Q: I coach a 12U "AAA" team in the Midwest. Winning is important to our organization, but so is the development of players. What should be my main focus in practice when it comes to their development?
A: You, and your organization, are correct in prioritizing the continued development of your players. While all youth coaches at all age levels should be delivering the proper amount of skill development, coaches at the 12U age level must be especially cognizant that this is the critical stage for sports skill acquisition.
While players must practice a high volume of skills-training exercises, games and drills at a reduced intensity in order to achieve successful repetitions, the player must first be exposed to quality skill demonstrations, as this creates a mental picture for them to emulate. As the player’s success rate of performing the skill increases, then the speed and intensity of his or her performance can increase. However, coaches must understand that performing skills incorrectly at a high rate of speed will only reinforce poor skills through this stage. In addition, coaches must remember that skill acquisition is reduced as the fatigue level increases, and therefore monitoring the work/rest ratio in practice is critical to having players achieve success.
Once players have begun successfully performing a skill, coaches should provide opportunities for the players to execute their skills in game situations. The best way to accomplish this is through the use of small-area games (SAGs). SAGs provide players with an environment where they can compete at a high tempo that mirrors a game situation.
12U hockey is also a very important time for players to begin gaining an understanding of how skills and tactics are applied within different playing situations. Coaches should manage the flow of information to their players by limiting their instruction to 3 to 5 key points per situation, this way the players can fully process the information given to them. It’s very important that coaches provide opportunities for repeated decision-making in practice, so solutions to common tactical situations can be learned.
Lastly, in all practice situations, remember to provide clear, consistent, concise and specific feedback to the athletes. The 12U age group is a critical age for players to not only develop their physical sports skills but their mental sport skills as well.
The author, Bob Mancini, is a longtime hockey coach and player-development expert. His experience includes two seasons in the NHL as an Edmonton Oilers development coach and more than a decade as a head coach in the NCAA Division I and OHL ranks.
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