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System Overload: Skills vs Structure

By Tyler Mason, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 11/17/20, 11:30AM CST

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There’s a lot of systems talk at the highest levels of hockey – breakouts, power plays, defensive zone coverage, etc. So it’s perfectly understandable to think kids should start learning those systems early.

But hockey experts are waving the red flag.

“In my opinion, it’s absolutely useless,” said Roger Grillo, a veteran college coach of 20 years and current ADM Regional Manager for USA Hockey. “If you’re telling the kid where to stand, why to stand and how to stand, you’re not making a hockey player. You’re making a robot. It’s a complete waste of time.

“Hockey’s not played that way. Hockey is all about decision making and reads, under pressure and at high pace in a short amount of time.”

Minnesota Wild assistant coach Darby Hendrickson agrees.

“I think you have to be careful,” Hendrickson said. “You don’t want to make it such a thinking game and robotic. You want kids to enjoy it.”

Building the Foundation

 At the younger ages, a lot of the focus turns to the team. But should it?

“If I’m a good teacher, I’m not teaching the classroom, I’m teaching the students. If I’m a good coach, I’m not coaching the team, I’m coaching the players,” Grillo said. “If my focus is on team play and team structure and all that stuff, the players at the younger stages aren’t getting the foundation that they need that will serve them well later on. We’re building a foundation almost like a house, so we don’t have to do a bunch of renovations when they get older. When I see coaches that are focusing on systems and team play, the kids become deficient in their individual techniques and skills.

 “You might come away with some short-term performance outcomes, but you’re not getting long-term learning and development.”

Concepts & Habits

 Instead of systems, think about concepts and habits, such as taking away space from an opponent through angling and putting stick on puck to create a turnover.

“I think it’s the most important thing, the fundamentals,” Hendrickson said. “Everything from little puck battles to positioning. It’s important to not do too much in terms of over-coaching.”

Kids need to figure it out on their own.

“You have to allow kids to figure that out through experience. We can’t tell them how to do that, we just have to create the environment. You’re creating a culture and an environment where the kids are learning through playing, just like the generations before them did on the pond and outdoor rinks,” Grillo said.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter what system is in place if a player’s deficient in skills and hockey sense.

“No system for older players is going to be any good if the player’s technical skills are not good, especially if their reads aren’t good,” Grillo said. “If their decision making is poor, then it doesn’t matter what system you use. It’s all about reading, reacting and playing off teammates and the opponent and finding space and all that stuff. Game-like situations in practice to simulate the game are so critical.”

Wild About Small-Area Games

 So how are skills and hockey sense cultivated in ways that simulate game situations?

Small-area games cram all the different elements of the game – skating, passing, angling, puck support, breakouts, forechecks, transitions, etc. – into tight areas. Hendrickson said the Wild use about seven or eight different small-area games that they rotate during practices.

“We do a lot with the Wild where we split the ice and create a competitive environment,” Hendrickson said. “I just think it’s a really good skill for every level – working in tight space. There’s so many plays that are in a small area where you’re competing for space and puck protection. I’m a huge fan.”

Embracing Chaos

 For many, systems provide a sense of comfort. They create a sense of structure and everyone being on the same page, which provides an illusion of control in a chaotic game.

“It’s not the same [in a game]. It’s not even close,” Grillo said. “We’ve had this mentality for years that goes back generations. Coaches want to practice stuff that kids will never see, like 3-on-0s and 5-on-0 breakouts. Go to the hash mark for a breakout pass, except the hash mark for a breakout pass might be the worst place to go because three people might be between you and the puck. You have to get open.”

The game is also evolving, and youth hockey must continue to evolve as well.

“Now you look at the game at the higher levels, it’s completely different,” Grillo said. “You can’t tell who’s what position, except on the faceoff. The defensemen are all over the place – that would never happen in my generation.”

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