Q: I have coached in my local club for eight years. I now coach the 14U team. Our club has implemented ADM recommendations on and off the ice with this group since 8U. My question is, as a 14U coach, how do I implement some tactical elements to the game in an age-appropriate manner?
A: As you know, skill development never ends. Just ask the NHL skills coaches about how much they continue to refine fundamental skills at the highest level. It’s important to remember that the skill development window never completely closes (though it does get smaller after the Golden Age of Skill Development at 10U/12U) and you will be working with athletes whose skills need to be “re-coordinated” or “re-calibrated” because of growth spurts due to puberty.
As for your question, we use the term “link.”
Part of your job as the coach is to link the different parts of the game together for your players so they can start to understand the game as a whole. What do your players do with the puck after a breakout? How do your players enter the defensive zone off a backcheck? What is your center’s responsibility during a breakout after defensive zone responsibility is over? How do your players enter the offensive zone with the puck?
These are just a few of the scenarios that will present themselves in the game of ice hockey. Since your players are equipped with good decision-making skills, and since the brain of a 14U or 16U player is developed more than that of a 12U player, these older players are ready and capable of processing more information during a hockey game and practice.
I am also assuming that your athletes have been encouraged to play multiple sports, not just hockey. By participating in other sports, especially invasion sports like lacrosse, soccer and basketball, many of the tactics that you want to teach should be familiar to your players. For example, ball protection in a down-low situation, creating small 2v1s to create offense, angling, body leverage and player-advantage situations. Multi-sport athletes will have familiarity and a comfort level when you introduce these types of concepts.
In Sweden, coaches start to link the game at 15U. Here they have an opposite approach and teach individually to the players on how to link the team game. Swedish coaches will communicate and illustrate to individuals what their duties are on the ice.
My advice? Provide your players with clear instruction of what you want your team to accomplish while working together. Using video examples is a great place to start.
It’s OK to start slow with your team when introducing more complexity, just like it’s important to be patient when teaching a 6-year-old how to handle a puck. Consider the example of zone entries. At the start of the season, you may introduce options to your 14U team and have them execute those options 2v0, 3v0 or 4v0. You want your players to understand the spacing and how the parts work together. Poor coaches stay at this entry level far too long. Having your players perform 2v0 for several weeks will be detrimental to the player because there is no decision-making required in this situation. Elite coaches, on the other hand, will move past this step as soon as options are understood by the team.
Next, you want to provide repetitions without being repetitive. These come from live-action drills. Be creative and structure drills where players encounter live rushes 2v1, 2v2, 3v2, 3v3, backchecker, no backchecker, etc., so the players have many opportunities to execute the team’s game plan under pressure and with proper spacing and decision-making.
Real growth and linking will occur because the players are in tune with each other, they understand what the team is trying to accomplish, and they’ve developed the ability to read and react under pressure or at a game-like pace.
Small-area games are a great tool to provide live action and parameters to get the desired effect with your players. Elite coaches have the ability to alter games or drills to facilitate the desired outcome of the team game.
In short, focus on strong team concepts and habits. Communicate clearly the desired style of play. Slowly introduce new team concepts. Move quickly to live-action, game-like scenarios for your players.
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.
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