Anyone who has watched, coached or participated in 8U hockey knows that it can look and feel a little chaotic at times.
At that age, kids are at very different stages of both skill and size development, making for action that can be all over the map.
Within that chaos, though, there should be some consistency of approach, because while each 8U player develops at their own individual rate, they should all be learning five fundamental things at that age.
Emily West, a former college hockey standout and national champion at the University of Minnesota, is currently a USA Hockey American Development Model manager. She has some tips on what those five things are, why they’re important and how to achieve them.
This could honestly be numbers 1-5 on the list given how important it is for 8U players to enjoy the sport of hockey and have fun playing it, but we’ll just settle for the top spot.
“Some people have the idea that fun and competitiveness or a high-performance path to success can’t coexist,” said West. “They think that you can either have fun or be competitive, but not both. We have to get that idea out of their minds. It’s misguided.”
Fun is a priority for short-term and long-term hockey health, she says.
“Your fire burns from your passion and how it makes you feel. For 8U players, fun has to be priority number one,” West said. “They have to fall in love with the game, because if they don’t have that love or passion for play, they can only go so far on a parent’s want or need.”
Gain athleticism and agility
As far as specific training, West notes that 8U is in the sweet spot of what USA Hockey player development experts refer to as a suppleness window of trainability.
It’s a key age for developing flexibility, base-level athleticism and all-around physical literacy that will benefit kids down the road, and it’s increasingly important given how little physical activity many kids experience nowadays.
“There’s a lack of physical education in our school systems, and with iPads, phones and Fortnite through the roof, some of our kids are getting 5 to 8 hours of screen time a day. It’s truly scary how un-athletic our athletes really are,” West said. “Ultimately, this time at 8U sets the foundation of flexibility, physical literacy and athleticism for our athletes.”
If players don’t learn basic movements involving agility, balance and coordination – obtained ideally through playing multiple sports – at an early age, they’ll struggle as they get older.
“A lot of times you see our strength coaches having to go back and teach fundamental movements before teens or college players can even pick up a weight and lift,” West said. “The foundation just wasn’t built when it was supposed to have been built. So 8U is important because this is our foundation for our athletes as they progress through their development. We need to build that base of athleticism.”
Another major training window at the 8U level is quick-burst speed. This is particularly true in small spaces, with explosive starts and quick changes of direction – a big part of the reason the ADM recommends cross-ice hockey at this level.
“Cross-ice hockey, and small-ice hockey in general, creates such a great environment for development in that first speed window,” West said. “By decreasing the size of the ice surface, you’re maximizing the development in that first speed window with lots of changes of direction, explosive starts. I tell people it looks different. Trust me, I grew up where it looked like full-ice hockey and I wish I would have grown up in this small-ice environment instead.”
West said that much of her on-ice training at the University of Minnesota was done in small-area games.
“It’s so beneficial to players,” she added. “We’re creating an environment where our athletes are being trained with minimal time and space. If you’re trained with lots of time and space, and it’s taken away, you have frustration. When we train athletes with minimal time and space, we’re training them for down the road, higher-level hockey.”
This doesn’t need to be complicated at the 8U level, but basic off-ice agility, catching and coordination games are important for overall development.
“You’re playing fun games that try to hide the learning aspect in the fun of the game,” West said. “You don’t want practice turning into a three-hour night for kids. Just 20-30 minutes of basic off-ice agility work before practice once or twice a week is sufficient. Then on the ice for a fun practice with no laps, no lines and no lectures. Then they go home sweaty and happy. At the 8U level, we’re providing that basic athleticism that they don’t really get in schools the way we used to.”
While there isn’t body-checking at the 8U level, there will be plenty of incidental body contact on the ice, and that’s great for teaching the basics of balance and contact confidence. It’s important for 8U players to learn what controlled, age-appropriate contact feels like and how to develop the body-contact skill.
“We should allow them to develop contact confidence,” West said. “It’s important to teach kids the understanding of how I receive a bump, or this is how I do proper body contact. At 8U, you don’t want to delve too much into it, but teaching on-ice awareness is important. Again, it’s about setting the foundation for what’s to come.”