Habits are a critical part of coaching and parenting. Whether it’s reminding children to pick up after themselves, dry their equipment out each night or bend their knees when skating, building good habits at a young age is a significant part of development on and off the ice.
Grant Potulny knows how maintaining good habits can make a difference over time. A two-time NCAA champion and four-year standout with the University of Minnesota from 2000-2004, he joined his alma mater as an assistant coach after a minor pro career.
Along with coaching in the college ranks, Potulny has three youngsters of his own at home – two of which are aspiring hockey players and beginning to learn the importance of healthy.
Maintain Your Bubble
To have success in a game, players must first have success in practice. The best way to find consistent success is by focusing on smaller details, especially when the puck comes into their “bubble.” Potulny defined the bubble as the area a player can reach around them with his or her stick.
Successful players not only make it a habit of giving tape-to-tape passes, but also catching every puck within reach.
“As you grow the game becomes so fast. Puck management, whether it’s NHL or whatever league you want to talk about, and puck possession, you have to be able to handle and pass pucks,” Potulny said. “That would be the biggest thing for me. I would tell every kid, anything that gets into your bubble, any puck that gets into your bubble, you handle that puck.”
Hit the Net
Often at the start of practice, a coach will sprinkle pucks across the ice like pepper flakes topping a bowl of soup. During this free warm-up time players will rifle pucks towards the net. An outside observer might think the players are engaged in a competition to see who can make the loudest crash sound off the glass, rather than actually hitting the net.
“I’ve never seen the puck go under the net,” Potulny joked. “But I’ve seen countless ones go over.”
Potulny thinks it begins with a mindset – hit the net with every shot. If you constantly miss the net in practice, how will you hit it, let alone score, when it comes along with the pressure of the game?
“When you get a chance to get a shot, you have to make the goalie make the save,” Potulny said.
Communication is something that, ironically, isn’t always talked about in the youth game. As the game advances, communication becomes a key to success and all players use it as a tool.
“If you went to an NHL game and you were allowed to sit on the bench, you would hear guys talking the entire game – calling for pucks, telling guys where to go, telling them to keep their head up because somebody is coming,” Potulny said. “It makes the game so much easier when you have somebody helping you know where to go.”
Like any skill, the earlier it is addressed and practiced, the more comfortable and better a player will become at being vocal on the ice.
“It not human nature for some people to demand or call for pucks, but the more they can communicate the easier they make it on themselves and their teammates,” Potulny said.
Good Night’s Sleep
There’s an abundance of evidence documenting the importance of sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends children ages 6-13 get 9 to 11 hours of sleep each night and teenagers get 8 to 10 hours.
“Sometimes it’s more about the behavior than you’re worried about the performance,” the father of three said with a laugh. “Getting sleep is at a premium as a young player. Sleep is a non-renewable resource. You have to have that discipline where if you have an early practice or you have the day off, get to bed an hour early – it is really important.”
Growing, active bodies need fuel. It can be difficult for busy parents to provide a healthy diet, but the long-term effects of a good diet will last beyond a child’s playing days. Cutting out the sugary snacks and replacing them with a fruit or vegetable is a good start.
“If you’re trying to supplement your diet with a bunch of sugar, you’re going to start to feel tired and more worn down,” Potulny said. “I think you have to balance the fact that you are still a teenager or younger, you’ve got to be a kid a little bit, but you’ve got to try to fuel your body the right way.”
USA Hockey details the importance of nutrition for athletic recovery in youngsters.
At the 12U/Peewee and 14U/Bantam levels, players are entering the “Learn to Train/Train to Train” stages of their development. This is when the habit of good, quality repetition in off-ice training will pay future dividends. Whether it is stickhandling a ball in the basement, shooting pucks in the garage or doing plyometric exercises for leg strength, Potulny likens off-ice practice to the work put in by a great guitar player.
“I think you can correlate (off-ice work) with people in the music industry – if someone wants to become a good guitar player, what do they do?” Potulny asked. “They practice the guitar.”
The best players put in time away from the rink, not because someone is watching them or telling them to do it, but they want to get better.
“If you want to become a better puck-handler, you take the new off-ice pucks they have or a golf ball, or whatever you have at your disposal, and you start working on moves,” Potulny said. “If you want to work on your skating, then you can work on your leg strength. From wall sits, to squats, to jumps and lunges; there are plenty of things a young player can work on and they don’t need any weight – their body weight is sufficient.”
A little extra effort will make a difference and begin to add up.
“You can do [off-ice practice] two-three times a week, 12 times a month and over the course of the season it’s another 50, 60 to 100 hours of those extra reps.”
At 14U/16U, hockey can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Those who love the game put in more time and effort and have more success. Those who find success like it more, continue to do more and continue to get better. Getting into good habits at an early age will not only help players get better, but can make the game more enjoyable.