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14U/16U: Learning to Compete

06/12/2024, 3:30pm MDT
By Michael Rand

Why Coaches Love Compete

Perhaps you have heard a coach (or 100) talk about his or her team’s level of “compete” after a hockey game at pretty much any level.

It’s unavoidable. Almost all coaches want it and talk about it. But what does it really mean?

Scott Paluch, a player development director for USA Hockey, has a great way to define it – and also can help explain its significance in the modern game, particularly for 14U and 16U players.


To Paluch, two things stand out when it comes to a player’s compete level.

“I think the number one thing obviously is compete on the puck. It is a huge, huge part of the game,” Paluch says. “The ability to go into puck battles, win races, understand the path to a battle and ultimately, constantly, consistently win pucks. It is a huge part of players becoming better and ultimately, traits of really high-end players.”

Those traits can be pretty easy to see, as our eyes naturally tend to follow the puck during a hockey game. But the second trait is also essential, Paluch says. 

“There are also players that compete so hard away from the puck to take away chances or get in dangerous areas, disrupt games and pick off passes,” he says. “They compete hard to know where they have to be. I think it's a huge thing. The underlying factor in both is the same and I think this is huge.”


Ask 10 different coaches whether “compete” can be taught, and you might get 10 different answers. It’s a nuanced subject that Paluch tackles deftly.

“I think there is an inherent desire to compete hard, but I also think there's no question in my mind that most athletes can learn to compete and compete more consistently when given the proper environment to compete,” Paluch says. “I think players clearly will adapt to do more things correctly and elevate their compete level based on the training and the support that they've been given. I think that can go a long way.”

So in his mind, it’s a little of both. Because all individuals are different, especially those still developing as humans and players like 14U and 16U athletes, there are going to be natural differences in internal drive. But the fundamental skills needed to raise one’s compete level can be taught.

“I don't think it'll ever take away from the fact that two athletes next to each other, one could be inherently more competitive,” Paluch says. “But I do think that both athletes have the ability to improve the competitive aspect of the game that's going to make them better players.”


To that end, Paluch puts the onus on coaches. He correctly notes that “every coach prefers competitive players,” but he also gets frustrated when he visits practices and doesn’t find a competitive environment.

“We don't see a lot of puck compete,” Paluch says. “We see a lot of pucks being given to players – starting activities with, ‘I'm going to give you a puck and here's what I'm going to ask you to do.’ The game is demanding something totally different. The game is demanding that we compete for the puck. So I think the, the training environment is critical.”

Failing to create a competitive practice environment, Paluch says, can lead coaches to unfairly decide that some players just don’t have the skills or will to compete.

“I think sometimes we may decide that certain players are competitive or not, but we need to give that player enough opportunities,” he says. “I think if they're put in a proper environment to see the value of winning more pucks by their coaches, through conversation and through film, they will know exactly how meaningful it is.”


The two elements of competing, both on the puck and away from it – the latter of which Paluch refers to as “hockey sense” – will help players move up levels.

“Being an elite player a lot of times incorporates the fact that you do have a level of competitiveness that puts you there,” he says. “I think especially as you go up a level, you know, going from 12U to 14U or 14U to 16U, that compete level is making you a much better player and making you a player that's going be near the top of that particular level.”

That’s particularly true in the modern, fast-paced game filled with quick decisions, rapid transitions and a high value placed on possession.

“Certainly with how much of the game is played in tighter areas along the wall with the amount of puck battles that we have and puck races, I think clearly you need to have a high level of compete to continue up the ladder in our sport,” Paluch says. “As players move up and as teams are being chosen, the compete level is such a strong indicator who's going to be successful.”


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