Q: Developmentally, is it better to play more games or get more practice time throughout the season?
A: Applying a business term to player development, the least return-on-investment (ROI) comes from games. Consider all the time invested, not only in the game itself, but also in driving to the game, dressing for a game, sitting between shifts and sitting through intermissions. Total that time investment and compare it to your young teenager’s actual puck time during the game itself. It’s not a favorable ratio for skill development. In fact, for players who truly love playing hockey, it’s not even a favorable ratio for fun.
One of the saddest realities about North American youth hockey is that far too many of our players are being coached to win a race to the wrong finish line.
In order to optimally prepare these young teenaged athletes for the 16U, 18U/19U and collegiate levels of hockey, parents and coaches must take a step back and rethink the youth sports training environment. What’s the goal? Do you want players to peak at 14U or do you want them to reach their full potential?
The average player touches the puck for less than 60 seconds in a game. It’s impossible to become a highly skilled player in 60 seconds or while being active for an average of only 16-18 minutes per game. It’s exceedingly inefficient in terms of skill development. Playing more games simply isn’t the best way to improve technical or tactical skills. And despite how caught up some people get in the outcomes of 14U hockey games, these outcomes really don’t matter, unless seeing children peak at 14U is the goal. But do you want to see kids peak at 14 in any other aspect of their life? Of course not. So why should hockey be any different?
At 14U, it should still be all about player development, all about the future and all about grooming teenagers to reach their full potential years down the road.
Two-thirds of today’s game is played in one-third of the ice. Players who excel at higher levels have the ability to transition quickly, play at high speed and dominate in small areas. They have that ability because they can confidently control the puck while making quick decisions at high speeds. That doesn’t come from 60 seconds of puck time during a game. It comes from thousands of repetitions in fun practice drills, competitive small-area games (SAGs) and unstructured play. If we want our players to be sound technically and tactically in congested areas – where the game is truly won or lost – then coaches should use small-area training as the primary means of player development, far outweighing the number of games a team might play.
So we’ve established that practice is a more developmentally beneficial than games at 14U. But what makes a good practice? SAGs aren’t the only ingredient, but they’re a key ingredient. They offer unscripted playing opportunities that help develop players’ individual and teamwork skills and tactics. They allow the game to be the teacher while creating conditions that allow for random outcomes versus blocked. This helps players internalize lessons and develop creativity and the ability to problem-solve on their own, which of course helps them become winners on and off the ice.
SAGs also inject practice with tremendous transfer value, meaning that the skills, situations and techniques players conquer in practice are directly applicable in the game setting. As players achieve competency with their basic skills, it’s vital that practice drills become game-like to have high value (transfer). Scripted drills that don’t connect skill execution to a hockey decision have very little transfer to the genuine game-playing environment. This is why SAGs are so valuable as a teaching tool in practice. They force players to make decisions in a competitive live-play environment.
Click here to see our United States National Under-17 Team playing a SAG that creates real offensive and defensive situations around the net, and as a result, high transfer value.
Tier I and NCAA coaches are looking for players who can read and react in all areas of the ice; players who have an instinct for the game to complement their high skill level. They want creative, adaptable players. They aren’t looking for players who can only function in a small role or system. In fact, players trained in a systems-heavy youth hockey environment are at a disadvantage. Most likely, the next team they play on will use different offensive and defensive systems. Where will they be then, without a foundation of creativity and instinctual play?
SAGs are excellent teachers because they allow players of all ages and skill levels to hone their basic skills in confined and competitive situations. By using small areas and short shifts, players are challenged to read and react quickly under pressure, and by doing so, they learn to think and see the ice better. They also encourage players to battle hard for the puck while at the same time having lots of fun.
Every NHL team uses SAGs. When the Buffalo Sabres wanted to measure incoming prospects’ compete level, they devoted an entire day of their July development camp to playing small-ice hockey.
Buffalo’s format of choice was an intense 3-on-3 tournament played within 75 feet of ice, from the attacking blue line to the end boards (one end zone). Time and space was in short supply by design, demanding maximum skill and grit from the Sabres’ 40 invitees.
“To me, the 3-on-3 is more important than the full-ice scrimmage,” said Tim Murray, Buffalo’s newly appointed general manager. “It’s a lot harder type of game than it is playing end-to-end. It’s a battle. Everything’s a battle. The guys that don’t battle are on the periphery and they don’t have a big impact.”
The author, Michele Amidon, was a four-year letter-winner at St. Lawrence University and an ECAC MVP. Later, as a coach, she guided Bowdoin to a pair of national tournaments en route to being named NCAA Division III Women’s Hockey Coach of the Year.