When USA Hockey launched the American Development Model over 10 years ago, it was viewed as a cutting-edge athletic development model, to the point the United State Olympic & Paralympic Committee adopted and adapted the model for all sports in 2014.
If you ask ADM Regional Managers today about the initial launch, they’ll tell you the core principles mostly remain the same, but as a whole, much has changed in terms of the best practices for implementing the ADM and providing world class coaching.
“We’re looking at it from our angle like, how can we maximize development in our practice design sessions so every time they’re going to the rink, they’re getting the best, not only experience, but just the best that’s appropriate for that age group to really maximize that good practice design,” said Dan Jablonic, a Blaine native and ADM Regional Manager. “One quality practice equals seven games of development, so think about that in terms for our coaches to really understand the importance of that.”
In an effort to relay the latest trends in hockey and coaching best practices, this year USA Hockey implemented an entirely new curriculum for its Coaching Education Program and has been emphasizing five core elements of great practices. USA Hockey’s Director of Youth Hockey, Kenny Rausch, summarized the elements well in a Minnesota Hockey webinar this past spring:
“You want it to be fun. You want it to look like the game. You want more repetitions without repetitiveness. You want to challenge your kids and you want them constantly making decisions. If you have those things in your practices your players are going to get better… They are going to become better hockey players because that’s our game. That’s the way our game is.”
“Fun is the number one thing when you look at any type of learning,” Jablonic said. “It’s a determinant of making sure that kids are trying hard, working hard and competing with their friends. Those are all determinants of fun and that transcends not only 8 years old but all the way through 18 — we could actually say through the lifespan of a player. That’s why we play in the adult leagues, too. That’s crucial to understand.”
For decades, sport organizers have known the number one reason kids play is to have fun, and the top reason they quit is it’s not fun. The hard part has always been defining fun. What is it exactly?
Thankfully, emerging research on that topic, as Jablonic mentions, indicates kids across age groups, gender and levels of play view fun much more similarly than we realized, and the clear cut most influential factors of having fun are trying hard, positive team dynamics and positive coaching.
While many have heard of the 10,000-hour rule for elite performance, one aspect that is discussed less but far more significant for player development is the role of practicing at the edge of your abilities.
Most parents and coaches have seen this firsthand with their kids or players. Any task that is far too difficult for the kid’s current abilities often leads to giving up. Make it too easy on the other hand and boredom sets in. Creating the right amount of challenge increases players’ effort and engagement, which in turn increases the rate of improvement.
Sounds easy, right? After all, everyone knows a passing drill looks different at 8U than it does at high school.
The best coaches though are able to vary the level of challenge within a range of abilities on a single team. Station-based practices provide a setting where coaches can increase the difficultly of certain drills for their top players and simplify them when necessary for their less experienced players.
High Puck Touches
Maximizing repetitions is a component of great practices that hasn’t changed since the ADM was launched.
“One of the early phrases we learned 10 years ago when introducing these things is that it was like going to Disneyland,” said Rausch. “You don’t go there to stand in lines you go there to ride the rides.”
“You want to make sure you have high activity, with lots of puck touches,” Jablonic said. “It’s not just standing stationary, you want to incorporate chaotic drills with those kids, so the kids get a lot of repetitions and building the skills in where, once again, it’s not repetitive. It’s maybe throwing players into a station and letting eight, nine kids go at a time and really put in those certain constraints with those players, so they’re forced to touch the puck and as the coach, build those skills in he/she wants to work on.”
Constant Decision Making
As Jablonic eludes, a major focus area over the past few years for USA Hockey has been increasing the use of random over block practice so players are still getting high puck touches but each repetition looks a little different.
Block practices or drills feature players doing a very set and structured repetition where every piece is predetermined, such as a stationary passing drill. This type of drill certainly has a role in initially teaching skills or techniques to players, but research has shown skills learned in that environment have limited transfer to games, especially in sports like hockey.
Random settings put a higher emphasis on forcing players to implement the desired skills while reading the play and making decisions.
“We’re trying to create a practice environment that asks players to do what the sport asks of them during a game,” says Rausch. “Never during a game does it ask you to skate around a cone and take a shot unopposed at a net. It asks us to skate around another player and make a decision to pass or shoot or think about the next step.”
Simulates the Game
At first glance, this may appear to be about utilizing small area games like most coaches do, but it’s really about taking those games a step further.
Adapting small area games or drills to teach specific game concepts helps increase hockey sense and game understanding. For instance, rather than always ending practice with a standard 3-on-3 game, try playing a game such as 3 vs 3 Backdoor Shooter or 3 vs 3 Middle Breakout.
“This isn’t just a random collection of activities we’re asking our players to do,” said Jablonic. “These are things that we’re going to see in the game. We’re going to force them to make decisions, and the whole purpose of practice again is setting them up for successful situations in the game.”