skip navigation

12U Q-and-A: Boosting creativity with free play

11/17/2016, 2:45pm MST
By Joe Bonnett, ADM Regional Manager

Q: I am a parent/coach of a 12U team. Our players seem robotic and they lack creativity. What are your suggestions to help get them out of this rut?

A: Free Play!

I recently had a great opportunity to travel to Michigan and visit the U.S. National Under-18 Team during the 2016 Under-18 Five Nations Tournament. While there, I also met with the Swiss, Czech and Swedish coaches. The purpose was to discuss youth hockey structure, culture and overall development of players within their countries.

The Swedish discussion was amazing and very relevant to your question of creativity. As I travel around my region of the United States, I hear how coaches and parents are concerned with the amount of free-play time that their child engages in on a weekly basis. Families are often boxed in with their calendars, over-scheduled and busy driving from one activity to another. Sometimes the opportunity for kids to play street hockey, pond hockey or simply be outside is lost in the shuffle.

The Swedes agree. Their culture is changing as well, and their kids are tied to their screens more than ever. So when the Swedes were asked about the amount of free play the Swedish youth hockey player encounters on a weekly basis, they simply responded, “not enough.”  

As a youth 12U coach or parent, it’s imperative to provide an environment where your players can be free of criticism, fear of failure or the win-at-all-costs pressure of performing. Providing players with an environment of discovery or learning through trial and error is an underlying confidence booster to all players. How often are your players allowed to try a new move they saw Dylan Larkin perform on TV (sorry, their iPad)? Often these moves take many repetitions to master. Do you allow your players to master new moves?

A great format to promote creativity and energy within your club is the 4v4 free-play half-ice format. Have the coaches take a back seat for the night and put creativity in the driver’s seat. I have seen many clubs divide two or three teams (i.e., three rec teams or three travel teams such as AA-A-B) into four even teams by mixing the ability evenly among the teams. Allow each team to play three 17-minute periods, one against each team. Most clubs will run a buzzer at 60 seconds, but your players can also change on the fly. Feel free to keep score and make it competitive and your players will love coming to the rink and working on their game.

Once this format is up and running, coaches can put conditions on the game, such as staggered shifts (promoting line changes, breakouts and forecheck), alternate PP-PK, conditions such as  five-man units across the halfway line and fun.

The other lesson learned from conversations with the Swedes is at 12U we need to encourage what’s important. The Swedes don’t keep track of scores and standings in 12U. They make this choice to create a culture that permits coaches to emphasize skill development and participation of all players rather than focusing on the short-term outcome of winning.

Lastly, one hour of free-play is good, but it will not fix a sedentary child. That is why USA Hockey’s ADM managers heavily promote the use of small-area games with conditions and live action in every practice.

So, if you want to spark more creativity in your players, skip the premeditated cone drills that aren’t game-like. Instead, give your players a healthy dose of small-area games and free-play that will promote proper physical activity and brain activity. Consistently challenging your players to think, have fun and try new moves will result in a deeper love of the game and more creativity throughout your entire team.

The author, Joe Bonnett, has more than 20 years of hockey coaching experience, including 18 seasons at the NCAA Division I level. Before entering the college ranks, he was a 12U and 16U coach in Michigan.

Recent News

Tag(s): Q&A Articles