The challenges of parenting are too numerous to count, but many of them seem to rush to the forefront when we see our kids struggling.
As parents, we instinctively want to help, but a voice inside our head – louder for some than others – is also reminding us that the way we learned to do so many of the things we take for granted now was by a slow process of trial and error.
This plays out at ice rinks around the country, particularly at the youngest age levels. With such varying stages of development for players in 6U and 8U hockey, parents are often left to wonder: What can I do to help? Is my child falling behind already? Should it be this hard?
For those parents, Ken Martel – Technical Director for USA Hockey’s American Development Model – has some tips.
Martel says he doesn’t see dramatic levels of parent angst at the youngest age groups, noting that real concerns emerge “at 10U and 12U when they see their kids aren’t at the same level as others.”
However if those thoughts do creep in, Martel advises parents to simply be patient.
“At 8U, you might have a kid who’s been playing for four years and another who has only been playing for one year,” he said. “First-year parents sort of expect it’s hard, especially when you have to learn how to skate. … A lot of it comes down to patience. If there’s an 8-year-old that’s been playing several years, of course they’re going to be better.”
That said, if parents want to help kids succeed there is one easy thing to do: take them skating.
“Just being on the ice helps,” Martel said. “So the biggest thing for kids is skating. Take your kids public skating. It doesn’t have to be more ice hockey. Let them go skating and fool around with friends.”
Most of us who have learned how to skate think of it as natural now, but in the beginning, it is a very foreign movement that requires balance and coordination on a completely new surface.
If a child switches from, say, soccer to basketball there are new rules and new objectives, but many of the fundamental movements are the same.
Acquiring comfort on the ice on skates is an entirely new thing.
“It isn’t like you have to take them to a skating coach,” Martel said. “But if they can be on the ice skating and trying different things, they have a chance to catch up. Skating is the big equalizer at that age. If you can skate, you can kind of play.”
Comfort on skates is a big part of the puzzle, but beyond that parents can help by encouraging other areas of fundamental play.
“It’s about comfort with the puck. We have a stick and a puck and if I can be comfortable just pushing a puck around that’s a big deal,” Martel said. “It doesn’t have to be fancy, just have a puck on the stick and have the head up a bit, and they can play.”
Those things can be worked on off the ice to build confidence and competence in a fun environment.
“Just playing with your kids is great,” Martel said. “Let them play street or ball hockey. It goes a long way because you work on stick skills. Most of it’s just time with those young ages, if you really look at where the imbalance comes it’s kids that haven’t been playing as long, but they will catch up.”
Above all else, the greatest thing a parent can give a 6U or 8U player is the space to grow a love for the game.
“Just make sure they love going to the rink,” Martel said. “Don’t talk too much.”
But … but … but … how will they know what they’re doing right or wrong?
Repeat: Let them love the game and don’t talk too much.
“If they love it, they’ll be engaged when they’re at the rink and they’ll make improvements,” Martel said. “If they don’t love it, they won’t have the emotional energy and attention that goes along with making improvements.”