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12U: Coaching Competitive Contact

07/20/2022, 11:15am MDT
By Michael Rand

In a sport with 10 skaters chasing one object, there is inevitably going to be contact.

But how hockey players prepare for that contact – both in the moments leading up to it and in the lessons before the games – is about as important as anything in the sport.

It’s a key component of player safety. And it’s a vital part of changing possession in a fast-evolving sport where that is even more important than ever.

Dan Jablonic and Heather Mannix, managers with USA Hockey’s American Development Model, have some tips and thoughts about contact at the 12U level.

Safety Is Key

Though body checking is not allowed until the 14U level for youth, teaching players at younger levels about how to safely make contact with other players – and what the intent of that contact is – is critical to the safety of the game.

“We have a huge emphasis on player safety,” Jablonic says. “How do we keep our kids safe? That starts at the youngest ages. It’s important for players, coaches and family involved. What you are taught at 8U and 10U sticks with you at 12U and beyond.”

So how do you teach safe contact in a sport with an abundance of skill and speed?

“Skating is a foundational piece. If I have stability and ice awareness, that leads to more confidence. Stability plus confidence equals performance,” Jablonic says. “The more that we can get them in those situations in earlier ages the better. There’s going to be some bumping going on and contact made, and how are you bracing for it with your head up in those safety positions is critical.”

Competitive Contact

As part of the emphasis on the intent of contact, USA Hockey has shifted the language from “body contact” to “competitive contact.”

As Mannix explains, it’s somewhat of a semantic difference but it’s still an important distinction.

“It was intended to clarify confusion. Body contact and body checking sound similar. It’s a subtle difference, but we are really stressing the competitive portion of body contact,” Mannix says. “It’s not incidental. It happens in the corners, in front of the net. Battling with a player for position. That’s where we see the competitive contact. We don’t want that to be seen as a byproduct of something that just incidentally happens.”

That’s why work in small areas is critical at early ages.

“At 12U they can judge components of angling, which is a huge part of competitive contact,” Mannix says. “It’s about skating, how to take away time and space, directing players into places they don’t want to go and then closing off the gap.”

Important for Girls

Mannix, who is the manager of female hockey for the ADM, says it is just as important to teach girls about the components of contact and checking as it is for boys as both a competitive and safety component.

“I will say for girls it’s actually important that they learn how to body check and take a body check. This is something that doesn’t get taught because it’s not a legal part of the game. But neither is hooking, tripping, slashing and all those things happen in a game,” Mannix says. “If we’re not teaching our girls how to take a hit or deliver a hit, we’re not setting them up to have a safe experience in the game. That’s a reason girls have higher rates of concussions. They haven’t developed skills to absorb contact.”

Possession Game

The end goal of competitive contact typically is to take the puck from an opponent. It’s not to send them sprawling and certainly not to injure somebody.

As hockey continues to evolve into a game of more possession and skill, teaching the correct objectives becomes even more important.

“How do we work to get the puck most efficiently and effectively. Stick on puck. What am I doing as a youth player and youth coach to teach modern techniques, blade on blade, hips through hands to win it and go make a hockey play?” Jablonic says. “We want smart hockey players who have good body position to win the puck effectively no matter what their size is.”

Teaching that at 12U and the levels below will set boys’ hockey players up for the right mentality when checking becomes legal at older levels.

“When it gets into full body contact at 14U it’s really focusing on possession, no hits to the head, no checking from behind,” Jablonic says. “If we start coaching it and our players are seeing it over and over, by the time they get to 14U you have at least 6 years of experience of that.”

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