If 10U hockey is all about skating fundamentals, it’s because that’s the age that players are really starting to hit their stride on the ice – literally and figuratively.
It’s a time to really zero in on the finer points of the ABCs – agility, balance and coordination – that started at 8U, says Heather Mannix, the manager of female hockey for USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
Here are some tips on just how to do that:
Mannix says 10U is a time to really build on the base that’s created at 6U/8U.
“The over-arching theme is we want to start to build and get a little more technical, becoming more comfortable with your edges. Hopefully you have the balance and coordination and you’re building on the agility,” she said. “They have the cognitive ability and their spatial awareness is being developed. Being able to read and react to other players is starting to happen at that point.”
Expanding their skating repertoire, awareness and comfort doesn’t mean an hour of boring “power skating” drills, laps or Russian circles. Mannix stresses this should not be a neat and orderly process. Drills where players skate uncontested “make adults feel better,” Mannix says, but they do young players a developmental disservice in the long run.
“When we think of what the game is asking of our players, rarely do we see a time where they are skating uncontested for 100 feet,” she said. “There’s always conflict. We need to create players who can skate under those conditions. That’s probably one area we can improve on when it comes to developing that skill is creating players who can read and react under those conditions.”
To get the most out of players on the path to becoming better skaters – while still recognizing that 10U is an age where there is a wide variety of skill level and experience – Mannix stresses finding something she calls the “challenge zone.”
“If you’re trying to do something way too technical for that skill level they panic, and if you’re asking them to do something super easy they’re disengaged and not challenged,” Mannix said. “We want that zone where they are fully engaged in whatever the activity is – the challenge is just above where the skill level is. Stretching them just a little.”
For skating drills, players can be grouped in stations according to similar ability levels, allowing coaches to dial up or dial back the challenge level while making sure everyone is progressing.
“If the challenge is too high, they will pick up on that and they won’t give you their full effort because they’re afraid to fail,” Mannix added, “especially if you haven’t created an environment that promotes failure as a means to learn.”
Mannix urges coaches to eschew straight-line skating drills because they are neither realistic for in-game situations nor fun for young players. Instead, having 10U skaters engage in games like tag or having them jump over tires creates a much better learning environment.
“It looks chaotic and messy, but what we know from the science is that when we put players at a center of the environment and what’s most fun … it’s the key to unlocking learning and development,” Mannix said. “When we create environments that build skill that’s transferable to games, that environment has to have aspects of the game. A kid with a soccer ball trying to deke their way around an opponent to get a ball in a bucket – that player is learning how to skate with conflict.”
Those drills are going to be filled with successes and failures – the sort of learning that Mannix’s own research indicates is critical to development.
“I ask coaches all the time: Would you rather have the fastest kid on the ice or the kid that can get to the right place at the right time the fastest?” Mannix said. “I don’t just think about technique and ability – I think about being able to read and react and execute.”
Perhaps the biggest key to developing skating ability at the 10U level is remembering that it’s not a one-year race.
The fastest, quickest and most agile 10U player might merely have the benefit of experience or even a slight age advantage that could even out over time.
“Especially at this age, what we see is that when someone sees a 10U skater who is really good, they get tagged that way,” Mannix said. “What we want to do is make sure we are challenging the kids at the level they’re at. Even if they’re less developed, if you are challenging them they are going to be giving you that effort and we will see that development at a consistent rate.”
The best 10U skater might not be the best 12U skater. Then the best 12U skater might hit puberty and have what Mannix calls the “baby Bambi effect” where they are trying to figure out how to use their suddenly long legs all over again.
“Keep in mind that this is all about long-term athlete development – and that it doesn’t happen in a straight line,” Mannix said. “The best kids at 10U aren’t going to be the same at 14U. It’s full of peaks and valleys.”