Of all the fundamental skills involved with learning ice hockey, skating is unique. It’s as basic as running is to other sports, but also something of an art form as it is a completely foreign form of locomotion to be mastered.
The 8U level is a critical time for the development of skating skills, and Dan Jablonic, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, has several tips.
For starters, it’s important to remember there is going to be a pretty wide range of abilities at that age. A good starting point is making sure players of all skill levels are finding their strides.
“For 8U players, the biggest thing is finding ways to keep them comfortable on their skates. There’s that progression that goes through for kids from 6U to 8U and 10U,” Jablonic said. “It’s more than just edges. It’s the ability to control and have that familiar feel on skates.”
To do that, Jablonic suggests, coaches should avoid too much technical jargon and instead emphasize small games that show instead of tell what to do.
“Simple things like tag and chase games are great. The more you can do with those games and get creative with forward, backward and one leg is key,” he said. “Basic athleticism for the kids is a key component. They feel more comfortable than if you are trying to break it down for them technically. The more you can incorporate those games, you set those players up for success long-term.”
As skaters get more comfortable, it’s OK to increase obstacles to simulate in-game challenges, Jablonic says.
“Our game is not just north-south anymore. It’s a transition game and you have interchangeable positions. You have defensemen attacking, and the more we can build in those transitional kinds of games, the better,” Jablonic said. “You don’t want ‘cone’ players. So what would be a game-like situation to put them in instead of just having them skate up the ice? Well, work a pattern where there are obstacles – a soccer ball, coaches getting in the way, things they have to react to.”
Many of those concepts are part of the ADM, which puts an emphasis on cross-ice games and station-based practices at the 8U level. Those concepts are designed to be age-appropriate while also challenging kids more than they had been challenged in full-ice settings.
“As they progress in their development, we want them to be able to problem solve,” Jablonic said. “At 8U, we really want them to have success and feel comfortable but also have a challenge level. If a kid is struggling, come back to the simplest form.”
Another important part of skating at the 8U level is teaching young players about winning puck battles – which can involve body contact even at that age.
“There is a lot of body contact at 8U and it’s very important to teach ice awareness,” Jablonic said. “The players who succeed at high levels, they didn’t just learn body contact at 14U. They learned the proper progression.”
If players are showing they are comfortable with some of the basics, it’s important that their progress doesn’t stagnate, Jablonic says.
“They’re going to be moving up to the next level, and I think it’s always good to find ways to challenge them in a setting,” he said. “It can be as simple as adding another player in a chase position or taking away time and space. Adding another level of complexity to challenge those players. If there is conflict in front of them, they should read what’s going on and trust their edges and body position.”
More than anything, though, helping young players become good skaters isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Skating is a fluid process – so much so that it’s “kind of cool,” Jablonic says – and USA Hockey can take lessons from the Swedes when it comes to on-ice movements.
“They would show clips of (dancer) Fred Astaire to their young players,” Jablonic said. “It gets you thinking. I might have a longer stride, so how do I use that to my advantage? Every player has to adapt and utilize what works for them.”