A subtle turn of phrase helps drive home the stages of development for a young hockey player.
“We would say at 8 and under, it's play to learn,” says Ken Martel, Senior Director of Player and Coach Development for USA Hockey. “Starting at 10U, then it's learn to play.”
Keeping that in mind helps reinforce some of the key principles of 6U and 8U hockey, including why practices are so important at those age groups.”
Martel elaborated further in a recent conversation.
Martel is quick to stress that there is nothing wrong with playing games at 6U and 8U, particularly if team sizes are small and games are cross-ice.
“If you're playing every other shift at those ages, the games aren't bad,” Martel says. “Players are getting lots of time with the puck, they're getting lots of chances to compete, they're getting lots of the things that they need.”
That said, the ratio of practices to games for that age group should be at least two to one, Martel says, and ideally three to one.
“It’s really the efficiency of what happens in games, even at the older levels,” he says. “Games aren't bad from a development standpoint. It's just, they are less efficient at giving the player reps at certain technical and tactical situations. There is only one puck in the hockey game. Practices can be designed to give players more opportunities to develop the tools and abilities needed.
“They're inefficient. In a 60-minute practice, they get 60 minutes of ice time.”
In that hour on the ice during a practice, a young player during critical years of learning the game can get the sorts of repetitions that don’t often come naturally during a game.
“In practices, it comes back to the fact that you can structure things. So they're just getting more development time. They're more involved,” Martel says. “You're not developing if you're sitting on the bench during your break, platooning through three lines and everything else in a hockey game. If you're active, you have a chance to get better at something.”
That’s important because young players learn differently than older kids and adults. They need repetitions to reinforce the things they’re learning because many of them are brand new – and they might have a harder time translating concepts into action. Instead of processing a couple of random scenarios during a game, they process and work through the same scenario multiple times in a practice.
“They’re getting a chance to see something over and over where they might not be able to connect the dots in a game,” Martel says. “A situation may come up, you know, once every other shift, once every two periods, once every two weeks in a game. It’s hard to connect the dots for kids that don't have the experience yet at those ages.”
And players can keep moving instead of sitting.
“From a development standpoint, practice is usually a better scenario because you’re just out there the whole time and the physiology is such that you can really keep them active and moving,” Martel says.
All of this is happening at 6U and 8U as young players are getting used to a sport that demands totally new movements. It takes time, and time comes in practice.
“It's a completely foreign surface, right?” Martel says, speaking in particular of players just getting on the ice for the first time. “If you go play soccer, well, you know you're running and walking and doing things you would just do in your normal daily life. Skating is not normal for kids. This is all new, so we want them to start to be comfortable on that little quarter-inch piece of steel. A little bit of balance, a little bit of coordination, a little comfort on their edges, comfort on that foreign surface, is what we're looking for.”
Once they gain that comfort, there are more building blocks.
“At 8U, we want them to start to build a relationship with the puck so that they can start to handle that a little bit,” Martel says. “And then we want them to be comfortable in competitive contact situations. Other players are going to lean on you and be in close proximity to you. How do you maintain stability, battle and compete for a puck, those kinds of basics.”
Those building blocks give way to learning more technical and tactical abilities, and team concepts at 10U – learning to play an evolving sport. But until then, it’s all about playing to learn and getting those repetitions in practice.