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Building Balance at 8U

01/08/2016, 4:00pm MST
By Michael Rand - Special to USA Hockey

A major milestone in any child’s development comes when he or she masters the alphabet. The ABCs, after all, are the building blocks for their literate lives.

What many parents likely focus on less – at least as milestones or pivot points for life – are a different set of ABCs, as defined by USA Hockey’s American Development Model: agility, balance and coordination.

They all go hand-in-hand. Michele Amidon, USA Hockey’s ADM manager for female hockey, describes wonderfully how that second set of ABCs is also important for a different kind of literacy.

“Physical literacy is a life skill. Many sport physiologists recommend having kids participate in activities that involve the four elements between the ages of 0 and 12 to help reach your genetic potential,” Amidon says, listing off those elements: land, water and air as well as snow/ice. “Learning to move is just as important as learning to read and write.”

And hockey, played on the last of those four elements, is a great avenue for learning fundamentals.

“Sports like ice hockey help kids develop physical literacy, which gives players confidence and competence while participating within a quality experience,” Amidon says.

We’re going to focus here on balance, particularly as it pertains to players in the 8U age group, with the understanding that all of the ABCs are tied together.

Why Is Balance So Important?

Having good balance is essential to a lot of different sports. A baseball player needs balance at the plate, on the pitching mound and in the field. A gymnast, of course, would be nothing without balance.

But a hockey player, in particular, is performing a specific set of skills that are uncommon to many other athletic endeavors.

“Hockey is like no other sport in the fact that we are not only executing fundamental skill sets on one leg, but we are doing so on one-eighth of an inch of a steel blade (skates) and on ice,” Amidon says. 

When Should Kids Start Working on Balance?

Essentially, balance work comes naturally as a part of an introduction to sports, because as Amidon notes, balance is an element of coordination.

While the 8U age group might be a little young for specific balance drills, all players on the ice at 8U will be working on it in some form.

“The sensitive windows of trainability for balance (are) ages 10-11 for boys and 9-10 for girls,” Amidon says. “However, developing coordination is a necessity to build athleticism.  It is essential to work on coordination between the ages of 6 and 14. It is a long-term process, but the younger the better.”  

At younger ages, this can be done in a variety of different settings and ways – and by no means should it be limited to hockey. Part of the ADM’s foundation is built on constructing athletes, not just hockey players.

“USA Hockey encourages players to have fun and explore many different sports before specializing in one or two sports after the age of 14,” Amidon says. “Physical literacy needs to be cultivated through experiences and environments. The ability to develop movement skills and patterns throughout a wide range of physical activities and settings is key.”

Improving Balance and Coordination

USA Hockey recommends a wide range of free-play games and drills aimed at guided discovery for young players. Many of them are listed here under sample practice plans here.

“Give the players the opportunity to explore through fun, station-based obstacle courses, relay races and age-appropriate small-area games like shark attack, red light-green light, freeze tag, barrier tag, British bulldog, etc.,” Amidon said. “Include agility in relay races and obstacle courses like: jumping over barriers, sticks, Supermans, log rolls, knee spins, chariots.”

Off the ice, there are just as many great balance-improving games and drills. Amidon suggests hopscotch, hop and catch, bear crawls and crab walks as well as activities such as wave surfing and rock climbing. A good sampling of specific training for 8U players can be found here.

With those things in mind, young athletes in the 8U age group who are attuned to both their minds and bodies should see improvements in both sets of ABCs – two entirely different but important concepts of literacy.

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