A: Truly the goal of all hockey parents is to give their child the best opportunity to succeed and have fun in the sport we all love. The big question most of us face is, “How do we go about reaching that goal?”
When I first left college hockey to join USA Hockey’s staff as the New England regional manager for the American Development Model, I reached out to 30 of college hockey’s best and brightest coaches and asked them specifically, “What separates the good players you have coached from the great ones you have coached?” All 30 responded with the same answer. “The great ones see the game differently, their decision-making skills with and without the puck are far superior to their teammates and opponents.”
So if that is the answer, how do I ensure my child is developing the decision-making skills that will allow him or her to succeed?
As I've learned over the years, this needs to take place beginning on Day 1 of a young player’s career. At the younger ages, it's all about fun and small-area or cross-ice hockey, where kids learn from trial and error. At the 12U stage, it's all about small-area games in practice and encouraging creativity and allowing kids to fail in games. Putting kids in situations during practice where they develop the thinking part of the game is absolutely critical. It is not about positioning or systems or where they stand, rather it is about why and how can they find a way to have success. In a lot of cases, it's all about under-coaching and allowing the athlete to think, fail and have success on their own.
A good coach has the patience to allow players to develop the proper habits and decision-making abilities on their own, by setting up an environment where the players are put in game-like situations over and over again and forced to not only make good decisions, but then to execute properly for the desired outcome.
Small-area games in practice at 12U are so important that I strongly feel they should comprise at least 60 percent of every practice. This style of coaching also needs to move from the practice sheet to the game sheet, where it is absolutely imperative that the coaches encourage creativity and embrace failure. If we do not allow our players to try the things that make them happy or feel good about themselves, then how can we expect them to love the game and improve?
There is nothing wrong with wanting to win or being competitive, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of development. At 12U, the goal is to embrace development and help provide the foundation of skills and decision-making that will ensure success and a long-term love for the game of hockey. As a parent, I should have less concern what league or team my child is on and be more concerned about the practice environment and the progress in development of my child’s skills and decision-making. As a parent, I understand wanting your kid to be the best, but we must all understand that, for long-term success, we need patience and a quality practice environment first and foremost.