Smarter Coaching:

Wally Kozak

Belief Transmitter  /  Calgary, AB

09.01.2021
Dave Mason

Wally Kozak has taken a winding path through sports. At various times in his life, he’s been an athlete, a teacher, a coach, a scout, and a mentor. But he’s always been one thing: a learner.

The son of Ukrainian immigrants who fled Stalin’s purges, Wally grew up in small-town Saskatchewan, where school and sports were central to life. And though he played all kinds of sports, it was hockey that became his focus, even after his staunch pacifist father burned his skates to try to prevent him from playing after witnessing Wally’s older brother fighting in a game. When a 15-year old Wally—on borrowed skates—scored a hat trick in his first senior league game, his father presented him with a brand new pair of CCM Tacks and told him, “Sonny, I think you’re going to need these.”

Rather than play major junior hockey, Wally’s entire focus was on education, so he played four years at the University of Saskatchewan, and was eventually recruited to play for a local senior team that competed against the Canadian and U.S. national teams. From there he was invited to the Canadian national team founded by the legendary Father Bauer, and became immersed in the culture of excellence that surrounded that program. Next stop? The Chicago Blackhawks training camp and a year of International League pro in Flint, Michigan.

With his wife expecting their first child, Wally made the decision to turn to his “real vocation”. He took a job as a high school teacher in Alberta, and it was there that he learned to coach: not only hockey, but football, wrestling, and track and field. He freely admits that he initially knew little about some of those sports (he told his first group of football players, “I don’t know what I’m doing and neither do you, but we’re going to learn together.” And they did!), but he continuously educated himself on biomechanics and sports psychology, and he found he loved the process of learning and coaching and then learning some more.

In the mid-80s, Wally was invited to work with head coach Dave King and Canada’s national hockey program, and he served as a skills coach and assistant coach for both the men’s and women’s national teams from 1986 to 1992, winning a medal or two along the way. He then served as Director of Female Scouting and Player Development with Hockey Canada, and in roles including assistant coach of the National Women’s Teams from 2000 to 2002, head scout and manager of player development from 2003 to 2007, and in curriculum development for Canada’s Program of Excellence from 2008 to 2010.  

With a resumé like that, it’s no surprise that Wally is widely recognized as one of the best technical coaches in the world. Today, he’s 100% focused on coaching coaches, and is a huge advocate for greater development of the kind of “soft skills” that coaches need in order to help athletes succeed. We caught up with him to talk about his approach to working for “the good of the game.”   

This might take a few hours, but what changes have you seen in youth sport from the time you first started coaching to now?  Haha! Well, first, let’s define youth sport. I think of youth sports as basically 11U. That’s the age below which an athlete’s fundamentals are developed. And I don’t just mean mechanics, I mean their love of sports and of learning and competing and improving. I think the biggest difference I see at those youth levels now versus in the past is the gap in understanding how to teach basics—posture, balance, center of gravity, even stick length and grip—and the over-structuring of practices. My sense is that too much structure actually interferes with learning. In hockey, small area games and station-based practices where kids get more puck touches are definitely helping, but in my experience if you teach kids the fundamentals and then let them just have fun and play, they’ll learn more than you can teach them, and faster.

And obviously we know that kids today are not like kids were twenty or thirty years ago, but how can they be? They live in the world we adults created for them, so we need to coach and teach them differently than we were coached. That’s my focus now, to coach coaches. I think we owe it to kids to be better adults, to continuously educate ourselves so we can coach and teach more effectively.

You’re a big believer in the importance of alignment around common goals, and we’ve had a chance to experience your mission statement exercise. Can you talk about that?  The key in sports, in business, in education, in any team-based pursuit, is to get everyone in the program onto the same page. In youth sports, that means parents, players, coaches, and administrators. So we’ve got a mission statement exercise that was developed to help create an agreed perspective between everyone involved. It really helps everyone get to their “why.” Why am I coaching? Why am I putting my child in this sport? Why am I playing hockey or baseball or soccer? Only when we all understand everyone’s “why” should we turn to the “how” and the “what”.

The exercise is really about creating a culture where issues are less likely to arise, because when too much time and energy are spent dealing with issues, that time and energy can’t be used to help kids. 

Given that we’re talking about the 11U levels, where do you feel the emphasis should be when it comes to coaching?  Obviously fundamentals and fun are primary. For everyone, especially parents and coaches, that means focus on the process instead of outcomes. And by outcomes I mean winning. Creating a winning program is different from winning a game or two. It’s a natural result of a positive process. Like here’s a funny thing: the Tampa Bay Lightning is a winning program. Their ice time minutes were more balanced last year than most minor hockey teams. I’ve seen a Novice 7 coach shorten his bench to try to win a game! He had no idea what kind of damage he was doing in pursuit of that victory. 

Coaching is both a science and an art. The science is in teaching the proper mechanics and the Xs and Os, but the true artists understand what happens when everyone feels valued. It’s the coach’s job to know every player and to bring out the best in them as an individual. When I was teaching, the school principal put a quote up on the staff room wall and I took it to heart: “It’s not about how smart the child is. It’s about how the child is smart.” Coaches have to find the thing each player brings to the team and to the game, and give them respect, opportunity, and attention. Then watch them go!

What would you most like to see improve in youth sports?  I loved teaching, but I loved coaching more, because it was so obvious that kids just wanted to be at the rink or on the field. And as I said, I was always a learner, but I’m even more so now. So I think we’ve got to learn, learn, learn. We can’t think we know enough. We’ve got to evolve and change. I believe that if we can improve coaching from the bottom up—educate youth coaches in some of these missing ingredients, in new thinking for teaching the kids they’re working with, and not keep looking to the NHL for insights to try to coach ten year olds—we can create more positive sports experiences for more kids at the bottom levels. And guess what? That will ultimately create better athletes and people all the way up to the highest levels. 

That’s where tools like PowerPlayer are right in line with my goals. I may look like an old-timer, but I’m not old school! We need new thinking, and we need to show coaches that things can be done differently, because the way forward is not the same as it used to be. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities.

You’ve mentioned “two words” to me in a prior conversation and they really resonated. Can you share them here as a wrap up?  Absolutely. For me, a coach’s job—a parent or teacher’s job—comes down to just two words: transmit belief. You’ve got to transmit belief, because if someone in your care believes they can succeed, well, they’ve got a much better chance of succeeding. It’s your job to create that belief in them. Encourage them to set high goals, then help them have faith in themselves to try to achieve them. For example, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to play in the NHL, and some kids will, but it’s the striving toward that goal that matters in the end. They’ll learn about themselves along the way, they’ll be around other people who are positive and motivated, and that’ll help them become better people themselves. It’s pretty simple. If you’re coaching, you’re helping to change lives. So transmit belief!