When it comes to development through the different age groups in hockey, there isn’t one level that is more important than the other.
Ken Martel, technical director for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, says every level from 8U up presents its own challenges – and each is its own most important hill to climb at the time.
That said, 12U does present a unique jump because it’s the level where more of the mental skills of hockey are starting to come into play. Young skaters are learning to anticipate and process more big-picture concepts on the ice, and as a result the game starts to look different.
Here are some of the ways that plays out:
Mental skills leap
Martel is quick to point out that teenagers – let alone 12-year-olds – don’t have fully developed brains. Their ability to judge consequences and other things isn’t on par with adults (which is why, if you have a teenager with a driver’s license, you likely have a hefty car insurance bill).
But by age 12, young hockey players are – as a group – more ready to absorb some concepts that many just aren’t ready for at 10U and 8U. It’s not that kids at those levels aren’t intelligent, but their stages of brain development tend to make skill-building more important early on. With that base, the building continues at 12U.
“That’s the age group where everything is coming online to be able to learn all elements of the sport,” Martel said. “Hopefully we’ve done a good job to that point helping kids with skill development. At 12U, they have a much better grasp of structure on the ice and how to play the sport. These are areas we can really dig into teaching the game in greater detail.”
And as a result, players start to show signs of the players they will eventually become.
“This seems to be the age where, if they have a good base, they tend to take off with the game,” Martel said.
Mind vs. body
A tricky piece of the 12U puzzle is that some young players might be growing in body just as quickly – or faster – than they are growing in brain capacity.
So while their understanding of the game is increasing, their ability to transform that information into action might be inhibited by suddenly unfamiliar bodies.
“While their brains are understanding game, their bodies are stretched and they can’t quite accomplish the things they’re thinking,” Martel said. “You’ll see kids that are really good skaters, and then their skating goes south and they have to reacquire that ability.”
That makes it extra important for coaches to not only be aware of all those growth changes but also understand them.
“Physical growth is easy. You see a kid at the end of a season, and five months later he looks like he’s a foot taller. That’s not a secret to anybody,” Martel said. “But as adults, being able to understand the mental development in our kids is crucial. You’ll see different maturity levels. All different kinds of things that go into making sure our coaches are understanding that it’s not just physical growth there, but also brain development.”
Learning from the past
One practical way that coaches can build on skills at 12U is by understanding players at that level are starting to build – and draw upon – their past hockey experience.
Instead of a constant process of learning and re-learning, trial-and-error is beginning to be replaced by a recognition of what has worked and hasn’t worked previously – information that can be processed and used in real time.
“Prior to 12U, kids have a hard time learning from previous experience,” Martel said.
Be careful of averages
Just because many 12U players are starting to learn more aspects of hockey, it doesn’t mean every player is at the same stage. Some might be early developers who started to grasp those concepts at 10U, while others might be a few years away from making the leap.
“Statistics like averages, but there are players who are at the ends of the bell curve. Some are farther along, some a little bit behind,” Martel said. “In a late-development sport like ice hockey, things don’t really start to shake out until after puberty.”
That’s why patience is important, but it’s also why Martel believes youth coaches in many ways have more challenging jobs than college or pro coaches. If coaches can navigate those challenges and understand their players’ individual needs, though, the rewards are great.
“Every time you think you get to know a kid, they’re constantly changing,” Martel said. “It’s all about getting to know your players and their needs. 12U seems to be a fun time. They’re starting to grasp the things you’ve been talking about for a couple years. It’s an age where kids can just start to do more. As coaches we can accomplish more.”