As youth players get older and enter their teenage years, the action gets quicker, the play more physical and its players more imposing. While skill development must continue to be paramount for every player, there’s one overlooked tool that should be emphasized more and more for 10- to 12-year-olds and beyond: Communication.
"Communication is a skill, and it's a skill that can be learned,” said Chris Brooks, head coach of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point men’s hockey team. “It's a skill that can be improved, and just like any skill, as a coach, if you're going to let your players get away with poor communication or negative communication, or lack of communication, it's no different than letting your players get away with not back-checking or not making responsible plays with the puck."
Aside from his coaching position at UW-SP, where he guided the Pointers to an NCAA Division III national championship last year, Brooks also serves on the Stevens Point Area Youth Hockey Association board. He offered some advice on how to encourage more communication at these ages, and why it’s important, both on and off the ice.
On-ice chemistry and cohesion
Communication on the ice during a game or practice can really elevate the level of play. Calling for the puck when you’re open – “Puck! Puck!” – or warning a teammate that pressure is coming – “One on! One on!” – allows your teammates an extra split second to make decisions.
It can prevent turnovers, create scoring opportunities and diffuse opponents’ offensive attacks.
"It makes the game simple when the other person has eyes for you," Brooks said.
Notice that as the levels of hockey improve, you’ll hear more and more on-ice communication between players during practices and games.
“Get the kids to communicate clearly with each other on the ice,” Brooks said. “It will lead to crisper practices, and it will lead to better productivity.”
Brooks helps at local coaching clinics and gets his college players involved with the youth programs. He sees firsthand how talking is vital for these players. But there’s also a lesser-known benefit.
"It makes the game fun," Brooks said. "When you communicate, and talk, and have energy, communication leads to more energy."
On the bench
Communication shouldn’t stop once a player’s shift is over. Encourage kids to be positive and point out good plays, hard work and effort by everyone.
There might be situations where kids want to talk about what happened – what are they seeing and what can they do better? It’s also an opportunity for kids to ask questions of the coaches, and to encourage and cheer on teammates who are on the ice.
But no matter what, Brooks demands positivity.
“I want it all to be positive energy; positive communication, positive energy, constantly communicating,” Brooks said. “That starts at the top. You have to create a culture of certain expectations from the top, and usually that trickles right down.”
No two kids are the same in how they interact and communicate. Chances are there are very vocal and very quiet kids on the team, and many in between.
That should be embraced.
"It's important that everybody recognizes differences in people," Brooks said. "Everybody communicates differently. It's important to recognize and respect the differences, and make sure your kids respect the differences. It's an important, important thing to emphasize, because not everybody is the same.”
Eye contact, listening and life lessons
The ability to dissect a shift with your defensive partner or analyze 45 seconds of offensive zone time with your linemates is not so uncommon from the real-life communication skills necessary for whatever else life throws at you.
"It's no different than going to work. Not everybody is the same when you're going to get a job," Brooks said.
There are two other elements of communication parents and coaches should be encouraging: eye contact and listening.
"It's very critical,” Brooks said. “At that age, it's important to teach kids to look at you in the eye.
"The other thing is, and the biggest part of communication and one of the things that's very under-emphasized, is the importance of listening. People talk about communicating, but a big portion of communication is actually listening."
An emphasis on communication will not only help your child on the ice, but also in life.