Perhaps the adage “practice makes perfect” needs a modern upgrade.
The act of simply repeating a task over and over again certainly does improve muscle memory and shouldn’t be discarded in the process of improvement. But a phrase that suggests repetition over process – with an end goal of perfection – runs contrary to how true development works best.
Take the process of improving as a 6U or 8U skater, for instance. If young skaters were a bit wobbly in their last hockey season, skating more will help. But to make that process enjoyable and to have young kids feel like they are part of that process, more nuance is necessary.
Dan Jablonic, a Manager of Player Development for USA Hockey, has several thoughts on that process as we transition over the summer into another hockey season.
First off, Jablonic says, it’s important to understand that several facets of hockey and athletic development are interconnected.
So when USA Hockey preaches the ABCs – agility, balance and coordination – the goal isn’t just to help young players improve their skating, shooting ability or anticipation. It’s about understanding that all those things work together.
“Even if you’re a master tactician, if your kids don’t have those fundamental skills and techniques, it’s pretty hard to reach full potential,” Jablonic says. “How do we give the kids the building blocks at those ages? It’s about keeping it in the context of fun while challenging kids to have their own awareness.”
The end result of working on those fundamentals is “potentially increasing your time and space on the ice,” Jablonic adds. Improved skating is a natural offshoot and component of that.
To improve balance, agility and coordination, particularly during non-peak hockey months and especially for 6U and 8U kids, playing multiple sports is essential.
“It’s important for kids to keep sport sampling to see what they like,” Jablonic says, even if the transferrable benefits might not be obvious. “A catcher and pitcher in baseball need to develop balance. You’re in a different role, new friendships that come along with that. Kids over the long term are going to have those foundational skills. Physical literacy and fundamental movement skills are critical to skating.”
Tennis can help with ankle flexion, another key component to skating. Improving and having fun without it feeling like a chore is a win-win.
“That’s what’s great about other sports,” Jablonic says.
That’s what’s also great about games within games on the ice. USA Hockey has borrowed lessons learned from European development models that suggest skating activities without the puck pay big dividends in the process of improvement.
“Sometimes we might focus too quick on technique over fun,” Jablonic says. “The more we can disguise these things, the better.”
For example, a simple game of tag on the ice is a great way to work on stopping and starting, quick bursts and other components of skating. Working in activities where kids have to skate and pick up a tennis ball off the ice will improve ankle suppleness and strength.
“Build in fun games like that. They’re competing. Nobody wants to get tagged,” Jablonic says. “It makes you a better skater in the long run. Are you going to see dividends right away? No, but it’s a cumulative approach over time. Observe players in smaller settings and give them repetitions in that setting. Make games for them. The more we can allow that environment so our players are challenged and making good decisions, it’s going to increase confidence which makes them better skaters.”
It’s even better when the kids themselves are stakeholders in the process. If you can give a group of 6U and 8U players some ideas and tools for fun games – like, say, tennis balls, soccer balls or frisbees – and let them create games from there, they will feel empowered.
“Let them build in that creativity and all the sudden they are working on some skills that are very transferrable to skating and the game of hockey,” Jablonic says. “In addition to speed, as you get older you need to add that element of power – the proper stride for your body type.
And above all else, help kids understand that it is a process. It’s OK to make mistakes, and success isn’t always linear.
“They’re testing their limits on their edges,” Jablonic says. “Encourage that environment. Let them keep learning.”