Mike Bonelli got a relatively late start in hockey, stepping into hockey gear for the first time at age 11 in Westchester, New York, and going on to play high school hockey in Connecticut, and NCAA D3 at New England College in New Hampshire.
But while he loved playing, it was coaching that grabbed him right from the start. Beginning his tenure as an instructor at age 15, Mike worked at New York Ranger greats Dave and Don Maloney’s hockey school through his college years, and jumped into coaching youth hockey immediately after graduation. At age 23 he founded and became Hockey Director for a strong Jr. Cavaliers youth program, and went on to form the Snapple Express program before becoming head coach at Plymouth State’s NCAA D3 program at age 27.
Today, Mike runs Mike Bonelli Hockey Solutions, serving ice arenas and hockey programs throughout the US, is Eastern District Associate Coach in Chief for USA Hockey, where he works with some 900 coaches per year, and also coaches his son’s Squirt Major travel team in Danbury, CT.
A self-confessed ‘coaching geek’, Mike is a big believer in continuous learning and in moving the game forward. We caught up with him between practices to talk about teaching, coaching, and the power of communication.
How has your path through hockey influenced the way you think about teaching the game?
Well, I didn’t start playing hockey until I was about 11 years old, so developmentally I was quite a bit behind the other kids who’d been at it for a few years. A couple of my coaches way back then—local hockey gurus Donnie Smith, Ed Olsen and Adam Socol—encouraged me and helped me improve. Those guys really influenced the way I approach teaching the game today. I was also a serious rink rat, scrubbing the boards, cleaning up locker rooms or whatever in exchange for ice time.
You use the word ‘teaching’ a lot. Can you talk about that?
My outlook really stems from the way I was taught to skate and play. I’m a big advocate for embracing change in the game, and on taking the long view of the development process, like teachers do. Parents are 100% connected to their kids classrooms and educators. They’re engaged in that learning process, and I try to mimic that with hockey. That’s why PowerPlayer is so beneficial to me—it kind of brings the school to the rink, and connects me as a hockey teacher to both the kids and their parents in a really easy way.
Can you talk a little about your approach to communicating with parents?
I’ve heard coaches joke that they’d love to coach a team with no parents, but really, without parents, there is no youth hockey. So of course we need them. But more than that, I think we need parents to be part of the teams we’re coaching. If parents understand what I’m seeing in their child and can help me motivate them or address something that needs to be addressed, that’s hugely beneficial to their child, to me, and to the team. Communication is the key to that, and PowerPlayer enables me to speak to parents about their kids in a non-confrontational way. It allows me to control the message and frame my observations and instructions in a positive way.
How are you integrating PowerPlayer into your teaching and coaching?
The skill scoring stuff is great, but I really love the commenting capability—the ability to give context. Because when I’m assessing a player, I’m really assessing them against themselves and against my expectations of them. And framing scores with positive comments and instruction really helps the kids and parents get to know me, my approach, and my philosophy pretty quickly.
What’s been the biggest benefit to you as a coach using PowerPlayer?
What I’ve really noticed about using the system is that it makes you evaluate yourself when you evaluate your kids. Am I reinforcing concepts I said I’d enforce? Am I explaining things well enough? If the kids get a drill wrong three times, it’s me, not them! And are they meeting development expectations? I’m not talking about wins and losses, because I can win a lot of games with a few good players. I want to know that all my kids are improving. And when I send out my parent survey at end of the year I want them to rate me across my full body of work with their kids, not just our record. I want to improve. I want to learn!
What about the kids? What has PowerPlayer done for them?
I tell my kids they’re always being evaluated, and they’re really starting to get that. Also, they get pretty competitive when we do the PowerPlayer stuff. They go crazy, cheering each other on. It really comes down to changing the way they feel. Why do kids perform differently in a tryout than a normal practice? Because they know they’re being evaluated. So I try to create that urgency and instill that work ethic every day with things like practice ratings. And intangibles—are they polite and respectful? They need to know that stuff matters every day.
One other thing about PowerPlayer is that it can really bump up a kid’s confidence. We had a player who, kinda like me, had started hockey a few years behind most of his teammates. So when we evaluated him on ice he was naturally one of our weaker skaters and not the best at puck skills. But man, that kid crushed it in fitness. And the whole team knew it. That experience pumped him up, and changed his whole year. That’s pretty awesome.
