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What a Quality 6U/8U Program Looks Like

06/08/2021, 12:30pm MDT
By Michael Rand

When it comes to picking a youth hockey program at the beginning of a young player’s journey in the sport, parents might be swayed by a number of different factors.

However when it comes down to it, what really matters above all is quality - high-caliber organizations that “are focused on development and know what development looks like” at the 6U and 8U levels, says Heather Mannix, the Manager of Female Hockey for USA Hockey’s American Development Model.

Here are some tips from Mannix to help identify a high-quality program that emphasizes development:

Fun and Engaged

The highest priority of a good association, particularly at the youngest ages, is to make learning fun. That means re-imagining how the game is taught in some cases.

“Oftentimes people think in order to teach kids how to skate, they need to stand in line, practice c-cuts for 200 feet, just to learn how to use their edges,” Mannix said. “At that age, that’s not fun for them, nor does it teach them the fundamentals of agility, balance, and coordination. What we know now about development and how skill is acquired is that it’s through doing. In order to learn how to balance, they have to be put off balance. Kids love playing games. Not only are they more fun, but they will also learn more about how to move than simply standing in a line.”

So a program focused on development will incorporate games and smaller area work to teach fundamental skills in a way that kids enjoy – fostering growth in the sport.

“Now we know that they can play games and learn those skills in a much more fun and engaging fashion,” Mannix said. “Programs that use stations and small areas, especially at younger ages, is really key. They get more repetitions at dodging, evading and balancing. So when I look at an association and see a 6U or 8U practice with all kids engaged and having fun, that’s what I would say is quality programing.”

Divide Up the Ice

Associations might tempt parents with promises of elite development and the lure of full-ice hockey, but those forces are in competition with each other at 6U and 8U, Mannix says, because the best development comes in smaller areas and surfaces.

“Parents want the best for their kids and to give them the best opportunities for success,” Mannix said. “It’s identifying what ‘success’ looks like at that age that’s important to emphasize with parents. There are programs that sell the idea that at 8U playing full ice leads to being elite. There is a lot of research that has come out to debunk that.”

Full-ice games at 8U tend to be a couple kids dominating possession and eight others chasing them. “The amount of time each child is actually engaged in the play is significantly lower in full ice than in a cross-ice environment. Again, we know that development happens by ‘doing’, therefore if kids are not given the chance to experience game-like body contact, puck touches, or scoring opportunities, they will not develop to the same degree as an environment that allows for such opportunities,” said Mannix.

From a development standpoint, full-ice at 8U is not the best choice,” Mannix said. “Research has come out of Sweden and Finland that shows 1/6 of the ice on an Olympic sheet, playing 3-on-3 is when kids get the most realistic puck touches, body contact, shots, shot attempts and change of direction.”

Comfortable with Contact

A quality program at 6U and 8U will also get players comfortable with body contact. There is obviously no checking at those ages, but small-ice games are designed not only for puck touches, but to keep everyone involved. That inevitably means contact.

“If they are bunching up and bumping into each other, that’s actually okay at this age,” Mannix said. “We want them to want the puck and get comfortable with body contact. As they get older and their brains have developed enough to have spatial awareness to spread out, they will, but it’s okay at youngest ages if they don’t. Telling kids to ‘spread out’ takes them out of the play at that age. Telling them to simply spread out does not teach them how to find the open person or move to open space.”

Preparing for the Future

Even if USA Hockey is armed with research to demonstrate how its refined methods work, change can still be hard. 6U and 8U hockey might not look like it did 25 years ago when the parents of some of the players were on the ice, but the game has evolved.

“One of the ways we put it into perspective during our clinics is to talk about what did the game look like at the highest levels 15-20 years ago when most parents played hockey? The highest levels of the NHL looked very different than it does today,” Mannix said. “The game has changed and it’s a part of the evolution. If the program is running the same drills you did 15-20 years ago, then we are preparing our kids for the game back then instead of the game of today – let alone giving them the tools to be successful in the game of tomorrow -which inevitably is a quicker, more skilled game.” 

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Tag(s): ADM Features