Q: My child’s 8U team is now in a half-ice league. Does this mean that the coaches will start working on systems and plays?
A: With the increasing number of children playing 8U hockey in the United States, an increasing number of scheduling agreements, leagues and jamborees are being formed. This is not a bad thing, nor is it against the principles of high-performance training (the American Development Model) for 8U players. In fact, this is a necessary step for many associations in order to follow more closely one of the most important principles of the ADM: grouping players by similar ability.
8U players, like players of all ages, should be practicing with players who closely resemble their own level of skill, experience and ability. This can often be accomplished within the association, even with 48-60 players on the ice, by practicing in a station-based format.
In addition, however, it is also important for players to compete against players of similar ability when playing in cross- or half-ice games. In many associations, for whatever reason, this is sometimes more difficult to facilitate. Therefore, the formation of 8U leagues often solve this problem by providing a format by which associations can match up their players by skill, experience and ability against similar players from another association.
Unfortunately, this sometimes leads coaches and parents to believe that because an 8U team is in a league that this is the time to start working on systems, team tactics, and plays. This is entirely incorrect. High-performance development at 8U, whether players are in a league or in a series of jamborees, should still be focused on the individual development of the player. Valuable ice time should not be wasted at the 8U age level on structured team systems, but rather the emphasis should remain on the ABCs of athleticism (agility, balance and coordination), individual skills (skating, puck control, passing and receiving, etc.) and individual tactics (getting to pucks first, winning puck battles and protecting the puck). There will be plenty of time later in the development process, when it’s age-appropriate, for coaches to emphasize team tactics.
Game competition at the 8U age level is not about the score at the end of the game, but rather about placing the players in an engaging and challenging game environment where they compete against players of similar ability in an effort to develop their individual skills. Playing in these situations will help further their development while teaching our youngest players the importance individual competition in a team environment.
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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