Talent is fleeting.
At first glance, it’s easy to compare your little skater with others on his or her team. But at such a young age, does it really matter? And do the hockey skills your 8-year-old shows today give any indication of how good they’ll be as a teenager and beyond?
Former NHL defenseman and United States National Team alumnus Brian Pothier, who coaches all ages at Pothier Blueline Hockey in Rochester, Massachusetts, has insights on what matters, what doesn’t, and what develops at 8U.
Big picture, small games
For example, Pothier said, if players have had a ton of success at the 8U level burying their heads and going end-to-end, it’s likely that, without a practice environment built around overall skill development, their development of hockey IQ might lag a little.
“Players like that don't necessarily develop the ability to use their teammates,” he said. “That's why it's so important to emphasize big-picture concepts with the kids at an early age.”
Part of that “big picture,” or long-term athlete development, is steeped in small-area games, station-based practices, multi-sport participation and unstructured fun.
Drawbacks of early domination
“There’s definitely a dark side to being super skilled and athletic when you’re young – you stop working hard,” Pothier said. “It’s ‘too easy’ and, when parents and coaches prompt those kids to practice, they blow them off.
“Why would you want to work when you're already dominating?”
Kids who shine in one specific area – like shooting, skating or stickhandling – at a young age can trail off as they grow. The other kids will catch up in physical maturity and skill level. As the overall level of play increases and they’re ‘pushed,’ one-tool players aren't prepared to push back, because they don’t have a well-rounded game.
“You really see the big drop-off for some of these kids in their bantam and 14U years,” Pothier said. “They’ve been conditioned to play comfortable hockey, so when it gets uncomfortable, it’s easy for them to disengage if they don’t have the right mindset.”
Effort, not outcome
For parents of kids who are ahead of the curve, it’s especially important to focus on effort rather than outcome.
“Let’s say your child can really pass the puck, but his or her teammates can’t handle those passes very well,” Pothier said. “It's important to encourage your kid to continue to make the correct hockey plays, even though they’re not seeing the results they want.
“That's a long-term, big-picture perspective that will pay off in time and something you as a parent can really help them with,” he continued. “Being a good teammate will help them become better individual players.”
Coachable attitude fosters growth, grit
“I love to see the kids who are coachable,” Pothier said. “You can have all the tools in the world, including natural God-given talent and athletic ability, but if your attitude is wrong or you’re uncoachable, I'd pass and move onto a player who is workable.”
As those kids get older and continue to work, they’ll see the fruits of their labor – in spite of their lack of size, skill or hockey sense as an 8U skater.
“The player who had to grind his or her whole hockey life has grit,” he said. “They've faced adversity repetitively, and have had to play outside their comfort zones where they were smaller and weaker.
“They are the kids who move the needle in their game,” Pothier continued. “If and when they physically catch up, they’ll have the grit, hands, shot, passing, and most importantly, a high hockey IQ.”
Just enjoy the ride
If your kid isn’t the star on his or her 8U team, or is struggling with some of the fundamentals, don’t sweat it. At this age, there’s a lot more the game has to offer them.
“Sports are a metaphor for life,” Pothier said. “Forget about pro hockey and enjoy the ride with your kids.
“We’re trying to create strong boys and girls that will become strong men and women. If a pro career happens, great. If not, you’re still creating priceless memories and imparting some amazing life skills.”
It all worked out for Pothier, whose nine-year NHL career included stops in Atlanta, Ottawa, Washington and Carolina, as well as two years in Switzerland. However, he freely admits he was never the most talented kid in the room, and he attributes his success to great coaching and a ton of hard work.
“I developed slowly,” said Pothier, who was 5-foot-4 and 120 pounds as a high school freshman. “I played every position, but I also played baseball in the summer and enjoyed my time off.”
And remember, when hockey season is over, it’s over. If your child doesn’t play spring or summer hockey, they won’t fall behind. Encourage them to play multiple sports to develop new skills, new friends and more athleticism. They’ll come back next season feeling even more refreshed and excited for hockey season.