Here’s one resolution for the New Year: Break one bad hockey habit before the end of the season.
Bad habits are easy to form, but their long-term effects can be very difficult to overcome, thus hindering a player’s development and potential.
“Bad habits always carry on to the next level and carry through if they’re not addressed, so it’s extremely important,” said Brooke White-Lancette, an original member of the Minnesota Whitecaps, former Northeastern University standout, and current head coach of the girls’ varsity program at Cretin Derham Hall. “At the younger ages, you’re shaping and molding them. If they get into bad habits at a young age, it gets harder to correct them as they get older and the game gets faster.”
Once players or coaches notice bad habits, correcting them requires extra attention and focus on developing the proper technique or habit.
“Bad habits cannot be broken in games,” emphasized White-Lancette. “This must happen in practice, where repetitions build and shape a player’s skill sets and confidence. The work must come in practice, which is why we want much more practices than games in youth hockey.”
Here are some common bad habits in youth hockey, and how they can be broken:
Keep Your Head Up
It’s no secret why kids skate with their head down. They don’t want to lose the puck!
But learning to play with your head up opens a new world of possibilities.
“Having your head up is such a big part of the game,” said White-Lancette, who’s coached in Minnesota Hockey’s High Performance program for 14 years and is the girls’ lead ADM instructor for Minnesota Hockey. “If you can teach that at a younger age, it really plays a role as you get to that next level about your decision-making.”
“When your head’s up, you’re able to see the entire ice. You’ll be able to decipher what’s happening around you and what your options are. The ones that struggle with it and haven’t worked on it, even at the high school level, they’re doing more reacting and the decision-making is a little slower and they’re turning the puck over more because they have those blinders on.”
What can parents/coaches do?
“Let the kids know, ‘We’re going to be doing this drill. We’re going to be focusing on keeping your head up the entire time. It’s OK if you lose the puck.’”
Telegraphing Your Shot (or Pass)
It’s easier to block a shot when everyone knows it’s coming. When the feet stop moving and the hands load up for the shot, that’s valuable time for the defense and goalie to prepare.
“Overspeed drills help, where you’re forcing them not to glide,” White-Lancette said. “You’re forcing them to continuously cross over and push themselves past their comfort zones. When you get across the blue line, that’s when your speed should pick up. It’s not a time to slow down. You’re forcing the defensemen back, you’re creating plays. The best goal-scorers are the ones that can keep their feet moving while they are shooting the puck. When your feet aren’t moving it allows the goalie to set up, play the angle, and it telegraphs it to everyone else as well.”
Players can also work on developing a quick release, changing angles and be deceptive with their eyes to maintain an element of surprise when shooting or passing.
Flying by the Net
A scoring chance is brewing on the offensive rush. A shot is taken on net, and the goalie stops it, but there’s a juicy rebound waiting ... except …
You flew right past the net or veered off to the side and into the corner, away from the action and a tap-in goal.
“That’s a big coaching point: Really emphasizing stopping at the net, following your shot, not skating past or away from the net,” White-Lancette said. “There are so many opportunities lost where there’s a rebound or deflection. Many kids nowadays are happy with just getting a shot on net. Well, is it a quality shot? Are you just looking for quantity? There are so many facets to scoring and shooting. Follow it up. Stop in front of the net. Put yourself in a position to clean up those rebounds. Be there for a deflection. Be there when a goalie makes a mistake. A lot of players think it’s just enough to get a shot. You have to be hungry. You have to be gritty. Right around that crease, that’s where you need to be.”
Poor Gap Control (or ‘Sagging’)
It’s easy to understand why kids are so cautious and want to create a lot of space for opposing players on offense.
“Why do kids have bigger gaps? Lack of confidence. A lot of players don’t want to get beat. That’s the number one reason why they give themselves that much room,” White-Lancette said. “We have to put our defensemen in positions where they are uncomfortable in practice.”
Skating is the other key to good gaps.
“They need to constantly be working on skating skills, edgework, transitions, pivots, explosiveness. All those things, if you become great at them, it will make your job that much easier,” she said. “It will also give you that confidence. If there’s a turnover, your first three or four steps backwards have to be really fast. If you have that speed and confidence to close that gap and move your feet quickly, keep the opponent to the outside, then you can angle and cut them off and prevent them from gaining your zone instead of just backing yourself into your own net and allowing easy entry.
And as kids progress to the next levels, coaches will not tolerate players who do not work their tail off on the backcheck.
“Your environment in practices must teach this and reinforce it. That’s discipline. What type of team do you want to be?” White-Lancette said. “But it’s not just ‘You have to backcheck.’ Where do you backcheck? You have to pick up somebody as you’re coming back into the zone. It’s not enough to just stand next to a teammate or the goalie or something. Why, where and how should we be backchecking?”
Watch a youth hockey game and you’ll see a lot of sticks up in the air, serving no real purpose. While keeping two hands on your stick is a good habit, keeping it on the ice is even more important as players progress to older age groups.
“They’re not ready,” White-Lancette said. “Your stick is up in the air, the puck is coming … now you missed it. Are you ready to receive a pass? Are you trying to disrupt the other team’s passing lanes? Are you putting your stick in a position to make yourself available for teammates or available for a deflection or shot on net? Are you making your forehand or backhand available and are you being a good receiver? Show your teammates where you want that puck. Stick position is huge at the younger levels. It can be corrected, but we have to constantly let them know ‘Stick on the ice,’ and tell them why.”