It’s a topic of conversation every year, especially as teams near the end of the season and playoffs.
Jimmy has played almost the entire game, but George has hardly seen the ice. Susie is out there for every power play.
Or on the opposite end, why in the world is the coach still rolling lines late in one-goal games? We should be playing our top 5 late in games, especially at this time of year!
Left unaddressed, these questions and anxieties can derail the focus of teams and frustration can mount quickly. But how are parents and coaches supposed to manage these concerns?
We caught up with ADM Regional Manager for USA Hockey and Blaine native Dan Jablonic to hear how playing time impacts child and player development and shine some light on the areas of the subject we should focus on.
“When kids sign up for a sport or parents are looking to get their kid into a sport, you sign up to play, not to sit the bench,” said Dan Jablonic, ADM Regional Manager for USA Hockey. “That’s first and foremost. Kids want to play.”
Jablonic, who is also a former Minnesota Duluth Bulldog, emphasizes the best coaches, at all age levels and in all sports, find ways to get their entire team involved in the game.
“One of the greatest coaches in Minnesota football history Dave Nelson [who coached 42 years and won state titles at Blaine and Minnetonka] just retired. He found a way with his great staff, and this is kind of amazing, to find 60 players a place to play every season. Obviously, there’s all kind of different skill sets, but he found a role, and I think that’s our responsibility as coaches is to find a place. You’re a team member. You made that team for a reason.”
The Grand Scheme
“When you look to the long-term, you don’t know where they will be at, but you want to make sure every member of that team at 10U is playing hockey later on in life,” said Jablonic. “That’s our long-term goal.”
While seemingly simple, Jablonic’s message is a hallmark of great youth sport organizations.
As Tom Farrey, director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, wrote in a recent New York Times article, “the most effective sports systems in the world don’t produce athletic talent as much as prevent it from being ruined before it ripens.”
“This is the whole premise behind the ADM,” said Jablonic. “You allow them to play, allow them to fail, allow them to learn, allow them to succeed. Those are taglines that should be carried out on a daily basis in your practices and your games. That’s the true gift of playing a sport. Not just the lessons you get that are hockey related, but you’re getting better at understanding, maybe, I’m not so good in this situation. I need to go back and practice so when I am in that situation, I can do that.”
After all, children may have different athletic potential, but all of them can gain lessons from participating in youth sports. Then, down the road, they will still love our game and hopefully be involved in some capacity as coaches, administrators, adult league players, and parents of players.
Player Development Focus
As adults, it’s easy to spot which players may show more current ability, but our role is to look beyond that and focus on the process of developing all of the kids.
“You’re nowhere near complete [as a player] at the youth level,” said Jablonic. “It’s our job to make sure we’re inspiring these players. They’re having fun, they’re learning, and they want to keep coming back to the rink.”
“We cringe at USA Hockey when we hear a 10U coach say, ‘I have my top 6 players or my top 6 forwards.’ You chose them at tryouts. We have to develop all of those players.”
Kids learn by playing so including them in games and providing them opportunities to play in all situations, especially at the youth levels, is critically important.
“If those other kids don’t get that opportunity, then you’re limiting your so-called talent pool for the future,” said Jablonic. “More importantly, you’re limiting the confidence, and the ability to play for that other player.”
“Player development takes patience and working towards the players’ goals on a daily basis. As a coach and organization, putting the athlete first is crucial to long term success.”
Not Just 10U
Ensuring all kids have the opportunity to play isn’t just for Mites/8U or Squirts/10U age levels either. Jablonic emphasizes that even up through high school, playing hockey is still a youth sport, and kids are developing so much that even at 16U or 18U, it’s hard to predict where kids will end up.
“That’s one thing we’ve learned from the Swedes and the Finns,” said Jablonic. “They have equal playing time all the way up to essentially 15. That’s all the way through their organizations. Once they start getting to 15-16, then they kind of build in a little bit of those other specialized kind of things. Within that, they’re communicating with the players and the parents and setting those expectations of we’re going to take you on this team. You may not play first line power play, but you’re going to do other roles or situations that you’re going to play.”
As players advance to those older age groups, communication between players and coaches takes on added importance. Players may not be used in all the same situations anymore, but they need to still play regularly and feel they’re a valuable member of the team.
“If you’re taking away opportunities from kids at that age, who knows?” said Jablonic. “Maybe they’re not going to develop the right way? Or even worse, maybe they’re not going to play next season.”
“It only takes a little bit of work, a little bit of confidence, and belief from the coaches and the organization that those kids can turn into hockey players.”
Set the Standards
With all of that said, Jablonic also recognizes there are other factors that should affect playing time so it may not always be equal necessarily.
“I get it if they’re not showing up to practice,” said Jablonic. “The message should be as long you buy into our core values as a program, we’re going to allow you to play and allow you experiences to develop. You’re going to make mistakes. That’s the beauty of our game. We’re going to instill confidence and teach you how to do the right things.”
Other situations involving poor behavior, language or attitude may also affect playing time, but with those areas, the key is setting standards, communicating them and sticking to them.
“We have to make sure we’re communicating and having that discussion of what we stand for as an organization,” said Jablonic. “If you’re not doing it on a daily basis and communicating it to the parents, that’s where the difficulties come in because, when not communicating, that raises red flags for the players and the parents. Have those conversations with your teams, and it’s not just once a season. These are on-going.”
“It’s so easy to have a blanket statement, but it’s one of those things where your actions speak louder than your words as an organization and as a coach.”