Great players have exceptional “hockey sense.”  Wayne Gretzky is probably the quintessential player when you think of “hockey sense” – a player that has the ability to see the ice and to read, react and anticipate, like no other player in the history of the game (although Sidney Crosby is quickly approaching “great one” status). But how do you define the term; as a coach, how can you teach it; and as a player how do you develop it?

Let’s first take a look at how we define a skilled performance? A skill consists of “the ability to bring about some end result with maximum certainty and a minimum outlay of energy.” Motor learning is a set of processes associated with practice or experience leading to relatively permanent changes in  the capability of skilled performance. Undoubtedly, one of the most important features of skilled performance is making quick and predictable decisions (what to do and what not to do) in any given situation.

The key words to focus on here are “result” and “performance.” As coaches, the result we are striving for is game performance. To ensure improvement in game performance, there are two principles we need to consider. The principle of specificity states “the most important form of training for athletes is that which matches the biomechanics, energy system use, and psychological control factors of an intended competitive performance.” Second, the transfer of learning refers to the application of learning achieved in one task or setting to the performance of some other task. Are the drills you perform in practice specific to game situations and do these drills transfer to improved game performance?

As coaches, our goal should be to optimize our practices to ensure improved game performance for our players. This approach will be different from a skill-centered approach where techniques are often taught in isolation, not requiring players to think about its relevance to game situations, and bearing little resemblance to the skill required in an actual game. Traditional coaching methods focus on specific motor responses (techniques), and fail to take into account the contextual nature of the game. This concentrates too much on technique and not enough on decision making.


Practicing drills in isolation does not reflect a large number of variables associated with implementing this skill in a constantly changing game situation. Emphasis on technique has generally resulted in the production of skillful players who possess inflexible techniques and poor decision making capacities. Decision-making is the foundation that determines level of success achieved by athletes in any sport — it is the cornerstone of “hockey sense.” While skills are very important to successful performance, it is is the athlete’s conceptual abilities that make the difference.