And the reaction from parents?
Not as much as I thought I might get, but maybe that’s because I’m communicating more frequently with them! But I can tell which kids are talking with their parents about the stuff I’m referencing in PowerPlayer. They’ll say things like ‘Yeah, I watched that video with my dad’, and parents have referenced some of the comments and thanked me for providing clarification or understanding about something. That really brings the parents into coaching. Parents know their kids best. Do they respond to challenges? Do they need lots of encouragement? It’s great to have parents reinforce the stuff I’m teaching in ways that resonate best with their kids.
What kind of difference do you think tools like PowerPlayer can make?
I love to coach, and I love to teach. I have to admit that way back when, I was ‘old school’, meaning I coached the way I’d been coached. But I learned pretty quickly that the game is always changing, and that doing what you’ve always done gets you what you always got. I think as coaches we need to understand traditions, but always embrace a forward-looking growth mindset. Education and development never ends, so that’s why you find the best coaches at things like the USA Hockey Level 5 symposiums, Roger Neilson Clinic or the Coaches Site Conference, looking for new resources like PowerPlayer that allow them to push themselves to be better.
PowerPlayer is like going from a legal pad to an iPad. It might seem like extra work at first, but it actually takes time out of coaching because it cuts down on the confusion that can come when there’s a lack of communication. It allows me to be really focused about what I need to teach to which kids, and when.
There’s a lot of talk about kids and parents not ‘trusting the process’ in hockey. That’s because the process of development takes a long time so maybe it’s hard to see the path. Well to me, PowerPlayer reveals the process, and that makes everything flow much more smoothly.
We’re excited about our numbers to date, because we know we can build on them. After all, that’s what long-term development is all about.Read Post
I want to do everything I can to get the kids I work with to the next level — whatever that means to them individually — and to give them every advantage possible.Read Post
If you’re coaching youth team sports, you’re coaching other people’s kids — which means you’re coaching parents too. In any successful relationship, communication is essential. The challenge in coaching, of course, is time.Read Post
As a player, I would have loved to get this kind of feedback. I always wanted to be first, to be the best. But how could I know what my coach was thinking about me? Not every player is ready to ask their coach questions — some people are just shy — and I’m talking about players from minor hockey all the way to pro.Read Post
I flipped on the NHL Network the other day. While I usually don’t pay too much attention to the panel discussion stuff they broadcast ahead of games, this time something got my attention.
Apparently Jamie Benn was in a bit of a slump.Read Post
I love the drills and metrics for sure, and so do the kids, but seriously, the most useful thing for me personally is the ability to coach from home.Read Post
Ever notice how people just seem to operate at higher levels when they perceive the thing they’re doing to be ‘fun’? That applies to sports, study, and whatever it is most of us do at our day jobs.Read Post
Kids who are positively reinforced by the people who surround them tend to be more confident, happy, and energetic, and are much more likely to succeed than those who may have similar skill sets, but who are less emotionally secure.Read Post
Anticipation is building as a new hockey season approaches. Maybe it’s the comfort of old gloves holding the promise of a new stick that does it? Maybe it’s the idea that a new season offers an opportunity to build on time-tested knowledge by applying new thinking? At PowerPlayer, we’re looking forward to the opportunity to build on what we learned in 2017-18 — our first full season offering a digital feedback platform for youth hockey.Read Post
“You can’t do player development without coach development. And that’s why it’s so important that you’re all here.” Dave Starman / NCAA Scout, Montreal Canadiens.Read Post
For the organizations and coaches who are adopting our platform, positivity isn’t some new age ‘everyone gets a trophy because kids want to be coddled’ concept. It’s a teaching and coaching technique rooted in science.Read Post
Strong personal intangibles and team chemistry have a multiplier effect on talent. Poor personal intangibles and team chemistry have a diminishing effect.Read Post
Because positivity is contagious, it generates a galvanizing force that supercharges skill sets and work ethics. That force is called confidence.Read Post
When we share feedback through PowerPlayer we know we’re sharing the beginning of a conversation that might never take place otherwise. How cool is that?Read Post
