There is no age at which a hockey player ceases to improve – and certainly no magic cutoff point by which the race to see who will be the best players on a given team is declared over.
On the contrary, says Chris Wells – head coach of the St. Lawrence University women’s hockey team – rosters are always full of players who made developmental leaps at different moments.
Some might have excelled early and continued on that trajectory. Others might fit a catch-all category called “late bloomers.” Particularly at the 14U and 16U age groups in youth hockey, when there is a temptation to think perhaps that players are who they are, continuing to coach and watch players develop is critical. Wells even sees late bloomers at his level, Division I.
“Once in college, it could be in any year that someone really outperforms expectations and continues to play at that level,” Wells said. “It happens all the time once in college.”
Indeed, Wells notes many factors that could lead a player to develop more slowly than peers. It could be a matter of physical maturity, emotional maturity, competition level and perhaps even long-term exposure to the sport of hockey.
All of that makes his job as a college coach particularly challenging, but it also underscores the need to consider which players might be ready to make a late leap in development.
“It's legalized gambling in many ways trying to project how each individual adjusts to college life and hockey,” Wells said. “Trying to get as much information as possible from people you trust is a must in situations where you are committing to a player that is categorized with ‘lots of potential’."
Development isn’t just one word in USA Hockey’s American Development Model. It’s the centerpiece of how USA Hockey wants to approach the process of building players who will have long-term success – prioritizing long-term rewards over short-term gains.
How does a youth hockey coach avoid the temptation of just focusing on the kids who are advanced for their age – and therefore are more skilled and likely to help the team win now?
“Coach all the kids and make sure each one is getting what they need in terms of feedback and attention,” Wells said. “Some just need a few quick comments where others need a bit more time and energy. (It’s) no different than parenting our own children.”
So how do we make sure we are encouraging all players to keep growing so that nobody falls through the cracks?
Wells believes the short answer is the best one: make it fun.
“Coaches have to have fun,” Wells said. “Kids feed off of it. Actually, we all feed off it. If someone is having fun, it's contagious and we will all continue to do whatever it is we show up to do.”
When kids keep coming back, they learn and grow within the game. Not all of them will go on to great success in hockey, but the lessons they learn will serve them in all facets of life, Wells says.
“Even if someone doesn't find their way in hockey, maybe they find their way in another sport if they are enjoying coming to the rink and being a part of a team,” he said. “They might have slipped through the hockey window of opportunity, but can take their positive experiences to another place to have a great experience.”
Helping players who fall into the “late bloomer” category achieve success can be particularly rewarding for everyone involved. Wells says there are numerous examples of such players on his roster and the teams against which St. Lawrence competes – players who initially didn’t have scholarships but went on to earn them through hard work.
“This is truly one of the most gratifying parts of the job,” he said, “watching players go through this type of process.”
Tag(s): ADM Features