Competition is not only an inherent component of sports, it’s one of many reasons kids enjoy sports and parents want their kids to participate.
According USA Hockey ADM Regional Manager, Scott Paluch, there’s no denying the place of competition in hockey either, but there are still some challenges and misconceptions when it comes to emphasizing the right form of competition for kids.
"The ability to compete is so important, in all sports obviously, but in hockey, it’s so important,” said Paluch, who spent nearly 20 years coaching Division I hockey prior to joining USA Hockey. “From our standpoint at USA Hockey, we desire and we need competitive hockey players and competitive athletes. We just need to understand the right part of competition that is going to help our kids in today’s game. Parents can help facilitate that if they know what the right form of compete is in today’s hockey game.”
Here are some of Paluch’s keys to helping players develop competitiveness as they progress through their hockey career.
“An important thing to understand is at a younger level that competitive nature may be just racing to the puck,” said Paluch. “Racing to a puck and being able to gain possession of a puck.”
People tend to think about competition in terms of team against team, with winners and losers on a scoreboard, but at its core, and especially for younger kids, the focus should really be on player against player competition.
“Young athletes will compete the hardest or give their best effort when they’re either chasing someone, being chased or going after a target like a puck or some end result,” said Paluch. “That’s a form of competitiveness that is a component of success, but there’s fun involved in it. The players look at it as I’m trying to beat my buddy or my friend to a puck. Inherently, there is competition there. That’s kind of the initial start of that competitive flair.”
The Next Step
Once players have developed a foundation of hockey and competitive skills, it’s time for players at the 10U/12U levels to progress towards more game-like situations in practices, in which they’re forced to make decisions in addition to competing for the puck.
“Where do you need to be to gain an edge competitively?” Paluch asked hypothetically. “If I move myself into this area, I know if there’s a loose puck, I’m going to have a shorter path to get there. You start talking about how their body position affects the ability to compete when you get towards the puck. I think all of those things are important.”
“We love to see coaches throwing in a lot of the small area games and small area station work that has players having to compete for a puck, and then make the proper decision with the puck or without the puck.”
At the 14U and high school levels, the importance of competing takes on even greater importance away from the puck.
“People love to talk about game awareness,” said Paluch. “That needs to be combined with a level of compete to really make those things happen. Knowing where your opponents are, knowing where your teammates are, the ability to compete for the puck and more importantly, compete for space away from the puck, that’s where the game awareness comes in.”
“There’s one puck on the ice, and you have to be a factor in that.”
Obviously, competing for the puck is still important, but with twelve players on the ice and only one puck, the amount of time in games players actually have the puck is limited so players must be able to work in tandem with teammates to collectively regain possession or maintain possession.
“Earning your space, getting to the right areas and beating players to an area by competing for space, that’s a real important part of our game,” said Paluch. “You see the elite players getting to those open areas faster than their opponent and stopping them from getting there.”
Less Control, More Competing
Coaches play a key role in putting players in competitive situations frequently in practice so they can hone those skills. That’s an area Paluch coaches have improved immensely but can become even better.
“We spend a little bit too much time in a controlled environment telling players to pass here, go there,” said Paluch. “Have them compete, make that decision on their own and then earn their space with and without the puck.”
One example Paluch pointed out is how we frequently start drills.
“So often we like to have different drills and stations that we give a player a puck to start,” said Paluch. “Obviously, that’s something that doesn’t happen very often in games. We would like to see more drills commence with an actual puck battle and an ability to compete for pucks. Then, move onto the decision-making phase of that drill. It’s grooming that competitive nature within your training program.”
Toughness and competitiveness are as important in today’s game as they’ve ever been, but it’s important for everyone to understand those traits may not look the same as they did 20 years, or even 10 years ago.
“Sometimes toughness and compete gets a misconception of somebody who is just a physical player,” said Paluch. “A tough, competitive player now is one that is strong on pucks, their stick is down, they’re where the puck is going to be, doing everything to win a puck battle and putting your body in position to win a puck.”
“Tough needs to take on the right aspect of he’s really good at winning pucks and doing the things that are going to help keep possession in the possession type game today.”
Players who are able to do those things will put themselves in a position to be successful as an individual while also helping their team. Plus, players who develop a tough and competitive mindset on the ice often find those attributes contributing to success off the ice as well.
“When players start getting confidence competing, I think it’s a life skill,” said Paluch. “There’s an understanding of achievement, success and what goes into success. Ultimately, that’s a positive feeling for young athletes and young people.”