In sports, we hear the term “breakout season” all the time to describe a player who has taken a significant leap in performance – typically marked by an uptick in statistical output – compared to previous years.
It sounds almost magical, like with the snap of someone’s fingers things just really took off. But the process of improvement was almost certainly years in the making, the result of the combination of several factors. And how do we even define a breakout season in the first place?
To get a better handle on those questions as they pertain to players who have advanced to the 14U and 16U levels, we turned to Meredith Roth. After serving for several years as an associate head coach at Holy Cross, Roth moved this year to an associate head coach role at Harvard.
Roth was also an assistant coach for the gold medal-winning U.S. U-18 Women’s National Team at the 2020 Under-18 Women's World Championship and is again an assistant coach for the U-18 squad leading up to the 2024 Under-18 Women's World Championship.
The sort of improvement that comes with a leap in skill and production tends to have a root in the love of the game, Roth says.
“One of the things I always gravitate toward is do they love playing. You’re trying to pick that up watching from the stands or the glass, but we also get exposed to players at camps and clinics,” Roth says. “Do they love being out there? Do they love being with teammates?”
Can a coach really pick up on things that might be very subtle?
“You can tell. Can you see a smile through the cage or bubble? Even down a few goals, are they having fun still?” Roth says. “Are they hustling off and on the ice? You’re seeing things that show they’re invested and engaged because they care and have that element of focus.”
Roth recalls that in her playing days, a love for the game translated into always wanting to learn more and improve, which led her to ask all sorts of questions of her coaches and teammates.
“It’s about coupling love and passion for the game with being curious,” she says. “You’re wanting to learn and grow, and you have the work ethic to put the time in. You can always ask the question, but do you want to do the work after you find out the answer?”
It’s also important to remember, Roth says, that you might not see evidence of a breakout season right away at 14U and 16U – particularly if a player is making a jump into a new age group.
“They’re still so young. They’re still growing and developing, and it might take a minute. They’re also in school. This isn’t the only thing that’s overloading their body and mind,” she says. “It’s been interesting, as I’ve been going out for the last couple weeks watching players. There are adjustments still occurring. You might not be able to tell (how much they have improved) for a couple of months.”
At the same time, physical growth is still occurring. Even if patience can be in short supply these days, it’s vital to evaluating players.
“I find my attention span shortening year by year,” Roth says. “But if you have that joy and passion, you’re staying curious and working at it, just know that growth takes time. The process is important. There is going to be an opportunity. Just find the right one for you. Maintain self-belief and confidence in yourself and try not to hit fast-forward.”
The offseason is critical to making a leap at this level. But what are the components? It’s the right mix of training and recharging, Roth says.
“You can spend time really developing your body,” she says. “That’s a time you can work on strengthening and conditioning. It’s dryland training, and as you get older you learn more about the weight room.”
Mixing in other sports and rest is critical, Roth says, to prevent burnout. There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to what that looks like because it varies with each player and each family, but Roth often sees bodies and spirits start to break down if there is too much intensive, year-round hockey.
“Your body does need a break, as well as your mind. Finding some balance is important, and that’s going to vary from person to person and at different age groups,” she says. “One thing I see a lot is players thinking more is better and playing in all these summer tournaments. By the time July hits, it’s not a good scene. Finding a local program, where maybe you are on the ice once or twice a week, could be helpful.”
Joy, hard work and patience. It sounds simple, but those really are the core ingredients of making a leap at 14U and 16U – even if that leap feels sudden when it happens.
“It’s probably been a byproduct of a year or a couple of years of work,” Roth says. “It finally clicks. Everyone has that moment at different points. Maybe a player started to have confidence because they have been working and putting themselves in good spots, but they were half a shot away from getting it behind the goalie.”
That’s why it’s so important for coaches to maintain confidence in players and for those players to keep working to ask the right questions and keep putting themselves in the right situations to succeed.
“Confidence comes in pieces. You have to have self-belief and keep working at it,” Roth says. “A breakout season can look different to different players. But it’s pretty cool to be around it.”