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6U/8U: Practice What We Preach

04/28/2022, 1:15pm MDT
By Michael Rand

Having kids is full of surprises, and another example arrived recently courtesy of my 7-year-old daughter as we were playing a racing game. She’s very competitive, but she lost a race. And she turned to me and said, “Trying your hardest is always the most important thing. (Two second pause). But winning is also really nice.”

As adults, we preach that message a lot. But in practice during the course of our lives, we often put winning ahead of all else.

That’s a valuable reminder as we think about expectations for the youngest ages of youth hockey players, the 6U and 8U groups.

The primary goals for those ages should be viewed through a lens of a young child and not an adult. Heather Mannix, manager for female hockey with USA Hockey’s American Development Model, has some expanded thoughts on that notion.

Focus on Fun

A core value at all ages should be that players are enjoying the sport, Mannix says.

“This really goes to my belief about fun,” she says. “It’s important at every age, but how are we creating that environment for our players? At 6U and 8U, when I think about appropriate expectations, we tend to put adult expectations of what it should look like on a kid’s game. That’s detrimental when it comes to getting kids to come back.”

To Mannix, that means that the skill-building activities for young players should be designed in such a way that they’re acquiring skill seamlessly as they have fun.

“What we know from research and science when it comes to acquiring skill is that by making it a game you can teach and kids can learn the exact same skills in a manner that makes the skills much more adaptable and resilient under pressure,” Mannix says.

She gives an example of box tag, where skaters have to jump over barriers on skates to try to tag their peers.

“They’re playing and having fun. They have no idea they are learning to balance on one foot, using their edges, improving coordination,” Mannix says. “We’re giving them development and the things they need, and they think they’re playing.”

Developmentally Appropriate

Another thing to remember: 6U and 8U hockey shouldn’t look quite like hockey at older levels because players are at a different stage of development. Shrinking the ice size with cross-ice hockey, for instance, is important for smaller bodies.

“Most other sports have already adopted age-appropriate sizes,” Mannix says. “Hockey can be harder for people to view when it looks very different than what you see on TV. But we know if we adjust our expectations to what’s developmentally appropriate, it does look different and should look different.”

As players work to develop they might all want to chase the puck. To Mannix, that’s something to encourage instead of discourage.

“I want my players to have a drive to get the puck back. You hear coaches and parents yelling spread out spread out, but what you’ve done is you have taken away opportunities for touches on the puck and competitive contact,” Mannix says. “They just want to play and get the puck and shoot it on the net. They want to play, and we should try to understand where they are developmentally both physically and cognitively and adjust our expectations.”

Positioning vs. Positions

The instinct to go get the puck drives hard at the difference between positions and positioning on the ice.

“This plays into what 6U and 8U hockey should look like,” Mannix says. “We want them to understand when my team has the puck every single one of us is on offense. My team isn’t on offense, every single one of us is trying to get it back. That’s the basis of what our expectation should be when it comes to positioning.”

Teaching kids that young to stand in a certain spot because they’re solely focused on offense or defense is counterproductive.

“They don’t really understand how position, and therefore positioning, is impacted by the everchainging game situation,” Mannix says. “At that age, little girls especially are very literal. If you tell a defenseman to stand in front of the net, she will stand in front of the net no matter what, even if the puck is at the other end.”

Patience Above All Else

Perhaps the biggest expectation we should have of 6U and 8U hockey is that it’s a work in progress – and patience is a critical element.

“I want them at 6U and 8U to learn how to be comfortable on their skates. Learn how to maneuver. Learn agility, balance and coordination on skates,” Mannix says. “That’s something we want them to be learning on land. Now we’re asking them to do it on ice, which is a different level of complexity.”

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Tag(s): ADM Features