John Wroblewski spends every day trying to get the most he can out of some pretty talented hockey players.
The head coach of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Under-18 Team is guiding a group of players who are considered some of the best in their age group.
Still, they, like all hockey players, need help cultivating their creativity from time to time.
Wroblewski, a native of Neenah, Wisconsin, shared some tips with USA Hockey on how developing players can build more creativity into their repertoires.
Shrinking the playing surface forces players to make quick decisions and invent new ways of accomplishing goals.
“Small-area games are huge,” Wroblewski said. “When you’re creative and you’re making the plays, there has to be a purpose to it, and in small areas, it makes you think faster. The small areas – you think fast, you make a play, and then there’s that reward factor as well. If you make that play quickly, the net’s right there, almost every time it turns into a scoring chance. That’s why those small areas are so important – they see the reward instantly for that quick decision that they’ve made and the execution.”
Small-area games also help players develop and refine next-level skills.
“The finer points in small games are enormous,” Wroblewski said. “Flat passes. Anything that’s rolling pretty much nullifies any scoring chance because the back-checker or the defender will be on you, will be on your target quicker than you would like. Anything on a player’s backhand or in his feet, all of a sudden that takes away the opportunity for transition in a small area.
“You start to pick up on things like, ‘All right, my teammate is a left shot, or a right shot; get it on this guy’s forehand, how do you present yourself,’ – all of those things are magnified within a small-area game, and if you execute properly, you’re rewarded with a scoring chance.”
Study the pros
Wroblewski said that a story written by Evgeny Kuznetsov for The Players’ Tribune really stuck with him when it comes to studying professional hockey players from afar.
“It had to deal with when to put a puck behind the defense,” Wroblewski said. “In Russia, they’re always taught to hold onto the puck and bring it back. He spoke about the necessity to put the puck behind defensemen, just to give yourself some reprieve, back them off.
When your kids are watching hockey, encourage them to watch it with a purpose. It’s just another opportunity to learn.
“I encourage guys to see where players use their creativity,” said Wroblewski. “Almost all of it is below the top of the circles, whether it’s on line rushes, drop passes, things like that, almost exclusively below the top of the circles or when they know for sure that there’s hardly any risk to their play. Risk assessment is a big part of creativity. It’s not just a blind play. There should be a plan or a purpose to your creativity every time you use it.”
Creative skill work and free play
Wroblewski wants some time for the young players to have fun and try new things at the end of each practice.
“That’s something that I think is really important,” Wroblewski said. “You look at society in general right now, and people have organized playtime and things like that. You set up and this is how you’re going to play and this is who you are going to play with. There is very little ability for people nowadays to be able to just go out and allow their minds to think freely.
“We do a lot of things that are structured that involve skill work, so what we like to do is give players a template. Here are some items you can work on – different tip drills, different small-area work for hands – and then see what they want to do with them. One-timers and things like that. Allow the template to evolve under their terms.”
Sometimes it’s better for coaches and parents to take a back seat and create an unstructured, free-play environment for kids to … wait for it … play!
Players must have control over their own skills before their creativity can grow on the ice. Plus, off-ice practice can help foster new ideas, new games and new ways to improve and have fun.
“It certainly helps,” said Wroblewski. “You can work on your motor skills in all different facets, whether it’s stickhandling with blinders on, or using tennis balls and bouncing them off the walls. Again, that creativity of how you can utilize the surface and area and make it yours. It’s a unique ability, and all of those things will magnify your ability to think. Think outside of the box and create in different areas.”
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes
Wroblewski wants players unafraid of mistakes and actively seeking ways to succeed.
“Anything that’s done at a high pace and with a purpose can be utilized and critiqued with positivity,” he said. “As long as there is full effort and a purpose to what you’re doing, there’s never a mistake. There is not a lot of room for carelessness in this game and in life in general. There’s a fine line there between carelessness and being willing to make a mistake, but I’m a firm supporter of a player who says, ‘I knew I could make that play,’ and he’s driving his feet and it’s a good time in the game and, yeah, sometimes it doesn’t go and it goes the other way. But that’s a part of how we learn and improve. Now we just have to recover, and that’s why we’ve got goaltenders.
“It can’t be careless, but with a purpose, there is plenty of opportunity to make mistakes. The game’s full of them.”
Remember: If they’re not failing, they’re not improving. It’s how kids get better.