Coaching Association of Canada

Tara Chisholm and Derek Whitson - Sledge Hockey

With the support of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and Hockey Canada, and under the leadership of Head Coach Tara Chisholm and Assistant Coach Derek Whitson, the women’s national sledge hockey team is looking forward to 2022 when the IPC aims to have women’s sledge hockey included in the Paralympic medal program at the Winter Games.

A selection camp attended by 24 athletes aged 13 to 55 in late August provided the perfect opportunity to put Tara and Derek in the spotlight and allow them to share their para-coaching insights with Canada’s coaching community. Whether you're coaching para-atheltes or an able-bodied team, you'll benefit from the following four coaching tips.

  • Age is just a number

Age variety in your program provides a huge benefit to everyone involved. Older players, or those who’ve acquired a disability later in life after previous sport experience, may bring more “hockey sense” or technical aptitude to their game, whereas younger players may have more of a physical presence on the ice. This variety in age and experience contributes to team chemistry off the ice as well. “Every player is going to be their own leader,” says Derek. “The 13 year-old is hip and cool and keeps things interesting and light, and the 55 year-old brings discipline and life experience.” Derek asserts that with sledge hockey being relatively new, coaches can’t limit themselves to those that fit the “hockey mold”. He suggests those transferable athletic abilities, whether from parasport or the “stand-up world”, as he calls it, are invaluable and not age-dependant.

  • Encourage parents to let go, and know your stuff as a coach

Regardless of disability, let kids be kids. “If they want to climb a tree, let them,” says Derek. Ultimately this applies on the ice as well. Tara suggests that the most successful athletes have parents that trust the coaches to help the athletes enjoy sport and be active. “For this to work, coaches need to be knowledgeable and educated in the sport so that we can build that hockey culture. The culture of hockey is something that everyone needs to learn, regardless of whether you play ‘stand-up’ or sledge hockey,” says Tara.

  • On a team, balance sport skill and life experience

Whether they have an acquired injury and a hockey background, or a congenital disability and life experience, Derek believes each player has something to contribute. “It’s key to have a mix of athletes,” says Tara. “Some of the players will become the moms of the team. They’ll help out when another athlete is traveling for the first time or help with equipment setup, medical advice, and give them tips.” Everyone finds their niche and it contributes to holistic athlete development and makes the coach’s job easier.”

  • Address the athlete, not the disability, and adjust your coaching

“I walked into the dressing room, saw all those chairs, and got really nervous,” said Tara about her first sledge hockey experience. However, she soon realized that these individuals were simply athletes. Yes, they were athletes with a disability, but they were athletes first. “I couldn’t tell you unless it’s very evident, like an amputation, what their disabilities are. I know their name, and what they’re good at, and what they need to improve upon,” explains Tara. She stresses the importance of addressing the performance first, working with the athlete, making equipment modifications, and changing your coaching style. “More often than not, it’s actually your coaching that needs to change. It’s rarely their disability that’s holding them back.”