Improving Anticipation: Cues

The quote “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is” (or whatever) by Wayne Gretzky is a classic. It exemplifies what makes players successful in the game of hockey. However, oftentimes, many players are told to anticipate, but are not taught how. This article will cover how coaches can improve how they teach players and how players can teach themselves to become better at anticipating.

Before reading this blog, make sure to check out my article on Hockey Sense to see where anticipation fits into the Hockey Sense Model.

Coaches (Players can skip to the player section if they wish)

First, I think that gathering empirical evidence of appropriate cues is completely necessary before teaching players to read and react to cues. By this I mean:

  • You should have played at a high level.
  • You should spend A LOT of time critically reviewing game tape and video
  • You should spend A LOT of time critically evaluating hockey players and games

I think that those experience gathering opportunities are a very important first step to teaching anticipation. I also think that those opportunities are ranked in order of importance. The higher level you play, the more nuanced your skill of anticipation must be. As such, you will pick up many tricks and tips along the way. (Please note that I do not think that playing at a high level predisposes anyone to being a good coach…but it will certainly help.) I think that watching video, especially taking the time to break it down slowly, can provide a coach with a great opportunity to pick up on cues that occur in hockey gameplay situations. And finally, spending lot’s of time evaluating hockey players allows you to notice trends and patterns…and may allow you to learn what the appropriate cues to react to are. However, the video breakdown and live evaluations do not have the benefit of you being able to test your assumptions on how anticipating should work. You do not have the benefit of learning through experience…therefore, your learning will not be as quick or as vivid.

If you cannot play at a high level, I think that you should continue to play at whatever level you can. This is mostly so that you can test your assumptions on how reading and reacting works.

Identifying Cues and Generating Responses

This one is really simple, but something that coaches miss:

  • You need to identify a specific cue that a player should look for
  • Then you need to tell the player what response they should have

If your players can make it into the rink by themselves and tie their own skates, they can usually be taught to read and react to cues.

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This is how it works: the more clarity you provide to your players (in terms of specific instructions), the more efficacious (confident) they are in their ability to complete a task. The more efficacious (confident) that they are in being able to complete a task, the better they will perform the task. If the task is vague, the players lose confidence in their ability to complete the task, then their performance on the task is poor.

I knew this was the case going into my first coaching gig, so did my best to make everything as clear as possible to the players. However, I soon learned firsthand that this relationship between clarity and performance was very real. Into our second game, we had given up about 4 or 5 BAD outnumbered rushes. So I laced into the team about giving up outnumbered rushes. Much to my surprise, they started giving up even MORE outnumbered rushes. I had no idea what to make of the situation. So I called a defence meeting and asked why they weren’t keeping tight gaps between themselves, supporting each other on d-d passes, keeping tight gaps in the neutral zone, etc.. They looked at me with blank stares. I realized that they didn’t actually know how to prevent outnumbered rushes. No one had taught them what cues to look for, and what the appropriate responses where.

So I then had to teach them that when their D partner has the puck (CUE), you should be supporting him by being behind him (RESPONSE). They should also keep a tight gap between themselves (RESPONSE) when the other team had the puck on a rush (CUE) in order to force the opposing team wide. I also had to teach them that when the opposing team had the puck in a regroup scenario (CUE) they should be within a zones distance and moving either laterally or backward – not lunging forward (appropriate RESPONSE).

As soon as the players were CLEAR on what cues to pay attention to, and what my desired responses were, the players were able to execute with certainty. As such, the number of outnumbered rushes went down. An added bonus was that I was able to ask a player why he messed up, and he could speak the same language as me to communicate why he messed up. For example, I might ask why that guy got through the middle, and my player could identify that he misread a cue (“I didn’t think they had the puck”)…or that he read the cue, but didn’t generate the appropriate response (“I saw them on the rush, but I pivoted the wrong way and gave them the middle”).

So if you want to teach players to become better at anticipating, teach them to read specific cues, and tell them the responses you want to see.

Players (Coaches: please keep reading)

The coaching section detailed a bit how clarity in identifying and generating responses can improve performance. But let’s now look at how learning more advanced cues to read can improve your anticipation as a player…and how teaching them to a player can get you looked at as a “great technical coach”.

There are studies done (that I don’t feel like going through the trouble of referencing), done on tennis players. They found that advanced tennis players do a better job reading cues of a server than a novice tennis player. The cues that the advanced tennis player pays attention to are the body language that the server exhibits. The cues that the novice player pays attention to are the racket and the ball. The more experienced player has the exact same reaction time as the novice player (most reaction times are hardwired at 0.15-0.20s for all humans)…so by reading a cue that gives more or advanced information, the more experienced tennis player is able to give themselves extra time to react.

Hockey players can do this too. The best goalies, for example, read the body language of the shooter to determine where they are shooting, or if they are passing, or if they are going to keep stickhandling. Novice goalies are reacting to the flight of the puck. Reading the body language cues gives the goalie more time to react than a goalie who is reading the flight of the puck.

So to improve your anticipation, see if you can use cues (such as body language, hip angle, hand position, head position) that provide you with advanced information to predict what a player is going to do. You can also use video to break down what you and other players do, and what cues to look for.

I’ll give you a couple of examples:

  • I watch for a player to open the blade of his stick before making a pass. I then try to pick off the pass.
  • I watch for a player to preload his stick prior to shooting. I then aim to time my poke check to coincide with his puck release.
  • I watch for a player to shift his body weight before turning or changing direction. I then adjust my own position to mirror his change of direction.

So spend some time trying to find advanced cues. Then spend some time thinking about what your responses will be to those cues. Most of the time, these cues and responses become so ingrained that you don’t actually think about how you read and execute them. But if you are stuck learning to anticipate in a certain scenario, breaking down anticipation into cues and responses can help you to learn and improve.


Published by

Jason at Train 2.0

2.0 was born from the belief that 1.0 isn't good enough. The way we're approaching coaching, training, and development for hockey needs to be rethought. My own lessons have led me to rethink the way it's being done and I can't help but write about it. I'm writing for my 12, 13, 14, 15 year old self who didn't have this resource. I'm writing for parents who are putting their dollars and trust in coaches who are wasting all of it. I'm writing because I hope it can make a difference.

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