As a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, Roger Grillo has had the chance to travel to other international hockey hotbeds to see what works at the youth level in other countries.
His travels to two countries in particular – Sweden and Finland – convinced him that while the United States is doing many things right on the ice, it is trailing its competitors in a key area.
“One thing we’ve seen over past year is we’re lagging behind in the off-ice piece, particularly at a young age,” said Grillo, formerly the men’s hockey head coach at NCAA Division I Brown University. “With the lack of physical education happening in the schools and the lack of kids playing multiple sports these days, we want our coaches to build in training for athleticism.”
Sweden and Finland, Grillo said, have “committed strongly to off-ice training for all age groups.”
Those countries have noticed results, and the Americans would like to follow suit. USA Hockey introduced the off-ice concepts to its associations last year and is re-emphasizing them this year – even at the youngest levels.
What it looks like
At the 8U level, off-ice training consists of the types of athletic building blocks that will help players become more well-rounded as they get older.
“It’s all ABCs – agility, balance and coordination,” Grillo said. “We use basic tumbling, jumping, rolling around for fun, athletic-type things.”
Those activities might look basic, but Grillo stresses the need to start them at an early age.
“If it’s not done at a young age, you don’t get to hit reset,” he said. “Gymnastics is an early specialization sport because from about age 5 to 10 is the suppleness training window. That’s your agility, training coordination and balance.”
Off-ice training looks much different for 8U levels than for older players.
“When they’re 12, 13, 14 we get more into stickhandling, body weight stuff, core stuff, so you start to train more seriously. When you get to be 15 or 16 and skeletal development is done, you can start doing the weight piece of it,” Grillo said.
Those types of activities aren’t suited for younger players, so it’s important to know the difference.
“You don’t want 8-year-olds doing squats and power cleans. You need to make sure you’re doing the right things that the kids can grasp emotionally, mentally and physically,” Grillo said. “The age-appropriate piece is critical because you don’t want to put little kids in an adult culture.”
To help coaches map out an off-ice plan that is both beneficial and age-appropriate, ADMkids.com has a series of activities tailored to each group:
Those sets of activities are also distributed as hard copies to coaches in order to “create an environment” that embraces the new way of thinking.
Still, the concept of off-ice training can be a hard sell. Some of it is simply because it’s new, Grillo said.
“It’s a change in culture, and any time you try to do that, it’s never easy,” he added. “In certain parts of the country it’s really taken off and in some it hasn’t. Some associations do a great job with it and some are behind.”
Part of the challenge, too, is that so many athletes are specializing in hockey at younger ages and they don’t get these types of agility, balance and coordination exercises anywhere else.
“I think what’s happened over the last 20 years is everyone feels like their child is going to be left behind. All sports have become year-round entities. There’s a financial component and a fear factor that kids are going to be left behind,” said Grillo, 52, who speaks wistfully of a bygone era that used to include the President’s fitness test for youths. “In reality, our research tells us differently. To step back and have balance and experience different things for young athletes is beneficial.”
The U.S. won’t catch up to Finland and Sweden in one tumble or leap, but even baby steps will do for now.
“We just committed to adding the off-ice component last season and emphasizing it this season to really help people grasp it and add it as a component,” Grillo says. “Even something as simple as a dynamic team warmup, 10-15 minutes of all-around athleticism stuff, is helpful and important."