A proverb of unknown origin provides a simple but elegant guide to instruction and life: Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day; teach someone to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime.
It can be applied to a lot of stages of the growth process, and specifically to an area of hockey development: system play.
Parents might be eager to see 10U players – typically with some years of fundamental experience at that age – start to execute the slick, system-based play of highly skilled college and pro teams.
But Joe Bonnett, a player development manager for USA Hockey, says not so fast. The goal still at 10U is to continue to build on the critical thinking and on-ice skills that will enable young players to eventually execute any style of play, not learn how to perform within one specific style.
Bonnett articulated what exactly that means.
Bonnett says he was in Spokane, Wash., giving an impassioned talk about this subject recently. One of his points of emphasis was how the lessons from each age group should be a connected process instead of a series of disjointed skills.
So at 10U, where there is still a heavy emphasis on small-area games, Bonnett encourages coaches to teach and parents to see how the 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 practice in a small space is creating the skills that will be necessary to make split-second decisions down the road.
“It is responsible for USA Hockey to link the game together,” Bonnett says. “As kids get into 14U, 16U hockey, if they have been brought up correctly – to skate, shoot, pass, stickhandle, have good hockey sense and ability to perform in a live environment – it is going to be easier to link and teach the pro-style game.”
The modified spaces of small-area games don’t look like systems, nor should they. But they are teaching 10U players the right way to play in order to navigate systems later. Those are the building blocks that lead to success.
“How do we modify our space and our games and incentivize certain behaviors to start teaching some of the true fundamentals of a breakout?” Bonnett says, using one example. “How can we incentivize finding open spaces to receive passes and then how to make a pass under pressure so then I can start teaching the real pieces of a breakout later?”
To that end, Bonnett encourages coaches to avoid shortcuts. While it might seem easier to have players dump the puck in and forecheck in order to win a 10U game, that isn’t the best process for the future.
“As a coach it’s my responsibility not to give kids information on where to stand, bang your stick and wait for the puck,” Bonnett says. “My job is to give kids information within the game so they have what they need to make decisions.”
He likens the work of teaching decision-making under pressure and in tight spaces to “the pre-algebra before the algebra.”
“A lot of coaches just want to dump a puck in and let the kids figure out,” Bonnett says. “The onus is on the coaches. The coaches that say that they can’t coach in a small-area game? You can roll your sleeves up and teach any habit you want.”
The payoff comes later, hence the fishing analogy. If you’re hungry, the most immediate way to solve that problem is for someone to give you food. But that’s not always going to work or be possible. If you find your own way to obtain food that is sustainable – even if the process takes some time and exploration – you will have a solution that lasts forever.
A defenseman trying to make a smart play could always pass to the same spot. But the information eventually will become more complicated, and he or she will need to quickly process where the puck is, where teammates are, where there’s open space and how much time there is, all before making the correct play.
“I would argue that we as coaches are trying to layer fundamentals – retrieving the puck, doing it under pressure, making decisions,” Bonnett says. “The beauty of it is that if you train like that over a lifetime and then puberty kicks in, you can play in any system in the world.”
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