In the words of Allen Iverson, when it comes to skill development we are definitely talkin’ about practice. Not a game. Not a game. We’re talkin’ about practice.
While Iverson’s anti-practice rant may be taken a little out of context for the sake of this argument, the message still drives home an important point.
When it comes to skill development, especially at the younger age levels, the best way to improve is not by playing more games than an NHLer, but through station-based practices. The number of puck touches and constant activity that take place in a well-run 50-minute practice far outweigh what transpires in a game.
“One properly-run practice is the equivalent of 11 games when it comes to puck touches,” says ADM Regional Manager Ty Hennes.
Think this is just one person’s opinion? Just look back at the puck possession study that USA Hockey conducted in 2002 during the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City and the USA Hockey Tier I Youth National Championships to see how much time even the best players had the puck on their stick.
At the Olympic level, observers followed superstars like Tony Amonte, Joe Sakic and Mike Modano, who averaged 1 minute and 7 seconds with the puck. At the youth level, the best players, including Phil Kessel and Zach Parise, possessed the puck an average of 1:06 per game.
On the other hand, a well-run station-based practice keeps kids moving and working on their skills. There are more puck touches and more for players to work on their skills. In short, there’s more of everything, including more fun.
Add to the mix small-area games, which work on vital skills in confined spaces that require players to think and act quicker, and you have the makings of a winning formula.
“One of the fastest ways to make a kid lose the passion for anything is not getting them involved,” says two-time Olympian Guy Gosselin, who works as an ADM regional manager in the upper Midwest.
“Touching the puck for a minute-plus in a game is not really being involved. You can get 30 minutes of puck-touch time in a station-based practice. That not only helps build their skills, but it’s a lot of fun.”
A glance at the My Hockey Rankings website shows that some Peewee teams play almost as many games as an NHL team, and definitely more games than any U.S. college program. Not only does that not help with individual skill development, but playing too many games at too young an age can also lead to burn out.
“It’s not what league they play in or what team they’re on or how many tournaments they play. Their training model is really the dictator of development,” says Roger Grillo, a former Div. I college coach who crisscrosses New England in support of the ADM.
USA Hockey recommends that teams follow a 3:1 practice-to-game ratio. If teams play 70 games, as several Peewee teams did last season, that means they would need to hit the practice ice more than 200 times. That would put a youth player on the ice every day from the beginning of August until the end of March. And twice on Sundays.
It’s not just practicing but the right type of practice that will yield the best results.
One of the driving factors that has shaped the current competition-heavy model is that parents don’t want to sit around and watch their sons and daughters doing a bunch of drills. They want to see them play games, where there is a winner and a loser, a scoreboard and a clock.
“Unfortunately, most people look at practice like it’s something that you have to do rather than embracing it as a quality experience,” Grillo says.
“The challenge is one where we have to make sure that we’re creating practices that are not only providing players with the quality repetitions, but they’re having fun doing it. Practice for little kids shouldn’t be like eating broccoli but more like eating pizza.”
So yes, we are talkin’ about pizza. And practice.
Encouraging Creativity On The Ice Can Pull The Plug On Robotic Hockey Players
By Mark Burns
Some call them hockey school players: great doing drills in practice, but wilt in the heat of a game.
Others say they have all the tools but no toolbox.
But who can blame them? Too often they have fallen victim to a coach’s wrath for trying something that resulted in a turnover or scoring opportunity for the opposition. They have had the creativity stomped out of them and have chosen a safer way to play. They have been transformed into robotic hockey players.
There is a fine line between forcing players to operate within a team structure and allowing them the freedom to be creative with the puck. Because of the fluid nature of the game, it is imperative that coaches loosen the reins and let kids play, especially at the younger ages.
“Manufactured hockey players are a dime a dozen. Creative hockey players are hard to come by,” says Guy Gosselin, a two-time U.S. Olympian. “If you let those kids be creative at a young age, they’re going to be creative when they get older.”
Coaches may have certain breakout plays or specific power play configurations, but more often than not, things don’t go according to plan. As a result, players have to adjust accordingly to their surroundings and ultimately, improvise to make a play.
“We can’t run little robots out there,” says Ken Martel, technical director with the American Development Model. “Players have to be able to think and make decisions. Sometimes, the greatest plays come from just playing.”
Part of that comes with trial-and-error, giving players the freedom to fail so they can learn from their decisions.
Additional factors like a coach’s energy and body language can either promote a fun learning environment or discourage players from trying something new.
“We have to allow kids to be themselves, to express themselves and learn at their own pace,” says Roger Grillo, who coached the likes of Martin St. Louis during his career as a college coach. “Not everyone is the same. You need to create an environment that almost encourages failure.”
Players should be encouraged to emulate the likes of Patrick Kane or T.J. Oshie, superstars whose hockey IQ and on-ice awareness exceeds that of most players.
“Patrick Kane could probably stickhandle around you in a phone booth,” said long-time NHLer and U.S. Olympian Chris Drury.
It is important for youngsters to keep in perspective where they are with their own development, and to not get discouraged if they cannot replicate a move they saw in an NHL game or on YouTube. All that matters is that they keep trying.
“You see videos on YouTube of guys like Sonny Milano bouncing the puck with his stick, that’s an art,” says Matt Herr, a two-sport star at the University of Michigan who went on to play in the NHL. “It’s helping our cause because skill has become cool because of the Kanes and Sonny Milanos coming up with their own moves. That encourages kids to try their own moves.”
Grillo suggested that encouraging a ‘pond hockey mentality’ — where players have free reign on a big open sheet of ice — will develop more creative hockey players.
“We’ve had that opportunity before to be who we wanted to be and to emulate our heroes and not feel threatened or be told that’s the wrong way to approach things,” Grillo says.
“We need to bring that pond hockey mentality back into our structured lives.”