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How 8-Year-Olds Learn Best

04/14/2016, 11:45am MDT
By Dave Pond - Special to USA Hockey

Whether it comes after a top-shelf goal, a pass on the tape, or a great save, it’s no secret that young hockey players thrive on positive feedback.

But what happens when your child makes a mistake – like allowing an easy goal or turning the puck over? How do you react? More importantly, does your “advice” sink in?

Negative vs. Positive Feedback

In a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, Leiden University researchers explored just that. They took a close look at the brains of 8- and 9-year-olds, and compared what they found to the brains of 11- and 12-year-old kids.

Results showed that the younger an athlete is, the less effective negative feedback is.

“Eight-year-old children have a radically different learning strategy from 12-year-olds,” the study reports. “Eight-year-olds learn primarily from positive feedback ('Well done!'), whereas negative feedback ('Got it wrong this time!') scarcely causes any alarm bells to ring.”

Dr. Eveline Crone, one of the researchers, said they expected that the brains of 8-year-olds would function in exactly the same way as the brains of 12-year-olds, but maybe not quite so well. 

“Children learn the whole time,” Crone wrote. “This new knowledge can have major consequences for people wanting to teach children: how can you best relay instructions to 8- and 12-year-olds?'

To find the answer, we asked United States Olympic Committee senior sport psychologist Peter Haberl, Ed. D.

“Negative, critical feedback is hardly conducive to learning,” he said. “Just ask yourself – do you do better when you are being yelled at and berated?”

Instead, Haberl said, parents and coaches should be giving proper technical instruction.

“Often, kids already know when they’ve made a mistake – what they don’t know is what to do instead. So, it’s better to ask ‘What did you learn from it?’ or ‘What can you do different next time?’, rather than shout something along the lines of “You’re terrible! I can’t believe you did that!”

It’s a response that’s extremely important within the hockey world, where these young kids are learning one of the world’s most skill-intensive sports.

“If they don’t make mistakes, they don’t learn,” Haberl said. “So, it’s important for parents and coaches to create an environment in which we give our kids permission to really push the boundaries of their skills – without discouraging them when they make mistakes.

Haberl points to an everyday hockey drill – skating crossovers around the faceoff circle – as a prime example of how to let kids feel the freedom to improve.

“Once they’ve mastered the basic techniques and begin to increase their speed, we want our kids to push so hard that they’re close to wiping out – or do wipe out – as they skate around the circle at full speed,” he said. “This teaches them how hard they can push. Rather than yelling or making fun of them, we should encourage our kids to always push their limits.”

Growth Mindset

That, in turn, will help bring forth a growth mindset – a revolutionary approach coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck in 2006. Although Dweck’s study wasn’t focused solely on athletics, her findings can definitely be used to help hockey players succeed.

“In a growth mindset, you believe that your performance is due to your effort,” Haberl said. “Talent and abilities can be developed. Athletes with a growth mindset are more persistent in the face of obstacles and setbacks. They look at their mistakes as learning opportunities, rather than as an indictment of their inherent ability, or the lack thereof.”

In hockey, having a growth mindset becomes even more significant as young players move up in the ranks. Eventually, your 6-, 7- or 8-year-old will begin to skate against athletes of equal – or better – ability. That’s when growth-mindset kids roll up their sleeves and get to work, while fixed-mindset players (those who say, “Either I’m good enough or I’m not.”) see the extra effort needed to succeed at a higher level as pointless.

“A good example of a growth-mindset athlete is Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler,” Haberl said. “Ryan talks about how his father always stressed ‘backcheck’ when he was a young kid. So – from our perspective – Ryan’s father stressed effort and hard work.

“Ryan persisted through all the trials and tribulations of youth hockey to advance to the highest level because he simply outworked everybody else. He constantly worked on getting better, and he most likely believed that his efforts would lead to getting better.”

As parents and coaches, make sure to praise and reward the effort and hard work your kids put in – on and off the ice.

“The next time you catch yourself saying, ‘My kid’s smart, good at math, or pretty,’ take note of it, and switch to, ‘My kid worked hard (assuming they did), my kid put forth a ton of effort on that math assignment, and my kid is kind,’” Haberl said.

“We should be intentionally and deliberately creating growth-minded kids. So, begin today. Create an environment where you encourage learning from mistakes – one in which mistakes simply provide feedback of what to do instead, and one where they become stepping stones to success.”

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