players prepare away from the rink.
Nutrition and what the players are putting into their bodies prior to the playoffs is extremely important.
“One of the things that we do that is kind of cool is provide fruit in the locker room,” Laggis said. “We have a pretty nice team room and we provide bananas, oranges, a lot of Vitamin C, protein-type options for them to eat. We try to put some good choices in front of them in the locker room, and I think that makes a difference.”
As far as food, Laggis will talk to his players three or four days prior to the playoff game to advise on what food they should be eating.
“A lot of emphasis on eating lean protein, a lot of emphasis on staying away from soda and junk food, which is a no-brainer,” Laggis said. “A lot of emphasis on fruit. And then two days, a lot of carbo loading, a lot of water and natural sugars, not sugars from a can, and getting their body ready to go.”
Laggis and his coaching staff have tried to get parents involved in helping the kids make good nutritional decisions leading up to the playoffs, but also in the regular season.
“I’ve gotten a bunch of nutritional handouts that I give out to parents at the beginning of the year,” Laggis said. “As an example, the benefits of Vitamin C and what it does, and why fish oil is good for a kid and things like that. I just really try to get parents to buy into that.”
Food is a vital aspect, but just as important or even more is sleep. That can be a teenager’s Achilles’ heel.
“Getting enough sleep, eating right and getting your body in a pattern of being an athlete, because a lot of kids don’t know how to do that as we know,” Laggis said. “They think they can stay up until 11 and then sleep until 11 on a Saturday and they’re going to be just fine. We talk about getting them in a good, solid sleep pattern and taking care of their body.”
Laggis encourages his players to get a solid eight or nine hours of sleep per night leading up to a playoff matchup. The regular season for hockey is long and physical, so kids get worn out.
Christopherson doesn’t get into too much detail with her players about sleep and nutrition other than stressing to make good decisions and stick close to their usual routine as much as possible.
“We respect that each of the players have a different preparation procedure, and our focus is making sure that they get through that as much as possible,” Christopherson said.
Having the players dedicated to eating right and getting ample sleep can be the difference between a playoff victory and moving on or losing and ending the career of a senior.
“I’ll be honest, we pay enough attention that I can tell when a kid isn’t sleeping enough or isn’t feeling right, like many coaches, and nutritional stuff,” Laggis said. “We’re always on top of that, trying to be anyway. You try to get kids to realize those little things make a big difference when the puck drops.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.