If 2020 has reinforced anything, it’s that change is constant.
Then again, anyone who has spent any amount of time around 12U hockey already knew that.
There might not be another age group in all of youth sports in which changes are flying as fast and furious as they are at 12U. A time of transition is also a time of opportunity. Scott Paluch, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Program, is well-versed in navigating those changes.
For starters, the most glaring thing changing at 12U is the size of players. Some players are starting to hit growth spurts while others are still waiting – either exacerbating existing size gaps or creating new ones.
They are all battling on a full ice sheet, continuing a transition away from the smaller areas of younger age groups.
Paluch urges 12U players, coaches and parents not to get too caught up in size differences.
“One thing we notice is that there is going to be size disparity all through a child’s development. You are going to see larger 8U players and larger 12U players. We are going to see that size disparity,” Paluch said. “It is more magnified especially with girls a little earlier and boys when they go through their growth spurt and puberty. But we do see those discrepancies always. We’ve seen children develop earlier all the way through. It’s something certainly to be aware of when you talk about athlete development.”
In part because of concerns about the size disparity in 12U players, USA Hockey moved the age group at which body checking is legal from 12U to 14U starting with the 2011-12 season.
However 12U is still a very important step in developing players who have good body awareness and are prepared for the contact that is inevitable during a competitive hockey game.
“Body contact is two players going for the puck. As long as they stay in that line for the puck, they are going to run out of space either with each other or the end wall,” Paluch said. “That contact is encouraged and should be taught. We want players to get comfortable in an environment where the space is going to decrease.”
At 12U, with more ice available, the challenge is to keep players ascending on the correct path.
“The physical part of putting your body in the best situation from a balance and strength point to be best prepared for that contact. That’s the progression,” Paluch said. “In 8U, with a small environment all the time, that contact is going to come naturally. At 10U and into 12U it becomes a lot more imperative on our coaches to keep people in those environments to add to that with things like proper angling, which is such a huge part of body contact. I think it’s one of the most neglected skills in our sport.”
12U is a critical time for technical skill development. It is just as important a time – if not more, perhaps – for huge development in the hockey brain.
What does that mean, exactly? To Paluch it means 12U players need to learn from realistic on-ice situations instead of ideal ones.
“We want to make sure we have a strong base of technical skills and those skills have to have a cognitive element,” he said. “We have to make sure that every time we battle for a puck it’s going to be different or try a shooting lane it’s going to be different.”
It comes down to players not being taught “to be robots,” thinking they can never make a certain pass or go to a certain area. Rather, they need to be taught situational awareness and have the autonomy to learn the right play at the right time, Paluch says.
“A lot of our training over the years was made to look pretty – I’m going to give you a puck, I’m going to tell you where to pass it and a player knows it’s coming. At the end of all that, they get rewarded with the best shot in the game – one on one with the goalie,” he said. “And that’s not how our game operates.”
Perhaps the most critical part of development at 12U is the realization that while players are growing and gaining the skills they will need to ultimately be successful, they are nowhere close to finished products.
“Someone may not possess a strong skill – skating, the agility piece or another simple skill – we are too quick to jump sometimes if they can’t do that at 12U,” Paluch said. “We are so wrong in doing that.”
The right approach? Keep working with everyone and keep growing the game.
“It’s a fascinating age group,” Paluch said. “We know what we see at 12U is going to be substantially different at 16 and 18. We have to make sure we are progressing players on from 10U to 12U to 14U and not losing players for the wrong reasons.”