There is an art to hockey, and every young hockey player is a blank canvas. The temptation might be to cram every bit of technique into every square inch of the sheet because, in theory, being able to execute the right brush strokes will lead to a good painting.
But art isn't just about repetition and copying of master works. It's about the imagination of the artist flowing freely. So, too, is hockey.
As such, while it is important that young hockey players learn techniques, it is perhaps even more valuable that they simply learn to play in an unstructured environment, says David Kittner, a youth fitness expert who was named the International Youth Conditioning Association's coach of the year in 2014.
The Art of Discovery
When players at critical levels of hockey development such as 10U are allowed to develop skills in an unstructured setting, there are several benefits, Kittner says.
"It's important for many reasons. First and foremost is that kids learn through discovery," he says. "When it's unstructured, they learn things on their own. They explore, they discover and use their imaginations to do things. If it's always a structured practice, it becomes very choreographed and kids lose interest quickly because it's not engaging for them."
At that age, kids are still figuring out what their bodies are capable of doing. Having them repeat the same movements over and over can limit the range of what they think is possible, Kittner says.
"The more that they play and discover on their own, the more they're going to learn how to move and more importantly their bodies are going to learn how to move," Kittner says. "The more ways they learn to move, the better off they're going to be in the short term and the long term as well.”
The consequences of not giving young hockey players enough unstructured time to play can be ugly, both physically and mentally, Kittner says.
"I've never had a kid who didn't like (unstructured) play," he says. "We have to give them the time, space and permission to play. Often we're not, and kids are suffering as a result."
As mounting scientific evidence and common sense suggest, children need variety for optimal development, including optimal athletic development.
"They should play hockey when it's hockey season and be playing summer sports when it's summer season," Kittner says. "Athletically their bodies will be better prepared, they'll have fewer overuse injuries and they'll have less burnout. Wayne Gretzky has spoken out numerous times about that, and the stats from healthcare professionals on overuse injuries in hockey and other sports are clear. Kids are not getting enough breaks."
Paying the Price
For parents, it can be hard to throttle back and understand that lettings kids go down to the local outdoor rink to skate or to play other sports in the summer is actually good for their development.
There is a mentality that more is better, combined with a fear that pulling back equals falling behind.
"I think it happens at a household level. A parent has the choice of whether a child plays summer hockey or not – and to play the kind of traveling hockey that costs thousands of dollars and takes up every waking moment," Kittner says. "That's a choice we have. At some point, adults have to exercise logic. We have to balance what we think is best for the kids."
Parents sometimes get caught in the trap of living vicariously through their kids or believing that "I didn't make it when I was a kid so I'm going to have my kids play hockey 12 months a year because I didn't have that opportunity," Kittner says.
The reality is that, for a young hockey player, just like an artist, there is a time to learn and there is a time to explore.
"We have to invest in their future, and (unstructured play) is one way. It's the greatest gift we can give kids. They're over-structured and over-programmed," Kittner says. "The best thing we can do is give them a full range of activities, both structured and unstructured, year-round.”
Photo by Mike Doyle.