December is when the youth hockey season shifts into high gear. For 8U players, the timid introductions are in the past and now it’s all about developing those fundamental skills and having fun. Hopefully you’ve found a program that delivers a great experience for your child, because first impressions are important. But what if you’re not so sure? Not all youth hockey associations are created equal, and it’s definitely fair to want the best fit. Here are some things to consider as you ponder the remainder of this season and the seasons to come.
As parents of young players, your primary goal should be finding an organization that incorporates fun and individual skill development into its youth hockey, emphasizing these elements over winning on the scoreboard. Healthy, age-appropriate competition is always encouraged, but with the goal of smiling faces and sweaty heads after the games or practices.
The principles of USA Hockey’s American Development Model, and the programs that put these principles into action, help parents find teams for their children that focus on long-term athlete development and helping every player reach his or her full long-term potential. The aim isn’t necessarily to win 8U trophies. Instead, the emphasis is on creating an environment that will position children to reach their peak when it really matters – in their late teen years and beyond.
ADM programs not only help ensure that players receive an age-appropriate, age-specific experience for development, they also help keep our sons and daughters in the game, loving the game. Statistics show that ADM programs increase player-retention rates, which only happens by creating happy hockey players. Happy hockey players become players for life, which leads to a healthier, more physically fit lifestyle.
At the 8U level, the ADM recommends two on-ice practices weekly and a game competition in a cross-ice format. This is the optimum mix for high-performance long-term hockey development at the 8U age classification. More isn’t necessarily better. Kids are kids, not mini-professionals, and they should be afforded ample time to for unstructured hockey play and other activities that develop them as people and all-around athletes. Plus, following this type of 8U hockey schedule reduces the chances of future burnout and overuse injuries.
Programs that offer this ADM format should be your top choice, since they emphasize age-specific skill development and fun above all. Benefits of these include more puck touches and shots, age-appropriate body contact in small areas to help instill the foundations of proper technique, and assurance that the age-specific Windows of Trainability have been optimally utilized for your child.
Windows of Trainability are incredibly important. Sport science shows that proper development at the right time is essential for ensuring that each player is able to reach his or her full athletic potential over the long term. For example, explosive speed can only be maximized at an early age. Whatever speed isn’t developed within that window is much more difficult or impossible to gain at a later age. Therefore, Speed Window 1 is a crucial milestone in a youth hockey player’s ladder of athletic development. In the cross-ice game, players make maximum use of Speed Window 1 through short, explosive races and bursts, as well as a fun dryland training component, which USA Hockey details here.
Another component of the best youth hockey experience is practice structure. To simultaneously meet our goal of developing both a love of the game and skill, the practice format should be station-based, which helps make your child’s experience is a pleasant, engaging one. Why is practice format so important? In part, because station-based practices eliminate long lines during drills, dull laps and lengthy lectures, assuring that players get the most out of every practice. For example, players are capable of getting an estimated equivalent of seven years’ development through participation in one season of station-based practices versus the traditional one-team, full-ice practice. This estimation is based on activity analysis that measured the number of shots and passes made, as well as time each player spent with the puck on his or her stick.
Ultimately, factors such as cost, distance to the rink and where a child’s friends are playing may also affect a family’s choice in hockey program. These are all valid factors to consider, in addition to the skill-development side of the decision. But for 8U players, some factors shouldn’t be among the considerations. For example, it’s less important to base your decision on how “good” the team will be and whether your child is playing with the best players in town.
At the end of your evaluation, you’ll find that a program offering age-appropriate, age-specific development, as well as a group of coaches who have a passion and love for teaching the game of hockey to 8U players, will give you the most assurance that your children will love hockey and reach their full potential.
Enjoy the rest of the season!