Q: At the 10U level, should my child’s team be working on systems in order to win games?
A: This is a question I’m often asked by coaches, and occasionally by parents, too. They wonder if their teams would score more goals and give up fewer if the players knew where to stand, positionally, during games, i.e. “shouldn’t more practice time be allocated to teaching systems?”
But the argument in favor of more focus on system play at 10U is flawed. As a former college and professional hockey player, I played for many coaches over the course of my hockey journey, and there were very few along the way that wanted me to stand in the same place. For example, some teams play more of a man-to-man style, while others have defensemen, center and wing creeping down into the corner for loose-puck battles. The point is, systems will change throughout a player’s career, however, one thing is always certain: if a player can think in every situation and perform with high-level skills, they will have maneuverability, creativity in play and overall success on various teams.
A coach is much more inclined to find a place on his or her team for that kind of player, as opposed to the player who was merely taught where to stand rather than how to play. This idea is akin to the old adage of “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” The hockey version would go something like this: “Show kids positioning and they will survive for a day. Give them all the skills they need, and they will thrive for a lifetime.”
Most of these system-related questions arise from common misconceptions as the 10U players move from 8U cross-ice concepts and face the transition to full-ice play. At 10U, you’ll sometimes see the best player taking the puck end to end. A quick solution in the minds of some coaches is to teach more system play. However, the reality of why teams win or lose at 10U is, more often than not, because the winning team had two or three players that were bigger, stronger, faster and (maybe) more skilled, which therefore created a lopsided score. The reaction by the coach and parents should not be to blame our 10U children’s lack of positional or systematic execution. Instead, the focus should be on how to make our players more effective and more skilled through long-term athlete development. It’s shortsighted to think only in terms of gaining immediate gratification from winning a Saturday 10U game.
We need to remember the science behind USA Hockey’s American Development Model, which indicates that the crucial window of trainability for skill development comes at 10/12U. It’s difficult to make up for missed skill development once it is missed. The 10U level is where true development begins and accelerates because a child’s brain and body are ready for more. More what? More skills, including things like more complex passing scenarios than they did at 8U, shooting on the fly once stationary shooting has been taught and more complex edge work.
All the while, we can’t forget the ABCs (agility, balance and coordination) during this time period (both on and off the ice) and finally more complex small-area games. These small-area games are important because they stretch a 10U players’ hockey sense, while also teaching the concepts and habits of success that will be paramount at more advanced levels.
These essential skill development experiences are difficult to accomplish without committing to a 3:1 practice-to-game ratio, due to the fact there is so much to develop with these young players who are now physically and mentally ready to soak it all in with a high number of reps and puck touches during practice while continuing to have fun.
So keep a long-term view. Developing children’s talent and grooming them to reach their full potential in the years to come is far more important than the outcome of a 10U hockey game. Don’t supplant skill development with schemes. Stay the course with skill development and your players will continue loving the game and progressing toward becoming all-around better players who can excel at the highest levels.
The author, Matt Herr, played in the NHL and won two NCAA national championships with the Michigan Wolverines. In addition to being a Washington Capitals draft pick in 1994, he was also selected in the Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft.