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12U: Moving Up, Falling Behind, and Finding the Right Balance

07/21/2023, 4:00pm MDT
By Steve Mann

A Conversation About 12U Player Development

As the summer continues, many young hockey players will keep skating, or find ways to continue scratching their hockey itch. Some have shifted their focus to different sports. Other families simply take a break from it all and soak up the sun.

For many, however, next season remains top of mind. Concerns about “keeping up” and/or “moving up” are real, and as a result, players and parents focus on signing up for everything to try to ensure they don’t fall behind.

While there’s nothing wrong about sustaining a passion for the game throughout the year, is this emphasis on climbing the ladder at such a young age a good thing for their long-term development? Could it be a detriment? Is “A team or bust” a healthy mindset?

We caught up with Rich Hansen, manager of player development for USA Hockey, to get his perspective.

Q: So many players at the 12U level are considering moving up early or trying to find a more elite team. What are your thoughts on this trend?

Rich Hansen: I think there’s just an angst out there and it’s really in all sports. Parents see the bigger, faster, stronger kids moving up and there’s a feeling that their kids have to do that as well. It’s really a lack of patience and understanding what is important. At this age, we should be helping to facilitate and build their passion for the sport. Now, I won’t say jumping up to play against the top competition or traveling away from home definitely doesn’t work. There are kids that have been successful. Everybody has a different development path. It’s really about understanding your child, emotionally, physically and biologically and trying to get to a situation where they’re with a coach that will help cultivate their passion and really focus on what’s important developmentally, not just winning or moving on to the next level.

Q: Is 12U too early to be thinking about a future “career” in hockey? When is the right time?

Hansen: If a kid has a dream to play in the NHL, I think that’s awesome. I think that helps motivate and inspire kids. But parents have to look at it from a realistic standpoint and help guide their kids. If we treat them like adults that’s not a good thing. Some kids can handle it. I remember the HBO special on Tiger Woods, and the way Earl was with Tiger, I would say 99% of kids would be quitting the sport. He happened to be an outlier that it worked for him. He had that internal drive that kept him going. For the most part, that doesn’t work with most kids today. For me, at age 12, I would love a kid that is building a passion and loves going to the rink, and is OK with time away from the sport. It should really be about learning how to overcome adversity and building friendships. That stuff is really, really important, especially later in life. When you get to college or junior level, coaches want good kids, good teammates, hard-working kids, and kids that handle adversity, not just the ones with talent. 
Q: It’s hard to not think about what’s next. Should we always be looking ahead? 

Hansen: Again, some kids can benefit from it, it depends on their personality. But I think sometimes if you have the mentality that moving up is the most important thing, and you get on that team and now you’re not the top player, you’re not playing as much. That can be tough emotionally. I think you can take a step back. So, it’s not always just chasing. Because once you put yourself in that environment, where they’re simply aggregating the best players, you don’t have the playing time or the ability to build that confidence. You may not be in a role you thought you were going to be. Some kids, it clicks for them. But if you’re riding the bench and emotionally not there and your confidence is beaten down, you’re just not going to get better. 

Q: Should kids dominate at a certain level before moving up?

Hansen: Not necessarily. I mean, are you dominating when you’re not challenged? I always think there needs to be a little bit of a challenge. But when you’re a top player, kids look up to you. I don’t necessarily think of that as a bad thing. It’s OK to dominate, but it gets to a point, when it’s for you and your parents to discuss if it’s the right move. You should consider who’s coaching, what’s their development model, how many games do they play, what’s their travel look like, what’s the culture look like? A lot should go into the decision. 

Q: Is it important to take breaks? Can a family have too much hockey?

Hansen: It’s important to take breaks. But if you’re going to play summer hockey, for me, it’s about not having too much structure. For me, if a kid wants to go out with his friends and play hours of hockey on their own, I don’t see that as too much hockey. It’s that structured hockey, getting your bag, going to the rink and playing in a game format with a coach on the bench. That’s what I think they need a break from. But if they go outside and play street hockey with their buddies and that’s what they want to do in that moment in time, I have no problem with that. It’s also helpful to pick up ancillary skills from other sports. If you’re a player who dominates in hockey, playing another sport and not being the best player on that team, you learn something from that. 
Q: I'm sure many players and parents are wondering, if they don't make a certain AAA or Tier I or A level team, is all lost? Can they ever catch up?

Hansen: You have to remember, 12 years old is pre-pubescent. When you get to 14, there’s almost a re-shuffling of players. Because that’s when they’re going through puberty and so much changes, not only physically but emotionally. At our national development camps, there’s roughly 50% turnover from one year to another because they’ve had an entire year of development and been in a position to build confidence. If you can do that, you’re never down and out. 

Q: Why do you think parents feel this way, that their kid might be left behind?

Hansen: I think it’s our culture. There’s a lack of patience. We’re kind of driven by what’s happening right now. And you’re constantly as a parent (I have a 6-year-old) evaluating things. There’s so much time at the rink, there’s such an investment, you’re traveling on the road, there’s just this angst when something goes wrong that you maybe overreact and think it’s over, there’s no way you can catch up. Parents really need to believe in the process. Now, everybody’s looks a little bit different, and again it’s not for everybody. There’s a DNA part of it, too. That’s not to say they can’t go play hockey and be great, but they need that inner drive to want to get better. Those are the kids that coaches want, that employers want, that just have the ability to overcome that adversity when it hits you and keep on going. 

So even though it’s tough, it’s really important for parents to be a strong support staff. If your kid gets cut, and you’re disappointed and the kid can feel that it’s really going to be tough for them to get better. There’s a lot of pressure on a 12-year-old kid. They know the investment you’re making. You’re into the game, you’re emotional, you’re invested in it. It’s hard to turn off. But all they truly need is your support and positivity. 

Q: Should parents be trying to slow things down?

Hansen: It’s hard to answer because there are so many different paths and everyone matures at a different rate. But I would say for the majority, yes. You do need to slow down. But I totally understand that it’s tough because you sometimes feel like when they’re young, that you might wait too long to make a decision to try move them along. However, if your kids don’t have the passion, and you start to over-push and tell him they have to be here or there, it typically doesn’t work out. There’s also so much out there now about injury prevention and burnout. There’s nothing wrong with a kid chasing their dream at a young age, but it does put a lot of pressure on them. And if they feel you pushing, I think that’s a failing recipe. 

Q: Do you have advice for parents who have a son or daughter who are “borderline” in terms of talent, or in between levels? What should their focus be?

Hansen: It’s about getting them in the right environment. I think if your child is in a good situation, around their friends, there’s good culture with the team and the association, and they truly care about your players’ development first, then I think you’re good there. There has to be a balance. It’s making sure that at that age your kids are challenged, they’re having fun, the coach and the association they have a true care for your kids’ development and to keep them in the sport. You want to deliver the best experience for your kid. That’s the best environment for anyone’s child who is on the borderline.

Q: What do you think is the most important thing at this level?

Hansen: I think you want your kid to walk away from the rink saying I had an absolute blast, I was with my friends, and am excited to go back. The best coaches are sneaking in player development, creating an environment where the kids just think they’re having fun but they’re really learning a lot. A good example is at 8U, we’re playing tag on the ice. The kids have no idea what they’re working on, they just think they’re playing tag and having fun. But a smart coach is saying, you know what I’m doing, I’m working on starts and stops, getting your head up, spatial awareness and more. That’s a good coach and a good association. If you’re hearing things like, ‘we’re going to get the best kids and play the best schedule,’ that’s not a great sign. You want a good strong culture that’s going to nurture your kid and cultivate not just a good hockey player but a good person.


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