The game day experience at a college football game might involve hype music, a long march through campus and numerous other in-stadium traditions.
At a professional game inside an arena, there might be pyrotechnics, innovative introductions, mascot battles and every moment of potential quiet filled with noise.
Those environments require exhaustive planning and countless people to pull off.
A youth hockey game, by contrast, involves very few bells and whistles. But cultivating the ideal game day experience for a 6U or 8U player does still require the right touches and plenty of intention.
Roger Grillo, director of player development for USA Hockey, has some thoughts on how to go about making game days the best they can be for the youngest players.
It sounds simple, but the number one thing Grillo stresses is that the games should be about the kids.
“Game day is the players’ day. Parents and coaches kind of are just there to organize, make sure everyone is safe and then get out of the way,” Grillo says. “Let players experience the thrill of competing and implementing the stuff they’ve learned – measuring themselves, having fun with teammates.”
The over-involvement of adults can detract from the small moments that become big memories. Years down the line, few kids will remember the final score from a particular game. But they might remember a funny thing that happened in the locker room or the feeling they had stepping on the ice.
“You talk to people who played at a high level and certainly as a former coach the thing you miss the most is the relationships, the locker room, the camaraderie,” Grillo says. “That can kind of be clouded by the adults if it’s not handled properly.”
If the focus is on fun, Grillo says, it can take the pressure off a day. Making sure young players can be relaxed and enjoy themselves is essential.
“We get caught up in the score and the game and all that part, and there’s so many other pieces that go with it,” he says.
Because younger age groups are playing in smaller spaces without some of well-defined rules like offside, it should be easy to focus on the process and joy.
“You’re just worried about them having fun, touching the puck, battling and competing,” Grillo says. “We shouldn’t try to rush things and speed up development.”
What, specifically, would Grillo tell parents of 6U or 8U players to help them navigate the game day experience?
“Help them get dressed and then move into the upper corner of the stands, be quiet and watch,” Grillo says. “Enjoy their experience. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your kid to win or be good, but at the end of the day it’s about them and not us.”
That’s the fine line a lot of parents walk in a lot of different situations, but having that healthy boundary is essential.
“It’s easier said than done. We do want our kids to be successful, do want them to be good,” Grillo says. “But we have to understand that part of the experience is letting them have the experience.”
The right game day experience at 6U and 8U will lead to more players at 10U, 12U and beyond, Grillo says.
“I tell people all the time that the two responsibilities of coaches and parents is to help kids get better and to build passion. Those two things go hand in hand,” Grillo says. “It’s hard. But the impact is great if it’s done properly. And the impact can be profound if done improperly.”