As hockey evolves to become less scripted and more fluid – dependent on quick decisions and adaptable minds – the approach to teaching the game must evolve, too.
Plain and simple, teaching system hockey at youth levels like 10U just isn’t appropriate for where the game is now, and more importantly where the game is headed in the future.
“It's not really the path to development,” says Ken Martel, USA Hockey’s Senior Director of Player and Coach Development.
Systems tend to be both complex and interconnected in some ways but narrow and rigid in others.
A 10U player coming from cross-ice games needs to be able to solve smaller problems – while being given the repetitions in various scenarios – before learning a system becomes a long-term benefit.
It’s akin to cramming for a test and memorizing information vs. actually learning.
“We scale up so quick sometimes where there are too many decisions, too many choices. They don't actually get a chance to hone in on what works,” Martel says. “Like, how do they solve smaller problems?”
Martel gives an example of learning how to break the puck out of a defensive zone. A system might require a coordinated effort between five players, but the choices required to actually perform the task vary greatly from play to play. It might look great 5-on-0, but it’s far more nuanced with opponents trying to stop you.
“You can’t get to the five-man coordinated breakout until a player can solve the problem of retrieving the puck with somebody on them and being able to find an open teammate,” Martel says. “Oh, somebody's chasing me down. Do I go left? Do I go right? We only act on the information that we are aware of. We’re going to jump right to this unopposed movement pattern that is lacking the information players use in the game or what they need to make real decisions on where they need to move.”
Instead, they need to work on smaller scenarios, with pressure, in order to later be able to tackle larger questions.
“They need an opponent. They need to solve pressure,” Martel says. “If I can't watch my teammate go back and get the puck and put myself in a good position to receive a pass, it’s not going be very successful, right? So there are elements that you need to build in first before you get to all that other stuff.”
To Martel, the dots get connected through coordinated and intentional practices with real pressure. Repetitions without repetition, help 10U players learn to read, adjust and make split-second decisions for various scenarios.
“Historically, we worked on technical ability in practice, and it was always around these static implements,” Martel says. “But the game is not like that; the timing is different. As you approach an opponent, the timing is different than when you approach a cone or a tire.”
How do we get players to learn to interact better within the context of the game?
“You bring slices of the game to practice where they're getting some realism. From a practice design standpoint, we need to give (10U players) more opportunities to read the information that they will need to read in the game to solve the problem,” he says. “It's usually a perception, and adjustment problem when players make mistakes in a game. In practices, we've oversimplified to the point where that information is not there for them to learn to read and adjust it.”
Instead of representing “the basic pattern of a play” that might be demanded by a system in practice – a perfect-world scenario that might play out a small fraction of the time in a game – young players need to learn all the other things that will happen the vast majority of the time.
“We're not teaching them to read and adjust,” Martel says. “And that's what we have start to thinking about if we're going to prepare players for success not just today but down the road.”
This way of thinking represents an evolution in hockey that is both natural but also sometimes hard to reckon with.
“As coaches, we come in with the knowledge that we grew up with or the knowledge from our playing days and those things,” Martel says. “But just watch a game today side by side with one from 10 or 15 years ago and it doesn’t look the same at the top end. So are we preparing our players for the game that we played way back when, which isn't today's game? And what’s the future game going to look like? What abilities are players going to need?”
Martel notes that skating is more important than ever. The speed and physical training of players has never been better. It should continue to improve, but there is an upper limit to that evolution.
To Martel, if almost every player is fast and strong, with puck-handling and shooting abilities to match, the edges to seek out in the pursuit of playing faster are more subtle.
“The biggest untapped piece from a teaching standpoint is speed of mind,” he says. “How do we help our players read the game better? If you watch a lot of drills that historically have been done in our sport, they teach a narrow awareness. They're not requiring our players to see more, read more. And so, you know there's an evolution in how we look at things.”