For young athletes—and by ‘young’ I mean anyone who is not an adult—the answer to ‘Which wolf wins?’ could easily be ‘The one their coach feeds.’Read Post
Today more than ever, one of the biggest decisions a coach can make is how they choose to communicate with their players.Read Post
For millions of kids, parents and coaches, the season is winding down. And all over the hockey world, the thought of a standard one-on-one, end of season coach/player/parent meeting is a stress-inducing prospect for many on both sides of the table.Read Post
Consisting of three parts, the formula involves providing feedback to young athletes at every stage of the development process as a way to help build their confidence.Read Post
“When you throw the ball, three things can happen and two of them are bad. But you’ve still got to throw the ball.”Read Post
“We’re seeing huge improvements in our kids now and we’re excited to roll PowerPlayer out to more and more of our players in a big way in 2018.”Read Post
“PowerPlayer really helps bring clarity to coaching, and I’m a big believer in communicating with players.”Read Post
“We wouldn’t accept a teacher telling us that our child had failed a grade at the end of the year without any warning or aid in helping them succeed, so why would we allow our players to go through a season without continuous feedback?”Read Post
We’ve shared PowerPlayer with countless coaches, hockey directors, and parents, and we’re working with organizations from Anchorage to Philadelphia, from Syracuse to Sweden. No one has told us they think providing meaningful feedback to kids and their parents is a bad idea.Read Post
“The coach-player-parent dynamic is critical. Always tell players what you see and what to work on, because feedback is critical.” Ray Ferraro / Coaches Site Conference 2017Read Post
Team success largely depends on mutual respect, common purpose and uncommon selflessness. In other words, team success depends on intangibles.Read Post
Before your accountant became a professional accountant, before your dentist became a professional dentist, and before the leading scorer in the NHL became a professional hockey player, they were kids.Read Post
Anyone who’s ever been part of a team—either as a player or as a coach—where things have just clicked, or conversely, have never clicked at all no matter what you did, has been subject to the power of group dynamics.Read Post
For many hockey players, a tryout or showcase camp is essentially a snapshot taken from a long, long movie. It can’t tell enough of the story to be meaningful.Read Post
For coaches, a big part of the challenge is communicating in a meaningful way with kids and parents on a regular basis. We’ve adopted PowerPlayer as an organization because it provides opportunities for coaches to share comments, thoughts, video clips, ratings and real metrics with the players and their parents more frequently.Read Post
Even though I grew up in Buffalo, where winter totally rules, my sport growing up was baseball. Sure I watched the Sabres as a casual fan, but my knowledge of hockey was limited to hating Brett Hull. Google it!Read Post
If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, or maybe even if you haven’t, you might be familiar with the 10,000 hour concept, which postulates that it takes that minimum number of hours of ‘deliberate practice’ to become ‘expert’ at something. Like chess, piano, ballet. Or hockey.Read Post
Growing up with a father who’s been a highly respected member of the Rochester NY-area hockey community for more than 40 years, Chris Collins has led a hockey life.Read Post
A while back, I connected with a friend who’d spent part of his summer sitting in a hockey rink watching his 10 year-old run through some drills. And he was frustrated. Not because of what was happening on the ice during the camp, but because of what wasn’t happening.Read Post
For millions of kids (and their parents), September means two things: back to school and back to the rink.Read Post
We sat down with coach and skating / skills instructor Stan Kondrotas to get his impressions of PowerPlayer following his first season as a ‘power user.’Read Post
We just spent a couple of weekends at The Coaches Site / TeamSnap 2016 Hockey Coaches Conferences. As sponsors, we were there to introduce PowerPlayer to the coaches in attendance, but we also learned a thing or two about the state of hockey.Read Post
In 2015, a nine-year-old BC kid quit his team with two games left in the season. Seems he’d had enough of sitting on the bench game after game, crying while he watched his teammates play. Why was he denied the opportunity to play?Read Post
Essentially, our current youth hockey measurement system prioritizes games, where effort can produce wins, and virtually ignores practices, where effort can produce winners.Read Post
I grew up with sports. And, oh yeah, of course… school! One of those things was arguably more fun than the other, and the rewards they offered differed, but for any real chance of success, both required not just attention but commitment.Read Post