Understanding body control and contact as a hockey player is a process that really never ends. But if done correctly, we know when it begins: at the youngest age levels of 6U and 8U.
While those age groups are many years away from the potential for body checking, contact is an inevitable and fundamental part of hockey.
Heather Mannix, Manager of Education and Player Development for USA Hockey, helps us understand why it’s so important to get young players comfortable with giving and receiving contact, how to best teach it and what it looks like as the years go on.
Body contact starts with body control, which Mannix refers to as “the foundation for initiating safe contact with another player.”
“That comes from building the athleticism at younger ages and giving them the foundation of fundamental movement skills,” Mannix says. “Agility, balance and coordination will help control bodies with initiating contact. It has to start at the youngest ages and getting them comfortable with initiating contact and receiving contact.”
And it should start off the ice, not on the ice. Mannix suggests getting 6U and 8U players into full uniforms but with shoes on instead of skates and having them bump into each other while standing side by side.
“At that age they’re still figuring out how to work their legs off the ice, and now we’re about to strap blades on their feet on a slippery surface,” she says. “Getting them comfortable with equipment off the ice, you can bump and fall down and it’s not going to hurt. You can get over the fear of falling.”
Once the lessons move onto the ice, Mannix stresses one of the fundamentals of teaching at all levels of hockey: make it fun.
At a recent on-ice session with 8U girls, Mannix had players do an exercise that introduced them to competitive contact. Players stood side by side with their skates touching each other.
“We would say ‘1-2-3 bump!’ and they bump their shoulders together,” Mannix says. “And they’re laughing. They’re crash into each other. It’s getting them comfortable with that contact.”
Mannix also likes to use ringettes as a fun way to teach competitive contact.
“They’re great because it’s one degree of freedom removed,” she says. “You flip the stick over, put the butt of the stick in the middle of it, and now you don’t have to worry about losing the puck. You have to initiate contact and lift the stick to get the puck back.”
Mannix also notes that it vitally important to teach these body contact lessons to girls in equal measure to boys.
“You have to allow girls in this space, you’re allowed to make physical contact with people where maybe it’s not allowed in other spaces. That’s a stark difference.”
She adds, “when coaches don’t prioritize competitive contact with girls, it sets them back,” Mannix says. “You have to make them comfortable with competitive contact. You have to give them the same developmental opportunities.”
Mannix says it’s important to start teaching young players about body contact and control at the youngest ages so they can build on that foundation as they get older.
“It is done intentionally and consistently at the 6U and 8U level. When we talk about competitive contact at young ages, it really is bumping and falling down and getting comfortable,” she says. “Kids don’t develop spatial awareness until they’re 9 or 10 – figuring out that they need to slow down before they get into the corner if they’re going too fast. But if at 9 and 10 they’re still fearing contact, then that is going to mess with the way they approach competitive contact at that age.”
Players at 10U still need more development to get comfortable with body contact – particularly those who maybe don’t start playing until a little later.
“You have to do it enough times, but it’s also how you introduce it. If kids enter sport a little later, they tend to be a little hesitant toward body contact,” Mannix says. “But for all players, speed and strength is changing and they have to relearn all those things. Ideally we want strong foundations at 6U and 8U, but reality is that sometimes it doesn’t happen. And you have to go build them back up at 10U the same way.”