Q: At the older and higher levels of hockey, what separates the great players from the good players?
A: As players get older and more physically mature, the physical skills like speed, strength and size become slightly less decisive than they were at younger ages because the discrepancy in those skills narrows among older players. So many of us who have coached at the older levels have learned over the years that hockey sense (the mental skill of the game) is what separates great from good as players progress through the 14U/16U ranks and beyond.
Decision-making skills are critical to be effective at higher levels of hockey. Size, speed and strength can be negated by great hockey sense. The understanding and awareness to make the right decisions with and without the puck is what really creates a special player.
What many of us have also learned is that it’s really difficult to teach the mental part of the game.
So how do you enhance a player’s hockey sense? I believe that cross-ice hockey at the younger ages helps do it.
Putting physically gifted young players in smaller spaces is important. It challenges them. It puts them in an environment that creates diverse decision-making situations repeatedly. Experiencing that kind of environment is really the only way to develop the mental skill.
And, as players get older, hockey in small spaces takes on a slightly different, but no less important role. It becomes all about putting the players in game-like situations as often as possible to simulate what will happen in a game. Nothing simulates these situations more frequently and competitively than small-area games. It’s an efficient tool for building hockey sense and stamina.
In my opinion, hockey sense could be the most important skill of all to insure long-lasting success in the game. And the development of that hockey sense starts early, through under-coaching at the lower levels and allowing young players to fail and be creative in both practice and games.
There are three key components to being an effective player: effort (how hard a player works and competes is extremely important), decision-making (mental skill/hockey sense) and execution (the physical skills of the game). All three are critical, but where we’re too often falling short is in providing the mental training and development for our players.
Give me a smart player over a really fast, big or strong player any day. Give me a player that has all three, and then you have a very special player.
The author, Roger Grillo, has coached for more than 20 years at the high school and college levels. He spent 12 seasons as the head coach at Brown University and was a Spencer Penrose National Coach of the Year finalist in 1997-98.