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8U Q-and-A: Time to toughen up?

11/22/2022, 6:00am MST
By Dan Jablonic

Q: Why aren’t we working on systems and full-ice flow drills in practice? The coaches need to toughen up our 8-year-old players, not play silly games like soccer, handball and tag on the ice. I even saw a video of a coach stickhandling in a tyrannosaurus rex costume during an 8U practice. How is that making these kids better at hockey?

A: The recipe for creating a great hockey player – or even a player who simply reaches his or her full long-term potential – includes more than one ingredient. Hockey skill or aptitude is critical, but so is physical literacy and all-around athleticism. Passion for playing the game is another essential ingredient. It’s literally the fuel that powers the entire development process. Without it, no player will reach full potential. So, what nurtures passion in an 8-year-old? Definitely not coercion and activities designed to “toughen them up.”

With that in mind, USA Hockey’s American Development Model delivers age-appropriate, age-specific training and competition. At the 8U level, that means building well-rounded athletes and emphasizing physical literacy, so players build the fundamental skills they need to succeed in the long term. It also means taking maximum advantage of the age-specific physiological development windows. Doing so requires a focus on engagement and transferrable physical skills, not tactical skills (systems) or full-ice flow drills that don’t replicate high-performance hockey. Last but definitely not least, it means packaging it all in a positive, fun and challenging learning environment that builds a passion in young children rather than extinguishing their flame. Or, as Hall of Fame coach Lou Vairo says, “They should never leave the rink without a smile on their face, ever.”

Details matter when you’re trying to create the optimal 8U development environment. Things like providing water at stations and using an excited, supportive tone of voice with a high energy level make a huge difference. Most importantly, it’s advantageous to use age-appropriate drills, competitive small-area games and yes, even some zany fun, to create an atmosphere that keeps them coming back to the rink, not only week after week, but for life.

Oh, and the tyrannosaurus rex bit is genius. T-rex had short arms, so it couldn’t stickhandle well. Great stickhandlers operate with their arms further from their body. What a fun, memorable way to teach an 8-year-old child a critical hockey skill!

The author, Dan Jablonic, skated at the University of Minnesota Duluth before playing professionally in the ECHL and Sweden. He began coaching in 2005 and later became hockey director for the Washington Little Caps prior to joining USA Hockey.

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