Some parents cringe when development is stressed over winning at the 12U level. It’s understandable that parents don’t want their kids to lose. That’s not the message.
“We’re not against winning,” says Joe Doyle, assistant men’s hockey coach at Division-I Air Force Academy. “Winning is fine. When the kids show up on Saturday, they should be competing their tails off trying to win that game. If a kid has two goals, he should be looking for his third.”
The main concern? Coaches should not be taking shortcuts in the interest of scoreboard results or individual statistics. Those shortcuts are sometimes taken during both practices and games – and it’s detrimental to kids in the long-term.
Focus less on the scoreboard and more on individual improvement.
“Too often, parents gauge their kids’ rate of development based on the scoreboard,” says Doyle. “If the team is winning – even if the kid is missing shifts in games – some parents believe their kid is developing.”
At 12U, the best service coaches and parents can provide to kids is a focus on working on individual skills and team concepts through small-area games.
Don’t shorten the bench
Shortening the bench at this age is detrimental to long-term development. Every player should be given the chance to play in critical situations.
“Seriously? At 9, 10 or 11 years old, we’re going to shorten the bench?” says Doyle. “We have no idea at those ages who’s going to be a great player. Shortening the bench changes their developmental path. Playing five or six kids more than the others – that’s criminal. If that happened in the classroom, teachers would get fired.”
Depriving kids of playing time at this age not only hurts development, it’s not fun. If players repeatedly miss shifts, soon the fun is gone and so too may their desire to return next season. Keep the kids on the ice and let them fall in love with the game.
Don’t be a “joystick coach or parent”
During the games, let the kids decide the outcome. Don’t let the adults get in the middle of it, whether it’s hollering out what the next play is from the stands, shortening the bench or teaching them one or two breakouts that they have to use every time.
“If you’re joystick-coaching from the bench and yelling to your kids what the next play is – that’s robbing them of one of the most important hockey skills out there: awareness,” says Doyle. “That’s reading plays, feeling pressure and figuring out the game as you go.”
Let kids figure it out.
“The game will teach,” says Doyle. “We’re all about team concepts at 11 or 12. Instead of breakouts, teach them about puck support. If your defenseman’s in trouble and you’re the next closest player, you need to get low and in a near-support position to that player. All of these things you can teach in small-area games where kids get a ton of reps doing that.”
This is the ripest age for skill development
In the practice environment, kids should be working on skills such as skating, shooting, passing and receiving. This is not the age to work on breakouts, power-plays and systems. That time will come, but it is not now. If there is one hour of ice time, kids should be spending 45-50 minutes working on skills. This is what is really going to give these kids a chance to succeed down the road.
Consensus sport science research tells us that this window of trainability – tabbed Learn to Train at ages 9-12 for boys and 8-11 for girls in USA Hockey’s player development materials -- is when their bodies are ripest for skill development.
“Their headlights are full-on,” says Doyle. “They’re on high beams as far as being receptive to this.”
Skills can still improve at later ages, but it takes a much greater effort for less return.
“You can coach 20-year-olds in college and change their skill set a little bit, but not much,” adds Doyle. “At 9-12, if we can get kids to do these skills technically correct, that will pay unbelievable dividends down the road. The gains that can be made during this window are astronomical.”