Youth hockey coaches who work with the youngest players know all too well that trying to organize a practice can be like herding cats.
I became even more convinced of this after watching my soon-to-be 6-year-old nephew go through just a single one-hour practice. You’re dealing with players from all different skill levels, but usually only one energy level: overdrive.
But there are tips and techniques to help little skaters get the most from their ice time, says David Kittner, a youth fitness expert who was named the International Youth Conditioning Association's coach of the year in 2014.
Kittner offers up fun on-ice games as an alternative to traditional hockey drills. He said it’s a way to not only keep 8U players engaged, but also help them develop motor skills, coordination and athleticism.
“Bring a soccer ball onto the ice. Bring beach balls onto the ice and play a game of soccer with those,” Kittner advises. “It gets kids moving in all different directions and in all planes of motion.”
The point, of course, isn’t to make these young skaters experts in ice tag, avoiding tires or kicking a soccer ball with their skates. It’s all part of a much greater good: building skills and athleticism in a fun environment.
“When they’re fun and engaging, kids will want to do them the whole practice,” Kittner says. “The last thing an 8-year-old wants to do is stand in line and wait to do some shooting drill or some passing drill or some system drill. They don’t have the cognitive ability to understand a lot of it. And that’s why I love agility drills.”
Even letting kids slide on their bellies is good for agility because it’s teaching young athletes about how their bodies work, Kittner says.
“It’s stuff that’s hockey but not hockey,” Kittner says. “All of those things are great because they’re not focused on the hockey player. They’re focused on the child. It helps the child become more athletic and it helps the child become a better mover. It’s helping their skating, balance and agility. And it comes down to the fact that they’re having fun doing it, and it’s not work.”
Just as importantly, it’s going to keep them coming back for more.
“It helps the child fall in love with coming to practice,” Kittner says. “When they don’t want to come is when we make it a chore with drill after drill after drill.”
The thing is, Kittner says, young players probably won’t even realize the logic behind what they’re doing. But coaches will see the benefits of getting kids moving in all different directions. Today’s game of tag or obstacle course is tomorrow’s puck battle in the corner or poke check.
“A kid that age doesn’t want to hear a monologue about ‘this drill is going to develop this skill,’” Kittner says. “They don’t care. But if you say, ‘We’re going to play tag,’ they’ll think it’s awesome.”