Skating has always been a critical skill in hockey, but with the game getting faster and faster at every level, it’s arguably becoming even more important.
For USA Hockey ADM Regional Manager Dan Jablonic, it is clear coaches have been evolving to keep up and are taking advantage of new coaching methods to teach skating skills and how to apply them to the game.
“With the ADM, we have seen a lot of change with station based [practices] and really focusing in on what is the learning objective of what you’re trying to do within those stations,” said Jablonic, a former Blaine High School and University of Minnesota Duluth forward. “Not everything we did in the past was bad, but it’s just that we learn over time.”
“It’s those core fundamentals; I think they’re the same. It’s the delivery mechanism of what we’re doing for those kids at specific ages.”
Timeless Skating Skills
Just like when today’s coaches were learning to skate, everything starts with a good, stable base and athletic position.
“When we look at technique for these kids, we know that knee bend is critical,” said Jablonic. “We know, if you’re straight legged on the ice and someone bumps into you, there’s a good chance you will fall down and won’t be in a good position to win the puck. So many good things happen when you start in that athletic position while skating. You have good knee bend; your hands are away from your body and your head is up.”
Coaches and skating instructors have been focused on good knee bend and encouraging players to keep their head up for years, but there’s an increased emphasis now on creating an environment where players are forced to do these habits in order to be successful.
“The head up position of scanning the ice and looking at what is in front of you is critical,” said Jablonic. “We love to see when you’re teaching skating that they’re going against live players. Don’t just go unopposed with skating. We want to see some chaotic skating where those players are forced to make some decisions. ‘Do I go left or right? If I don’t, I’m going to run into somebody.’ If you have your head down, you’re going to learn pretty quick.”
“You don’t need to get into the technicalities of each player’s stride. Is it longer, is it shorter? That’s going to come. At the younger ages, put them in the environment where they’re forced to do certain things.”
Disguised & Diverse Delivery
Manipulating the environment in practice to teach specific skills has grown in popularity thanks to the prevalence of small area games, but applying the same concept to teaching skating can be uncomfortable for coaches who grew up learning to skate in lines.
“If you’re the coach out there teaching traditional power skating and you have five lines, the first couple of kids might hear you in line, but the minute you turn your back as you’re demonstrating you’re not getting the full attention of all those players,” said Jablonic. “The true leaders in development are able to disguise a skill at those younger ages and give those kids the technical components we know for young kids are critical.”
“They’re doing activities that have some technical skill in them, but they’re disguised in fun games or activities like a rocket ship game.”
That’s where Jablonic likes to pump the brakes and reassure coaches that teaching skating in traditional way is not necessarily bad. There’s still a time and place for it, but there are also new ways coaches can teach those same skills in a more player, or learner, centered environment, especially at the younger ages.
“We’re not changing your core values,” he said. “We’re just improving the vehicle of how to deliver some of these things.”
“Let’s teach them proper edge control, inside and outside edges, in a fun environment for them. For the new kids, it could be something as simple as learning to scrape the ice a little. You draw a smiley face or a sad face, and they have to use their right skate to scrape it off. Next thing you know they’re learning how to use those edges.”
As players get older, they may be more adept at benefitting from traditional skating methods, but coaches can still be creative in providing players with extra skating repetitions.
“You’re a little older, say 14U, and you want to add a little technique skating, and you’re playing a small area game, why not throw down a border pad and have kids go for 6 seconds working inside or outside edges or even as simple as one leg hop over the pad before they go in for the shift,” said Jablonic. “That cumulative six seconds is going to add up over the course of the year.”
“That kind of mentality of how can we think of other ways to deliver skating for our players, combining skating with hockey specific skills.”
Know Your Age Group
“When we look at the essential elements of a practice, we know fun is the number one by far,” said Jablonic. “Fun has to be there at 8U, and it has to be there even for the pro players. You watch the NHL, and they’re having fun in their practices too. When we look at youth hockey, it’s the same thing. It may look a little different, but it’s a crucial element for our players. We don’t want to impose adult standards. These kids only get to be eight once. We have to make sure we get to their level, and we’re not imposing adult standards on eight-year-olds.”
And when he mentions fun, it’s not just about jokes and goofing off. Research shows most kids the same age, whether they are rec players or playing at a high level, have similar views on fun, and the top explanations for fun are working hard and trying your best.
Fun is about understanding the age group you’re coaching and meeting them where they’re at. Jablonic points to schools as an example of providing not only a progression of skills but creating a learning environment tailored to that age group whether it’s elementary, middle or high school.
“Especially for younger kids, the more you can relate it to them the better,” said Jablonic. “The options are somewhat limitless as far as what you want to do when you focus on the player instead of me as the coach.”
“You have to see it through the lens of those kids and ask for their feedback too a little bit. Kids are a great barometer.”