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Winning at Practice

By Jessi Pierce, 11/07/23, 10:00AM CST


It’s November, and every hockey parent’s calendar is quickly filling up. School, extracurriculars and hockey will be filling our agendas from now until early spring.

But is your hockey schedule filled with more games than practice? Is there enough balance? Are parents driving to the rink for practice more than games?

We know that we play to play the game, but a big part of playing that game is to learn the right skills and to develop into the best hockey players we can be.

That comes with practice.

“It depends on the age groups, but we’re looking for a 3:1 practice-to-game ratio,” said Guy Gosselin, ADM regional manager for USA Hockey. “In Europe, they’re getting in at least five practices a week. We’re not asking our parents to do that – that’s a big commitment from both the kids and the parents – but if we’re talking about making sure we’re getting enough practice in, two or three per week, I think that’s something to really strive for.”

We get it; games are fun. But say it with us: “Practices are supposed to be fun, too.”

In fact, the best way to hide a practice is to disguise it with fun.

For Gosselin, that’s the No. 1 mitigating driver for why kids might dread heading to the rink for a practice versus the excitement of a game.

“We know that practices are meant to be just that – practicing to get better – but that doesn’t mean they have to be boring and dreaded,” explained Gosselin. “The fun factor has got to be huge. That’s getting the kids engaged in practice and having that energy throughout.

“That’s how you’re going to make practices fun and help their development. It’s crucial to have both aspects in a practice.”

Players should not be standing in a line, waiting for their turn at skating through cones. Through small-area games and cross-ice practice, there should be constant movement, constant engagement, and plastered smiles throughout the 30-60 minutes of practice ice time.

Not to mention, there’s still plenty of simulated game competition and high energy in a practice filled with all of that, too.

“You can pretty much make anything you’re working on have a level of competition,” Gosselin said. “And more often than not, the drill is going to have low energy because you haven’t made it competitive enough. You can throw in some point systems or play for some incentives for players. Put any twist on a small-area game to increase the intensity and the fun for the players.

Gosselin points to simple drills like 1-on-1, 2-on-1 or 3-on-1 battles. For the young players (8U and 6U), a competitive and fun game of rainbow tag or sharks and minnows are quick and easy ways to get players to focus on their age-appropriate skills while having fun playing a game.

And don’t forget about the free play during practice, too.

“We want to avoid having a practice that’s over structured,” said Gosselin. “We want to let the kids play. We want them to be super active on the ice. That’s how they gain their confidence and their physical literacy and learn the game. Let the game be the teacher, too.”

Plus, practice allows for more fun naturally by allowing every player to get involved. An in-game situation, with shifts and ice time, naturally lends itself to less time with the puck for every player. In practice, most of the time, every player gets to be on the ice at the same time with a puck on their stick.

Who doesn’t want that?

“Even during games at the highest level, the best players only touch the puck for maybe a minute or two during a game,” Gosselin said. “You get the puck touches during practice. That’s where the real learning evolves.”

At the end of the day, it is possible to remove the drone tone when talking about ‘practice’ and add in the excitement to ‘practice!’ with the right mentality and plan.

“It’s all about the energy,” Gosselin concludes. “If you make a drill sound like the greatest drill ever, that intensity from the kids is going to ramp up, and so is the energy. They feel like they’re going to play something where they’re going to have fun. No matter what it is, and hey, perk is they are learning some important skills, too.”