Anyone who is familiar with the phrase “kids say the darndest things” will have that sentiment reinforced while working with youngsters at a hockey rink – and the uninitiated will quickly get a crash course.
There are constant reminders that hockey players at the youngest levels of 6U and 8U are not always task-oriented or keen to staying on message, providing all the more reason to teach them with fun activities that keep them coming back for more.
Dan Jablonic, a player development manager for USA Hockey, had several stories from working with young players. He is a father of twins – one boy and one girl – who were 8U players a year ago and is well-versed in the minds of the young.
He recalls working with a young group on skating fundamentals and technical focus. When he was done, some of the players came up to him because they wanted to … tell a joke?
“They asked, ‘What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back, coach? … It’s a stick. Get it?’” Jablonic says with a laugh. “Things like that, they just ground you.”
Indeed. They still need instruction, but the process requires a different touch than it might at other levels.
“That age is so fun because it reminds you of being a kid yourself,” Jablonic says. “You have all these duties as a parent, as a coach, as an adult, and you get in there with these thoughts like you’re really going to teach them. Then all the sudden you get reminded really quickly that they’re 6- and 8-year-olds.”
Joe Bonnett, also a player development manager for USA Hockey, recalls working with a group of young players on gameday.
They were going through different player combinations and other instructions, until one of the players came up to one of his assistant coaches afterward with a very important question: How many days have you been alive?
“In the end, it’s all about what’s fun and being a positive coach,” Bonnett says. “Is it a good team dynamic to come to the rink? Whether they’re 6, 10 or in college, they’re all going to want to have fun.”
Maintaining that level of positive coaching is important not just for building good hockey players but for building good young people.
“We have no idea what’s going on with these kids, in home life, school, so let’s make sure we give them the good stuff every time we have the opportunity,” Jablonic says. “That’s why it’s important when a kid leaves the rink. How does it feel to be coached by you? It’s a simple reminder for us of where we’re at. Those kids have their whole life to be adults. Let them be kids. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
All of this is why Jablonic and others at USA Hockey advocate teaching lessons through games, particularly at younger ages.
“They’re just starting to read a little bit, and they’re saying silly things. They’re reciting everything you say,” Jablonic says. “It’s good to keep it light and keep it fun. The more we can be reminded that fun games and activities can teach technique and technical components, the better. There’s a reason kids love games. They’re so important.”
Jablonic gives an example he used with his twins when they were 8. He said they were learning about different continents and ecosystems, so he had them name animals that they might find in a jungle. When snakes entered the conversation, he told them he wanted them to treat their stick like an extension of a snake in a jungle whenever he said “cobra.”
“Instead of stick on puck, it’s cobra. It’s a simple cueing mechanism,” he says. “Then they take it a new level, and they’re hissing. That’s just one example of how you relate to the kids. They’re learning about it in school and if you can, transfer from school to the rink.”
While Jablonic readily admits that he’s constantly still learning how to relate to kids, he is a firm believer in the power of play in the process of development.
“Especially when you come out of a coaching clinic, you have to think about how to actually implement things in the right times or spaces,” he says. “It’s all about age appropriateness, and the long-term development model really comes into play. These are the youngest of kids. The best coaches are the ones who can get things into their terminology.”
And who wouldn’t be surprised if they are asked about a boomerang or how many days they’ve been alive.