Near the beginning of December, I received an invite to join an inaugural Team Austria U14 camp (all thanks to a new friend of mine from the area, thank you!). The four-day camp took place in Velden am Wörthersee, an adorable small town at the edge of Wörthersee lake, which is one of the most beautiful and popular lakes in the country. The camp acted as a preliminary evaluation to select players for a future camp in 2024 and to give many of them their first experience with the national program.
The first amusing event was getting a late breakfast after I arrived in town. The team manager drove me to the hotel and asked the servers in the restaurant if I could still have breakfast (it was 10:25 and breakfast ended at 10:30 or something like that). I had actually eaten breakfast at home assuming we were not eating until lunch, but the team manager and server kept insisting on getting me something.
The team manager said, "what would you like, you can have anything, just tell her what you want." I didn't know anything about the hotel or what they served so I stylishly asked what they still had available and the server and manager started rapidly listing off general breakfast items like bread, jam, meats, cheese, fruit and more (again, this is all in German/broken German/broken English). Frantically, I said bread and jelly would be great, expecting to get a little plate of toast and one of those small hotel jam packets. Instead, I was given a beautiful array of their breakfast pastries and jellies. She asked if I wanted any fruit and brought out another plate of different cut fruits including kiwis, melons, and grapes. I was so stunned I forgot to take another picture with all the fruit!
Honestly, I wasn't sure what to do with all this food. Breakfast was technically over; I had already eaten, I was the only one in the restaurant as they cleaned and prepared for lunch, and the server gathered all of this just for me - including putting all the jelly in little serving bowls with different spoons! I felt bad leaving anything since all of the food was being covered by the team budget, so I tried to eat as much as I could but alas, it was too much even for me. The little chocolate muffins were absolutely delicious, though.
Alright, moving on to camp!
This camp posed several challenges for the staff to tackle, all of which served as excellent learning points for me. The main challenges were the language barrier, the age group and the amount of players, and this being many girls' first time away from home. To begin with the structure of the camp, we had a maximum of seven coaches/managers watching around 50 girls between 11 and 14 during the four days. Our Head Coach was Swedish and knew very little German so he preferred communicating in English, which most of the other adult staff knew very little of. The players and staff were split between the two buildings owned by the hotel and since we did not have a bus, we had to gather and walk all 50 players to and from the rink twice a day for practice. It was a lot to manage and, as mentioned, many of the young players had never been away from home before and if they had, had never experienced this amount of practice in one weekend.
Hockey, at least from what I saw in Austria (trying not to generalize), is not professionalized at all at the youth level compared to how it is now in North America. So, for many, it's their first time being in a room with players they'd never met before, two hour-and-a-half practice plus off-ice sessions a day and a bright and early 6 AM wake up call for four days straight.
This was the worst part about the language barrier, because I couldn't offer anything to the girls when they were getting worked up and missing home. As someone also miles away from home in a new place, I couldn't share that connection or any feelings of reassurance with them. Luckily, two of my Lakers teammates were also coaches at the camp and part of the national team program so they helped calm some of their nerves. They also sometimes helped translate what the Swedish coach said to the players and between all the staff. It was another one of those times where I wished I just knew every language in the world.
I usually try to learn a few phrases that might be helpful when I travel to a new place, but I had completely forgotten to update my list for this camp. For example, I didn't learn how to say something like, "one moment" when a kid asked a question in German so I needed to find another coach. All I could do was yell for a coach but couldn't say anything to the kid...I probably sounded so rude!
Communication was slightly easier once I learned that phrase and things like, "you are doing this...try this." While I didn't know enough to have two-way communication, I could teach a skill the Head Coach had the kids practices because some hadn't even learned that skill yet. Interestingly, because I often word-vomit when it comes to explanations, not having a lot of words to choose from prevented me from over-coaching and forced me to give and show precise descriptions of skills. It seems a constraints-based philosophy for practice can also be a helpful approach for coaching.
There is always something to learn from other coaches and professionals so I mostly took this time to observe. I got to see how a Swedish coach, with nearly 30 years of coaching experience, would tackle coaching 50 Austrian youth players (with seven goalies!) twice a day on one sheet of ice. I saw how there was a scheduled 2 hour block of free time and the managers felt we needed to keep them busy, so the off-ice coach quickly scrapped together a game where each girl in a group had a number 0-9, and the groups raced to recreate whatever number the coach said (ex: 1,435,287). They also asked me to say some numbers in English to make it more challenging. They planned what they could ahead of time, but just like any event, all managers and coaches need to have a certain level of flexibility and problem-solving agility as one never knows what challenges might pop-up last minute.
It was a fun way to spend my last week in Austria. Velden had beautiful, classic lake-town buildings with amazing bistro aromas wafting around their cozy outdoor lounge areas, warmed by fire pits. It was so Christmas-y and I wished I could have brought my family on a little weekend getaway there. If you ever end up in that area, I would highly recommend a quick trip to the lake - summer or winter! Wishing all the readers a Happy New Year.