Hockey is a simple game.
Not in the sense that it’s easy to play, but at its core, hockey is simply a game. Games are meant to be fun, and typically, the kids who enjoy them the most are the ones who play more frequently and eventually become the better players.
“As we research childhood development and hockey development and kids growing with the game of the ice hockey, the most important thing isn’t necessarily a toe drag or being able to skate fast up and down the ice,” said Joe Bonnett, a USA Hockey ADM Regional Manager. “It’s instilling that passion and love for the game, which really starts at 6U and 8U.”
“What we have found is that kids with that passion, kids that are having fun going to the rink, kids that enjoy their teammates and their coaches, kids that are challenged at the right level once they step on the ice, they literally fall in the love with the game. Those players have a stronger and a higher success rate of developing into successful squirts and peewees and bantams.”
That’s one of the main reasons the phrase “Play, Love, Excel.” was utilized so frequently when the American Development Model (ADM) was initially launched.
Fun vs. Competition?
Some adults believe the purpose of competitive sports is to teach players how to compete and instilling those values early on is critical, even if it’s at the expense of “fun”.
“To be very, very clear, USA Hockey is not anti-competitive hockey player,” said Bonnett. ”Now, the number of times kids travel to a rink, and there’s only one puck and 20 kids on the bench. We’re not promoting that type of competition, but we are definitely, definitely, definitely promoting competitive hockey players.”
The truth is fun, competition and the ADM all go hand-in-hand.
“By putting kids in smaller areas at the 8U level the competitive part comes through more battles, more body contact just because they’re in smaller spaces, and more kids fighting for the puck,” said Bonnett. “That’s competitive. That’s creating an environment where they’re not out there just doing line skating. They’re racing. They’re playing tag. They’re scoring goals.”
These types of games, such as sharks and minnows, keep young kids engaged and help promote fun, competition and more repetitions all at the same time.
Win a Battle, Make a Play
“At 10U and 12U, really the same philosophy holds true in that it’s small area based stuff,” said Bonnett. “Small area games in tighter confines where kids are battling for pucks, and they’re scoring goals with kids hanging on them rather than getting a breakaway from the red line.”
The Squirt/10U and Peewee/12U age groups can be some of the most mentally challenging to coach because the players start to have the skills necessary to play the game at a relatively high level. It becomes tempting for coaches and parents to want to put more emphasis on areas like playing more games, learning systems or doing more full-ice drills.
Yet, when you look at a hockey player’s career, even if they’re just playing through high school, players at these ages are still early in their hockey development path. The goal should really be to continue fueling players’ passion for the game while also continuing to hone the skills they need to play the game.
Small area games accomplish both of those objectives because it’s a chance for kids to just play the game. At the same time, the hardest skills for players to master at any level involve making good plays and decisions in tight spaces while under pressure.
“Compete level is I think one of the greatest things ADM does through small area games and station based practices,” said Bonnect. “You have 6-10 kids in a small area. Not only do they handle the puck more, but they have to negotiate, they have to think, and they ultimately have to win a battle to make a play.”
Fun Never Ends
As players progress to the bantam and high school levels, it’s natural for the focus to gradually to shift more towards competition, but that certainly doesn’t mean fun completely disappears.
After all, even NHL practices have an element of fun.
“I think fun still has to be the over-riding theme all the way through,” said Bonnett. “I think fun takes a little bit of a different definition. For example, this last weekend with my Squirts, we had Halloween music and some coaches are out there in Halloween costumes. I don’t think that type of fun necessarily translates to the 16, 17 and 18 year olds. However, it might.”
Players at the older ages often begin to find more joy in being in the locker room, competing against teammates in practice and taking pride in developing their own skills. Maintaining an enjoyable environment becomes more about challenging players the right amount than specifically planning around the purpose of fun.
“The number one difference between a player in bantams and a player in squirts is now 80% of their brain is developed,” said Bonnett. ”Not only do you have to keep them busy physically, but you have to challenge them mentally.”
Bonnett explains that if you’re still doing the same drills (or small area games) at Christmas that you were at Halloween, chances are the players will begin to get bored. Instead, coaches should challenge players by continually adding and linking hockey concepts to various games and drills over the course of the season.
“If you have that type of environment where they come in and they know they’re going to grow physically and mentally, then, it’s fun to come to the rink, and fun takes on a different tone than sharks and minnows and Halloween costumes,” said Bonnett.
It’s All Connected
Regardless of what level a player ends up at, whether it’s peewees, the NHL or a local men’s league, the amount of fun they have playing hockey will likely determine how long they play.
“If you get a kind coach that can get down at that [8U] level and make hockey fun,” said Bonnett. “That has a strong, strong effect for those kids on staying in the game and ultimately being the fuel to drive those kids to play varsity ice hockey for their high school one day.”
And if your goal is to help kids reach their potential as hockey players, the bottom line is once they get to 14-15 years old they will need to take responsibility for their own development and begin putting in additional time and effort.
“That’s what separates players,” said Bonnett. “Who is going to have that love, passion and drive to shoot 100 pucks every night? To be in the weight room, to out-compete kids? To really out-grit kids?”
The answer to those questions are quite simple. Which kids have the most fun playing hockey?