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12U: Scan Like Messi

06/12/2024, 3:15pm MDT
By Michael Rand

Developing On-Ice Awareness and Decision-Making

Lionel Messi, one of the greatest soccer players in the history of the sport and one of the top players in any sport over the last quarter-century, has made the idea of “scanning” popular.

The gist of it: Messi is a wizard at gathering information when he doesn’t have the ball. While action is happening around him that he is not yet directly involved in, Messi is scanning and re-scanning his surroundings for weaknesses and opportunities. This enables him to make quicker, more informed decisions on how to attack once he receives a pass.

This is not exactly earth-shattering stuff, but when a great player does it to such a profound effect, it gets attention. And we look for ways to apply Messi’s scanning gifts to other sports like hockey.

What does scanning mean when we translate it to hockey? How can it be taught more effectively? In what ways does it keep players safer? And how does it make players better? We’ll answer those questions through the lens of 12U development.


In some ways, “scanning” in hockey is just a new term for an old idea, says Ken Martel, USA Hockey’s Senior Director of Player and Coach Development.

Players were previously told to do “shoulder checks,” particularly upon puck retrieval in their own end. When the play is in front of them but nine other skaters might be as much as 180 degrees from their direct field of vision, glances over each shoulder can inform where the puck should go next – either to avoid danger or create opportunity.

Soccer data suggests that players who apply that sort of behavior to all parts of the game – as Messi famously does – are more successful than those who don’t.

That’s hardly surprising to Martel, but that only reinforces the value of what it means to scan properly.

“It’s more about when and where they look,” Martel says.


Giving 12U players the tools to scan starts with better teaching, says Martel and Dan Jablonic, a player development manager for USA Hockey.

Traditional “shoulder check” drills are ineffective if the player doing the drill doesn’t really have to observe any conflict on the play. A more effective teaching method would be to simulate an actual game situation where a player retrieving a puck really needs to scan and problem solve.

“When we travel the country, it doesn't matter if you're talking to a youth coach, a college coach, a professional coach, they always want more hockey IQ,” Jablonic says. “I think that comes back in your environment. If you're doing repetitions with prescribed drills every time where it's start here, go there, go around and get back in line, guess what? That's not going to develop that hockey IQ.”

Martel echoes that sentiment, noting that of course scanning doesn’t just involve puck retrieval. Like Messi, it can be a function of a forward searching for open ice away from the puck to put himself or herself in a good position to receive a pass and become a scoring threat.

“From a 12U perspective, I think we can start to teach this for sure. It's about being more intentional than we do. One of the banes of our hockey culture are a lot of the activities that our coaches have traditionally done really narrow a player’s awareness,” Martel said. “They don't require the players to be more aware to look around. Everything's been pre-scripted.”


When we talk about scanning, there is also a component of player safety. Looking up, back and around at your surroundings as a player makes you more aware of potential body contact that might be coming your way. Though checking isn’t legal until 14U, scanning for that sort of trouble is a good habit to develop at 12U.

“Most of the injuries in our sport are player to player contact and a fair amount of the concussions are from the unsuspecting hits,” Martel says. “If you look at players at the high end, there are some that rarely get hit. But if they do, they're completely aware that it’s going to happen. What information are they taking in that helps them be aware?”


Proactively teaching players to be good scanners at 12U is just another part of the process of player development. It’s imperative to away-from-the-puck support, which is almost the entire game for any individual skater.

“So much of the game is played away from the puck yet we give a lot of feedback to players only about when they have the puck,” Jablonic says. “That’s less than like two percent of the time in a game.”

The other 98 percent is vital to the success of a team. Given that 12U is the age when concepts of team play are really accelerating, it makes scanning the ice a critical component of development at this age.

“How do you set your teammate up for success by getting open and reading the play, leading to the end result?” Jablonic says. “We talk about team speed and team defense. Those are things that all work together, and that's the beauty of our game. Yes there's individual skill, but it's how you work together and enhance that.”


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