Would you want your 7-year-old child running 90-foot base paths and swinging at pitches from more than 60 feet away? Would you ask them to try being the goalkeeper in soccer with nets that are 8 feet tall and 24 feet wide?
What’s the fun in that? Who’s benefiting?
Roger Grillo, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, explains why age-appropriate playing surfaces and environments are the key to cultivating skills, smarts and passion for the game at 8U and beyond.
Small areas, big gains
Putting 8U players on smaller ice sheets leads to major increases in many key areas. They touch the puck more, they shoot more and they have more puck battles. And more players are having those experiences.
In other words, giving kids more of what’s good.
“The major physical benefits of playing on smaller surfaces are the quick change of direction in tight spaces,” Grillo said. “It also forces kids to play with their heads up and it forces them to start to understand spatial awareness. It also adds more conflict to the game, which is a very important factor in development.”
Small areas, big brains
That spatial awareness is apparent in small spaces because it forces young players to engage in short bursts of speed and changes of direction.
If players are “thinking” the game at an early age, it’s only going to help them become better in the long run.
“The mental aspect that the smaller surface brings is more hockey decision-making experiences for the athlete,” Grillo said. “The ability to read and react over and over again is critical for their development. The more kids can learn through trial and error the better.”
Getting – and staying – involved
Putting 8U players in a full-ice environment makes no sense. Imagine, as an adult, playing on a supersized ice sheet with giant nets.
“It’s daunting.” “It’s too big.”
It becomes a situation where players are spending too much time chasing pucks and chasing other players up and down the ice – and those who can’t keep up might not stick around for more.
“Obviously any of us want to be involved. When the young player is constantly chasing and unable to be part of the game then frustration can set in,” Grillo said. “Building confidence through experience is the best way for development.”
When players are more engaged and involved, they tend to have more fun. And that’s the main name of the game, particularly at 8U.
“Having fun and having some level of success is critical to building passion for the game. Fun is priority number one,” Grillo said. “If kids are touching the puck, scoring goals and in the play then for sure they will build a true strong passion for the game that will hopefully carry them long into their older years.”
It’s important to carry over these principles into off-ice training as well.
“Some sort of off-ice age-appropriate training is really important,” Grillo added. “If the kids are not getting it elsewhere – which for many of them that is the case – we ask our coaches to incorporate some type of off-ice programming that will help develop the players’ balance, agility and coordination.”
And remember: off-ice training should involve other sports. Maybe that means baseball – with shorter, age-appropriate distances between bases. Or soccer – where 8-year-olds should play on a smaller field.
“We want our players to be well-rounded athletic kids,” Grillo said. “Doing things away from the rink and experiencing other sports is at the base of the foundation of a good hockey player.”