When describing the best hockey players in the world, people often mention their blazing speed, hard shot, unbelievable puck handling and impressive hockey sense. In fact, many of you likely connected a specific player to each of those skills.
There’s no doubt the top players have elite skills, but they also share another trait which may be even more important. They have the ability to use all their skills simultaneously to make plays.
What if Zach Parise only relied on his relentless work ethic without combining elite hand-eye coordination, being a very strong skater and his impressive hockey sense? Would he be as good? Definitely not. He has success because he integrates numerous high end skills into every play, and when they are combined effectively, he gains an advantage over his opponent.
The same is true in youth hockey. Players who are able to make puck handling moves while skating at high speed and reading when their teammate will be open for a pass give themselves a higher chance of being successful. If they can add a head fake or look off their pass, they will likely be even more effective.
The ability to multi-task at a high level may seem like an innate quality, but it doesn’t just happen. Players need to practice it!
“There are several individual skills that players need to use together in game situations,” said Mark Palmer, Minnesota District Associate Coach-in-Chief for USA Hockey. “Teaching multi-tasking in practice is how you help them prepare for games.”
The key for coaches is to create situations in practice that progressively teach players those skills while helping them gain confidence.
“If you look at the Minnesota Development Model (MDM) best practices, you notice at each age level and for each skill there is individual skill development, multi-tasking and competitive environments,” said Palmer.
By teaching each skill in this order, players have an opportunity to focus on refining their technique before raising the level of difficulty. Then, they are gradually forced to perform that skill in more realistic situations.
“At early age levels, most of your time is spent on individual skill development,” said Palmer. “Not only do they need the work on skills, but they aren’t cognitively ready for multi-tasking. At ages 9-12, there is still a need for an individual skill component, but the drills may increase in difficulty. Once they gain proficiency, you incorporate several skills. Then, you can create a competitive environment where they have to apply those skills.”
One of the best ways to incorporate this progression into a practice plan is by utilizing principles of the American Development Model (ADM). The ADM encourages the use of station based practices and small area games to increase the rate of skill development.
“The concept is that you have multiple stations, and each station is a different individual skill,” said Palmer. “Players are working on a skating skill, a passing skill and a shooting skill for the first part of practice. When you move to the next part of practice, you add them together.”
The main advantage of this type of practice is that it increases the number of reps players get on each individual skill and allows players to gain confidence in their skills. It also incorporates a variety drills which may enable coaches to include drills that require players to use multiple skills.
“People make the mistake of thinking kids need to learn these things in a game, but you just need more repetitions in a smaller area,” said Palmer, who is also the ACE Coordinator for Minnesota Hockey. “If you’re not comfortable or confident in a skill, you won’t do it in a game. Games are just going to teach bad habits if the kids aren’t ready to perform those skills.”
In games, players have a habit of resorting to whatever it takes to be successful. For instance, a coach may be trying to teach players to keep their feet moving while making passes, but if they aren’t confident in their ability to make a good pass while skating, the players will likely stop moving in games so they can focus solely on making an effective pass to their teammate.
Dry land training is another tool that coaches can use to develop players’ specific skills and abilities to multi-task on the ice.
“Off-ice drills save you time on the ice,” said Palmer. “In a dry land setting, you are mostly working on individual skills, whether it is puck handling, shooting or passing. That opens up more time to work on multi-tasking and competitive games on the ice.”
Coaches can also use dry land time to introduce certain skills. A good example would be showing players various deceptive moves and practicing them off-ice. This allows players to learn those basic skills when they don’t have to worry about skating and can increase how quickly they pick them up once they hit the ice.