Preseason Zen: Making the Best You Possible Before it Counts

Aug. 07, 2018, 2 p.m. (ET)

There is much interest in understanding the importance of culture to ensure your team stays together and on task during the season. USA Field Hockey’s Coach Education Department spoke to a variety of coaches from different levels across the game to provide insight into how they prepare their teams for success during preseason. With anticipation and excitement for the 2018 season, here’s how some coaches get their team and staff prepared physically, mentally and emotionally.

As a coach, how do you develop team culture in the early part of your season?

Caroline Nelson-Nichols, Columbia University: We use a balanced approach of conversation and action. Conversation is great to allow the staff to better understand the team, the team to better understand each other and the team to better understand the staff. Action allows a place for the conversation to come to life. Putting a team in an uncomfortable situation and allowing them to solve it together helps them better understand each other and feel success working together.

Overall, you have to figure out what points you want to focus on with regard to team culture, have conversations about it and find a way to bring those thoughts to action.

Carolyn King-Robitaille, Saint Anselm College: The most important part to developing team culture is for us to get to know each other on a deeper level as people, not just players. It’s important for teammates and coaches to feel comfortable with each other, gain trust and develop a meaningful relationship. We will dedicate time to various team building efforts that include exercises associated with the DISC profile, making lists of and discussing our personal values, team and individual goal setting, discussing past experiences and hopes for the future.


What kind of preparation do you use to integrate new staff and players prior to preseason and during those important couple of weeks prior to your first official scrimmage?

Jess Shellenberger, Donegal High School: We have a coach meeting prior to the player meeting and player meeting prior to the start of preseason. For the coaches meeting, we go over the philosophy of the program and expectations for each team. We also plan how we will assist each other. 

For the players, expectations, team rules and schedules are distributed and discussed. They then meet as a group to establish their expectations of each other.


How much training during preseason do you use to develop skills, tactics and corners/specialty situations, for example?

Nancy Stevens, University of Connecticut: This will depend on the baseline skill level of each team. The team with the best fundamentals will most likely win the game. If our baseline skill level is high, we can move on to focus primarily on tactics and specialty situations. Of course, this is our preference and we've been fortunate to have skilled teams that can move on to tactics quickly during preseason.

JS: We spend some time "in class" providing an opportunity for the players to contribute and create. We discuss corner options, pressing options and defensive and outletting tactics. We discuss our strengths and weaknesses and what might suit the team and expectations of the group.

CN-N: Our aim as a coaching staff is to develop as many of the necessary skills as possible within a small game or game context. Our “performance” is in a game setting, so we challenge our athletes to achieve repetition and skill/tactical development through game settings.

CK-R: During preseason it’s important to get everyone on the same page about who we are, what we do, how we do it and most importantly why we do it. Skills and techniques are addressed throughout tactical play.


How much time is spent on tactical training to ensure team clarity and that each player understands the role in the system, during the season?

NS: Athletes are visual learners, so individual and team video sessions are incredibly valuable in the tactical development of our team. We code every player's individual touches on the ball for every game, so that after each game they can meet with our coaching staff to evaluate their decision making that occurred during the game. We then meet with attack, defense and goalkeeping units; so that these groups can evaluate their play in a collective manner. Finally, we meet as a team to learn from game film. 

CN-N: Tactical training is an important part of our learning. We approach it through the lens of “solving the problem” in front of us. We use video, chalk talk, practice walk-throughs, “subbuteo,” on-field drill design with questions to do so. Our staff provides the fundamental principles we play with and then we challenge the athletes to solve the problem. I would rather athletes “solve a problem” and own their decision in thinking about a problem, versus stating ‘I did that because coach said so.’

CK-R: It is critical that each player understands our tactical strategy overall and for each matchup throughout the season. Every player must understand the tactics of our entire team. We practice these tactics weekly. Each player also works closely with her position group throughout practices and film sessions.


What are the three most important things you look to achieve during the 2018 season?


  1. To have fun. To enjoy our time together.
  2. Work as hard as we can every practice and in every game.
  3. To be proud of who we are and what we accomplish. If "something" comes from achieving that, then we have succeeded.


  1. I think every competitor wants to win - especially in a season where your wins and losses are recorded and used to assess team, program and coaching success. Teaching my athletes how to do that while keeping the big picture of development, learning, growth and respect in perspective is important.
  2. Growth and learning throughout the season.
  3. Balance in focusing on process teaching/learning and outcome/performance.


  1. Team chemistry.
  2. Player confidence.
  3. Establishing identifiable characteristics (i.e. aggressive, relentless, efficient, plays with pace).


If you were to sum up your feelings about preseason, what one word would you use and why?

NS: Beginnings.  
Beginnings are always special. Because you are bringing in a group of new players each preseason, the personality of the team changes each year. This is what keeps the experience fresh and exciting for players and coaches. You are not only integrating new players into your team, but returning players have grown and matured, as well.

JS: Vital.
It's everything. So much of what you say and do in those two weeks will impact the rest of your season. You are setting the tone. Make sure it's a pace, ideal and culture that you can maintain because it's a long haul to the finish!

CK-R: Invaluable
You have to create a solid foundation before you can build anything on top of it. Preseason is a time where you continue to shape and set your foundation for the season. The stronger this is, the more you can place on top as your grow through your season.


What advice would you give to first-year players before they arrive to preseason?

NS: Arrive on campus ready to excel in the fitness testing. You don't control playing time, but you do control your level of fitness. Be prepared to exist outside your "comfort zone.” Relish that challenge.

CN-N: Be open to different. Your high school team was one experience. Be open to the different nuances of your college experience and try not to compare everything to your high school experience.

Take ownership of your development. Don’t wait for your teammates or your coaches to push you or drive your development. Find a way to push yourself, be a top worker in your training environment.


What words of advice would you give to young coaches preparing for their first preseason?

JS: Be prepared. Write out your "plan" but don't stress if you don't "get to it all.” Have a plan but modify as needed.

CN-N: You will make mistakes, don’t be afraid of them. Be open to learning and growing from them.

Enjoy the rollercoaster! There will be ups and downs in performance, but learning can happen over the entire ride. 


This article is featured in the Spring 2018 issue of FHLife magazine. To read more inspiring, knowledge-packed and fun features revolving around hockey, fitness, healthy eating and how to strengthen your game, subscribe to our quarterly publication or to order additional copies, clicking here.