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Assisting Sport Partnerships

Coaching and Performance Science students lend community outreach through local hockey programs.

An abstract representation of children playing hockey

A partnership between the Center for Applied Coaching and Sport Sciences at West Virginia University and the Morgantown Hockey Association is providing quality youth sport programming in the area. The ongoing collaboration provides funding for a graduate assistant position within the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, devoted to enhance coaching and player development. 

As a GA, Brett Anderson is working with Kristen Dieffenbach, the Center director, national leader in the field of coach development, and CPASS associate professor, to support MHA’s youth development program. Anderson, coaching and sport education on campus master’s student, coordinated the Morgantown Hockey Association youth development program this season. Originally from Killam, Alberta, Canada, he has coached around the world.

Eyes on the goal

According to Dieffenbach, the intent of the collaboration is to help grow the quality and consistency of the MHA youth hockey foundational programs in alignment with USA Hockey’s ADM (athlete development model) and enhance the sport experience for young athletes.

“The Center’s involvement in supporting the growth of hockey in the area has been enhanced by establishing the GA role. Through MHA’s funding of the GA position, we are creating a pipeline for other students to join,” Dieffenbach said.

Anderson’s role includes developing ADM appropriate practices and serving as a coach supporter and developer for the volunteer parents who help deliver the on-ice programming for players 4-10 years old. The restrictions that COVID-19 placed on travel play this season provided an opportunity for expanded support throughout the MHA system, which includes the Blades (youth competition) and Mohawk (scholastic team) programs.

As part of his duties, Anderson identifies and works with CPASS students with skating skills and coaching interests. Kinder DeWolfsoon, a junior sports management major, has been working with Anderson to provide power skating training for the MHA program. During the spring semester, the project was expanded to include additional CPASS undergraduates who joined Anderson on ice to gain experience coaching. 

In addition to the MHA house programs, Anderson coordinated the Little Penguins Learn to Play program, an established partnership with the Pittsburgh Penguins professional team to support youth hockey. The Little Penguins is part of a broader NHL initiative.

"Brett was an amazing asset to MHA this year. He went well above and beyond his role as a GA to support all players and offered his help and experience to all teams that needed and wanted it," Sherry White, secretary for the Morgantown Hockey Association Executive Board, said.

CACSS has combined efforts with BOPARC, the municipality that owns and operates the ice rink in the South Park neighborhood that is home to the MHA program. The most recent addition to the youth development on ice programing was the development of 'playground' opportunities, hockey specific open play times for young players and their parents. BOPARC and the city are working to expand the rink to meet the ongoing progress of hockey in the area. 

“Providing an opportunity for young skaters to explore the ice and play in a hockey environment is an essential part of building a lifelong love of physical activity. We have been encouraged by the community response to the inclusion of the hockey playground to the schedule and we are looking forward to continuing the program next season,” Dieffenbach explained.

Firsthand learning

The hockey mindset

Brett Anderson grew up playing hockey in Canada. “It was always a big part of my life and, luckily, I found myself in the right place at the right time that led to a career in coaching during the past 13 years. I always wanted to do something with my life that allowed me to do what I love. I have never felt like I’ve worked a day in my life in the game of hockey,” he said.

Anderson was determined to build his passion into a profession. “I’ve been all over the globe keeping this dream alive and feel very blessed to be giving back to the state and people of West Virginia,” he added.

As a coach developer graduate assistant, Anderson says his assignment, under the supervision of Dieffenbach, is to oversee the development of coaches and athletes within the sport of hockey for the Morgantown Hockey Association.

His vision is to play a role in growing the game of hockey in West Virginia and within MHA, its participants and coaches. “I would like to establish a network of hockey minds within the region to help push our momentum to greater levels and expand our reach within the eastern seaboard and greater United States,” Anderson said.

“As the coach developer for the MHA, I provide support for the coaches, curriculum and help guide the coaches and athletes within USA Hockey’s ADM (athlete development model). I work individually with the MHA teams with regards to skills and power skating. Additionally, I support several coaches as part of their internships and volunteer hours related to skills progressions and skating progression,” Anderson explained.

Anderson supervises CPASS undergraduate coaching and sport performance students, Nick Hilliard, Chris Lavelle and Jeremy Judis, who serve as interns in the Little Penguins and MHA house league programs. “Their main responsibilities include coaching young children within the parameters of the ADM with respect to skating, skills, balance, agility and recoveries. They are expected to journal their progress, be active learners and involved in their learning objectives, as well as provide a safe, developmentally appropriate, and professional environment for the children they are working with,” he said.

Morgantown and Monongalia County youth benefit from the Morgantown chapter of the Little Penguins Learn to Play program which Anderson oversees, along with implementation of programming, volunteer recruitment, dispersing and teaching curriculum and empowering volunteers in their pursuit of growth.

