Most parents can clearly recall the day when their child took his or her first steps. First it was crawling. Then it was standing up and holding onto something. Then finally, those stilted and unsure lurches forward – perhaps even into waiting, expecting arms just a few steps away.
From there, things move quickly. Walking becomes easier. They fall less and less. Then they start to run, kick a ball, all sorts of things.
And then … you try to put them on skates, on the ice and it’s just like they are starting to learn how to walk all over again.
For a parent of a new hockey player at the 6U or 8U level, watching a child learn to skate can be a frustrating process. You want them to excel and achieve. You want them to be confident and have fun.
It’s all part of the process. Just like learning to walk soon gives way to bigger and better things, the early lessons of skating soon give way to physical literacy and confidence, says Dan Jablonic, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
Here are some tips from Jablonic to navigate the process as both a parent and a coach of a young player who is wobbly on his or her skates.
The first thing for parents and coaches to remember is that it isn’t easy.
Some kids will pick up the act of gliding on a thin blade on ice faster than others, but it’s not the same motion as walking or running. So while the transfer from running to, say, playing soccer involves skill acquisition, learning to play hockey means learning a whole new means of transportation.
When you think about it that way, the urge to become frustrated should dissipate.
“It’s easier said than done, as we all know,” Jablonic said. “The ability to stand on skates is a feat – then you have to understand locomotion. Then there’s competitive contact that’s a part of the game. At the earliest ages, they need to get that contact confidence.”
For parents and coaches, a way to help novice skaters is to have them work on anything that will improve the core athletic movements of hockey.
“It really starts with what you’re doing to promote physical literacy, those fundamental skills of agility, balance and coordination,” Jablonic said. “You want kids who can jump, hop, throw things. Anything to develop overall athleticism is going to transfer to the ice.”
The key to that is to create little competitions that seem more like fun and less like learning.
“The more we can promote that – incorporate fun and games, do it in a competitive way where they don’t realize it because it’s so much fun – the better,” Jablonic said. “We try to relate everything to kids and their age level.”
Jablonic mentions an on-ice activity that involves young skaters pretending to be on a rocket ship, being chased in outer space. They’re trying to avoid other skaters, and they’re working on tagging – or not being tagged.
Or he will do a “drill” in which he asks kids to be different jungle animals.
“We’re building stability, coordination, and obviously the balance of getting up and doing those things – creating those environments for the kids,” he said. “It’s their world and the more we can put things in their terms, the better. We love to use little things like that to relate to kids at that age group and it’s fun for coaches because you get to be an 8-year-old again.”
Jablonic also stresses that coaches and parents can help young skaters by incorporating other sports at the rink. Bring a soccer ball onto the ice and see what happens – they forget about the wobbles and start playing.
“Those elements of hockey are in a game of soccer on the ice,” he said. “I think for the most part we can give these kids the foundation of skills in a fun, competitive way.”
Most of all, coaches and parents shouldn’t push too hard. The more they push or worry, particularly in a stressful way, the harder it will become for a wobbly skater to find his or her footing.
“We want kids to be comfortable on their skates and especially at younger ages, the more we can let the game be the teacher the better,” Jablonic said. “Our first instinct is to instruct, but if you create that environment, they’re going to be getting those quality repetitions. Create an environment of a carnival of fun. Every kid is going to go on a ride that’s maybe a little higher than the other, but you have to keep challenging them.”
The end goal, aside from getting comfortable on skates, is simple.
“We want the kids to say, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to get back to the rink,’” Jablonic said.