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.
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