Anderson say he plans to continue his academic studies at WVU. “My career goal is to finish my doctorate degree at WVU and then continue to develop coaches all over the United States of America in various sports, including hockey. I would like to use the experiences I’ve gleaned over the years as a professional coach alongside my experiences at WVU to reach as far as I can across America to build sport, lifelong participation, and hockey at the grassroots level and beyond,” he said.

Undergraduates with a coaching attitude

Nick Hilliard, senior, Coaching and Performance Science, grew up playing multiple sports. Hilliard, from Tarentum, Pa., just north of Pittsburgh, worked with Learn to Skate and the House Program participants and coaches. “The kids would go from station to station, learning different skill sets. At the end of the session, they would have a pickup game, 5 on 5. It became hockey play time,” Hilliard said. “It was about getting them on the ice and, hopefully, learning and applying the skills from the session.”

Hilliard enjoys working with entry level youth skaters and helping them build a passion for sports. He played hockey as a youth and didn’t want to leave sports. While at WVU, he decided to switch his major from business to athletic coaching. He credits Brett Anderson and Kristen Dieffenbach for providing guidance and expertise. “Brett Anderson has been a great influence. He has an incredible coaching resume. Dr. Dieffenbach has shown us how we can contribute to MHA programs and learn valuable lessons at the same time,” he said.

Hilliard believes that he is making a difference. “Kids look up to me. I feel that I’m providing them with a positive sport coaching experience. I plan to stay in the sports scene after I graduate and move to Austin, TX where they have hockey leagues and I can remain involved with the sport,” he said.

Jeremy Judis, senior, Coaching and Performance Science, chose WVU CPASS because of its coaching major. Judis, who is from New Albany, Ohio, wants to coach hockey full time. “The other reason I came to WVU was the reciprocity agreement to get in-state tuition,” he said.

Judis, a member of the WVU Men’s hockey team, says that the MHA partnership with the college presented invaluable hands-on experiences for the interns. “I’ve helped out at practices and have been given the chance to run practices on my own. They have been great with allowing us become better coaches,” Judis explained. “The overall involvement with being welcomed and invited out by a bunch of the teams was a fantastic opportunity. The kids really enjoyed seeing us on the ice and being involved in helping them,” he added.

Judis plans to establish a career path in EMT and Firefighting while staying active in the coaching world. “I envision either coaching a team or doing more individualized small group skill lessons. The internship has helped me gain firsthand understanding and has given me confidence to run practices on my own,” he said.

Teaching lab environment

Dieffenbach says that the project underscores a community-based sport program at its foundation. “As the youngest skaters enter the system, the program helps provide age appropriate youth development support for fundamental sport skill growth and the volunteers who dedicate their time to youth sports.”

“As a university-based program, we bring evidence-based best practices for creating age and stage appropriate skill development and create teaching environments that support holistic youth development. The goal of this collaboration is to ensure that the children who participate in MHA development programs, such as the house league and Learn to Play program, want to return to the ice. In the Little Penguins Learn to Play Hockey, we focus on safe and fun experiences that enrich participants’ athleticism, enhances confidence and provides them with a great start to a lifelong activity,” she added.

The program serves as a live teaching lab for CPASS students across a variety of levels. “For students studying coaching and performance sciences, having guided opportunities to work with young athletes is incredibly valuable to help them grow the necessary skills to best apply the knowledge they are gaining in the classroom. For the students studying coach development, a growing area of recognition in the sport system, the partnership with the MHA provides an amazing opportunity for both the students involved and expanding our knowledge of the field of best practice,” she said.

“As a college, we greatly appreciate the MHA board and parents for their vision and partnership. They have embraced a new concept within their program that allows us to develop and support this Center-based GA position to work with MHA athletes and coaches. It’s an exciting time for us to provide this learning experience for our students,” Dieffenbach explained.

Fostering community relationships

Sherry White, MHA executive board secretary, says the board is made up of all volunteers, most are parents of players. I am the parent of a player. My son, Emmett, is 9 years old. He started with MHA when he was 3 1/2. He participated in the MHA Learn to Play program, the Level 1 Developmental House Program, as well as the Little Penguins Learn to Play program his first year. He joined the travel team his second year and is now a 10U player and finishing his fifth season of travel hockey and sixth season playing,” she said.

Partnership history

In the summer 2019, Kristen Dieffenbach contacted MHA about the possibility of CPASS students helping at the rink through coaching, developing programs and running education programs for players, coaches and parents. We saw the benefits of this concept. In March 2020, she presented a proposal for a graduate assistant coach developer to support the 6U, 8U, 10U and developmental house programs, including forming structured youth hockey program curriculum, providing on-ice 'coaching the coaches' support and developing resources for parents that reinforces the USA Hockey Development Model.

