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Embracing Chaos and the Importance of “Play”

By Steve Mann, 04/03/23, 4:15PM CDT


Hockey is a game, and regardless of level, fun must be a part of the experience. But far too often, adults suck the fun right out of the sport, focusing instead on trying to fast-track development, winning trophies and keeping up with the Joneses. This lack of perspective by adults can lead their kids to view hockey as a chore or a source of stress when it should be about having fun with friends and creating memories that will last a lifetime.

The late, great Fred Rogers (“Mister Rogers” of TV fame) was once quoted as saying: “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

While Mister Rogers probably wasn’t talking specifically about youth hockey in Minnesota, hockey families and coaches in the state can learn a lot from his wisdom.

Roger Grillo, a longtime coach and USA Hockey’s director of player development, agrees.

“Learning through play and trial and error is critical,” said Grillo, who has more than 20 years of coaching experience at the high school and collegiate levels. “It’s even more critical today because of the lack of unstructured play our kids get. As coaches, we can guide and facilitate, but getting kids to learn through play is great coaching.”

Life Lessons to be Learned

Mister Rogers’ quote has resonated with the hockey community, so much so that it appears in USA Hockey’s Parent Handbook

Grillo believes parents can make a big difference in the quality of their child’s experience by simply “embracing the chaos.” For example, if they’re watching their young Mites practice and the occasional beach ball appears on the ice, “Parents should take a step back and not always seek to have control over everything,” said Grillo. “People sometimes think fun means disorganized. But we want our practices to be like recess. Think of when you were a kid. There were parameters, but what you did was of your own making, using creativity and imagination. That’s what the expectation for young athletes should be. Allow them to problem-solve on their own; be creative. Sometimes it’s tough for parents to watch that happen organically. We want it to look perfect when they’re so far from the finished product. If you rush the process or get too serious too soon, you get in the way of development. You can actually set kids backwards.”

For coaches, Grillo says, it’s much the same thing.

“Most of our coaches are parents, so they tend to look at it through the eyes of a parent and feel the heat if the kids don’t look structured or organized,” he said. “In reality, the environment should be like organized recess. You have an objective, but the path to development is not a straight line. It’s all over the place. The learning process is through experimentation and failure.”

Include Unstructured Play in Your Offseason

Grillo says he doesn’t have a problem with kids playing more hockey in the spring or summer, “as long as it doesn’t look like winter hockey, with leagues, teams, referees, scoreboards and trying to win.”

“If they’re going to the rink and having fun with friends, it can be very productive,” he added. “If it’s on a team of 15 and committing three hours on a weeknight or weekend for 12 minutes of activity, then it’s not really productive in the offseason.”

It’s also important that unstructured play – whether playing street hockey, other sports, or being active in other ways – are part of their offseason plan. Playing without too many parameters allows players to learn how to make decisions, have fun and enhance their creativity.

“If you look at some of the young players in the NHL today, they’re extremely creative,” Grillo said. “That wasn’t taught to them. They taught themselves how to do that. There’s no handbook for creativity.”

Grillo believes it’s just as important for coaches to weave in some less formal activity into practices during the season.

“I think depending on the number of practices and the age of the athletes, I would say that 90% of your practice needs to be game-like,” he said. “There’s a balance between too easy and too hard, but if there’s a challenge there and they’re getting repetitions and not just standing around waiting, you’ll have kids that love it and also get better a lot quicker. I think this is critical even for our best older athletes. The season can get long and boring at times, so it’s key for coaches to let the athletes have some ownership and responsibility in a fun, positive, productive environment.”