In my long-ago youth, I had a bright red T-shirt from a skating skills clinic. The message on it in huge white block letters was not subtle, but so memorable that I still remember it:
Stick down, head up.
I doubt they still manufacture that same shirt, but a generation later, it’s still a valuable message according to Ken Martel, the technical director for USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
When teaching 8U players basic puck control skills, the message starts there and moves forward.
Eyes up is the goal
The reasons for teaching kids to get comfortable controlling the puck while looking up are as varied as they are relatively obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy skill to master.
“Kids need to become comfortable handling the puck with their head up. They don’t have to do anything fancy. They don’t have to do a backhand toe drag,” Martel said. “But if they can carry the puck and be aware of their surroundings, then they’re well on their way.”
Those who fail are doomed to repeat their mistakes at higher levels.
“Being able to handle the puck with their eyes up should be a primary goal for kids,” Martel said. “Because you can’t play the game if you can’t see anyone else and can’t avoid opponents. By the time you get to 14U and enter a body-checking environment, if you still haven’t learned this, you’re going to have some issues.”
Drills and skills
Instead of always using cones as obstacles when teaching players to handle the puck, Martel recommends skating and puck control drills that naturally force a player to survey his or her surroundings.
“It’s as simple as putting kids in a group, and everyone stickhandles in a tight space to avoid each other,” he said. “Maybe it’s the trucks and trailers game, where I have to follow you everywhere you go, but there are other people I have to watch out for. And keep-away, where there is another opponent. Things that involve time with the puck on their stick, in an open environment, where there are moving things that they have to avoid."
The key as a coach is to incentivize players to actually do what we want as the end goal within the drills and games that we design.
“Coaches will say, ‘I told them,’ but then they set up drills that encourage players to handle the puck with their heads down,” explained Martel. “That doesn’t work. You have to find a way to make them do what it is you want versus telling them. If the environment you create isn’t incentivizing them, maybe the environment needs to change.”
But while “stick down, head up” sounds simple, we shouldn’t confuse a basic concept with oversimplifying a task. In fact, Martel advocates pushing 8U players out of their comfort zones to create more decisions for players, not less.
“When we oversimplify things, there is less representativeness to the real game,” Martel said. “Keep in mind that, if a kid isn’t using the right technique, you can then show them direction in the course of the activity. Teach them. But for those who don’t need direction, and instead just need reps, let them go. Everybody is active and everyone is getting reps.”