The Board unanimously voted to approve and fund this position. MHA operates completely as a non-profit with all volunteers for coaching, team managers, board members, etc. We are funded through player fees and fundraising efforts. As the first time that we have funded such a position, we felt that it would be a big benefit to our members.

This partnership has provided tremendous value to our programs and coaches. Dr. Dieffenbach and Brett provided support to our youngest players in the beginning stages of their development, along with training for our coaching staff, who are parent volunteers and have varying levels of experience in skating and playing hockey. We need to have children become involved at a younger age so that they can develop the skills necessary to compete as they get older, allowing us to continue to grow the program and sport in our community,

Providing the right encouragement and guidance to these beginning players and their parents is what will determine if they decide to keep playing or not. This partnership and the students who worked with us helped to provide the knowledge on how to engage those youngest players and their families so that they wanted to keep on playing and developing.

Coaching time

Brett developed the practice plans entirely for our Level 1 Developmental House League and ran that program with the support of the other student interns, Dr. Dieffenbach and volunteer coaches from our organization. Level 1 is for all first-year players who are just starting out in the sport.

The practice plans and drills he utilized following the USA Hockey American Development Model, the Hockey Canada Model and applying knowledge of working with youth athletes that he is gaining from his master’s programs, engaged these young athletes (mostly between the ages of 4-7) and made them want to keep playing and learning.

Brett encouraged players from our teams to come out and help work with the younger kids which was amazing because it gave the younger kids someone to look up to who has gone through the process and it gave those older kids a chance to work on their own fundamentals of skating, while teaching them about volunteering their time and giving back.

All coaches said that this was the most organized they have ever seen the program being ran and that they were impressed with how much the kids were learning and what a great job Brett was doing.

Brett led a training session where he worked with our volunteer coaches to help them improve their own hockey skills. He showed them how the drills they use and the plans they follow impact their players. This was especially helpful for some of the parent coaches who never played hockey themselves. They learned more hockey specific skills and how it impacts the players and their development.

Having someone with Brett’s breadth of experience and knowledge of hockey, along with his educational background in coaching, provided many of them a deeper insight into the game and the skills that they should be developing in their players.

Brett provided support with coaching one of our 10U (Squirt) teams. Kristen Dieffenbach served as head coach of the team and had two assistant coaches. Brett worked with them to set up drills, provide educational support and another level of training and encouragement to the kids. He worked with supporting training and development with the 14U girl’s hockey team. Finally, Brett is helping with the development and planning of the tryouts for our next hockey season for all the teams 14U and younger.

He is developing the skating plans to help us place skaters in the appropriate team situations and to help provide evaluations for the skaters and their families on skills they can work on throughout the summer to help them prepare for next season. Brett will provide players with valuable feedback and ideas for ways they can improve over the summer, whether they can get on the ice or not.

Keeping calm in the pandemic

The pandemic affected the season from beginning to end. The Board approved the partnership with CACSS and to sponsor the GA position in March 2020, before the pandemic hit the United States. In July 2020, we began having discussions about what we would do if we could not have a season. Luckily, we were able to get the kids on the ice, first in Pennsylvania at another rink because the Morgantown Ice Arena delayed their opening, and then, finally, in Morgantown.

Throughout the various postponements, we adjusted to provide opportunities to skate, improve skills and techniques. Brett developed a “Train with MHA” program that we could utilize through our social media accounts and websites to keep players engaged and learning during the hiatus. At times, we could not have traditional practices with pucks, players and coaches had to wear masks and parents were asked to bring their players in and then wait in the parking lot until practices were over.

Brett pivoted again and developed skating drills for both developmental levels and the 6U, 8U and 10U teams. He provided ideas for stickhandling drills that could be done at home. We began regular practices with pucks again in mid-late January 2021. With the Governor’s postponement ending on March 5 and hard work and effort from all coaches, team managers, parents and players, we got in more than 80 games between our Blades (travel) and Mohawks (school) teams in the month of March.

Hockey for all

We absolutely want to continue this partnership with CPASS and are excited to bring Brett back to work with us again. The board voted unanimously to approve funding the graduate assistant position next school year. We are excited to see what we can accomplish when, hopefully, we are not as encumbered by COVID-19 as we were last season.

We are looking forward to planning more coach training sessions in the pre-season, further developing and promoting training at home, extending information and social media campaigns along with other great ideas he and the CPASS students have.

Additionally, having Kristen Dieffenbach as part of our organization is game changing. Her focus on player development, physically, mentally and emotionally, will make all players better long-term athletes and make this sport something they will enjoy playing for a lifetime.

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