The two most important gifts that coaches and parents can give to their players and children are to allow them to develop a true passion for the game and to develop that passion on their terms.
This is why I am involved in USA Hockey’s American Development Model, to help put our kids in an environment that allows them to reach their full potential without losing their innocence. In simpler terms, it’s giving the game back to the kids.
Our game today is too structured and over-coached; we shortcut the development process for “wins.” In previous generations, a player’s passion and creativity was developed on the pond and structure, positioning and team play was taught inside. That is not really an option for our youth players of today.
We need to make sure that we bring the components of the “pond” indoors. It should be our mission to give our kids an environment that allows them to grow a strong passion for the game and gives them multiple opportunities to make mistakes, be creative and learn through trial and error.
The best way for this to happen is using cross-ice or small area games not only to bring the pond inside, but to set up the optimal teaching environment. By allowing our kids to play full-ice hockey in both games and practices, especially at the younger ages, we create an environment that ingrains poor habits that we spend hours at older ages trying to fix.
Full-ice hockey has created generations of players that pace themselves and take two- to three-minute shifts. Scoring chances come solely from individual play, and not from a great pass, support, team play or creativity. It honors the selfish player.
We spend so much time focused on “staying in our lane” and where we stand for a faceoff, that it gets in the way of what the true goal is, and that is giving our young players the proper base of skills and passion that will be at the core of their later success.
We do not hand our children a trombone and ask them to perform in a school concert until they have mastered many of the basic skills, yet in our hockey culture we expect our young athletes to perform on the large stage right away, and we are upset if they are not successful.
The second big advantage of small area games is that it allows coaches and youth hockey associations to maximize their ice and get as many kids on the ice as possible with as many touches and opportunities in each practice session and game. With the amount of time we spend preparing for a practice and or game (getting dressed, travel to and from the rink) we must make sure that the time spent on the ice is as productive as possible.
Not to mention that at $200 an hour, at the low end, we need to maximize the opportunities. The studies show that one cross-ice game is worth three or four full-ice games in terms of time spent with or at least around the puck, and that a properly run practice is worth five to six games.
Cross-ice or small area games are all too often used at the end of practice as a reward, which is fine, however they can be utilized in so many other positive ways. In fact, I find it best to actually teach skills and concepts through them.
It is important to expose our young players to as many situations in which they are not only challenged physically, but as important that they are forced to use their minds. These games put players in situations where they have to make hockey decisions that have consequences, and they develop their hockey sense along with their physical skills.
Basic full-ice warm-up or skating drills do not help to develop the complete player. Cross- ice and small area games help to develop the intangible skills that allow players to survive when the size, strength and speed playing level is much more even. The ability to know where to go without the puck, and the ability to protect the puck, the ability to make a good hockey decision quickly under pressure are just a few of the critical skills that are developed and needed to play our game.
To me, it is simple. Now is the time to take a hard look at what we are doing and grasp the concepts of the ADM and run with them so we are having a larger impact on the environment that we are placing our players in.
Roger Grillo is an ADM regional manager for the New England and Massachusetts Districts.