As an up-and-coming coach, Dan Muse occupies an interesting space. At age 36, he’s already in his second season as a Nashville Predators assistant coach, but he also has enough recent experience at lower levels, including high school and college, that he can offer a unique perspective on player development.
As such, we tapped Muse’s expertise for some tips this month aimed at 14U and 16U players. Here are some of the key takeaways from our conversation.
Hockey sense is key
Muse says a key separator for top players as they approach higher levels of hockey is their sense and feel for the game.
“I’ve coached from a lot of different vantage points. In college, where I was in 16U rinks and unfortunately even 14U for recruiting, I was looking to see players who have good habits and understand the game – have game sense,” Muse said. “I think that’s something that’s developed over time.”
That means learning how to support the puck by moving into areas where you can be useful to a teammate in trouble while playing with speed and awareness, among other things.
“For younger players, the systems should be secondary. The first thing you should be looking to do every day is developing a skill set, habits and game sense,” Muse added. “It’s on coaches to put players in an environment to develop general concepts and developing habits. Those are going to be parts of your game that transfer from level to level, team to team, regardless of system.”
Those environments include small-area games and high-pressure situations with limited time and space, along with encouraging unstructured pickup hockey whenever possible.
Build habits and instincts
As players get bigger and faster, the amount of time a player has to make decisions decreases. By building good habits early, that transition is smoother. But it takes work, Muse says.
“The game is so fast that you have to do it instinctually. You can’t stop and press pause. You have to work on those habits,” he said. “That’s where I really like what USA Hockey is doing. They’re doing an amazing job with small-area games, creating an environment where they’re going to play in tight areas with a purpose in mind. That purpose, when there’s a plan for it, players have to think and react, and as a result, they’re building those habits and instincts that are going to become natural over time.
“For long-term success, you need to be in an environment to build habits that translate. Learning how to read and react and support pucks, defensively learning how to use the stick and close out space. USA Hockey has done a really good job of helping promote teaching those things,” Muse said. “We’re developing our players to get better in this league or take on new roles and play longer. For the younger levels, it’s different. What’s the priority? It should be to make each player better while growing within a team structure.”
Faster, faster, faster
If you think hockey is fast at 14U or 16U, just wait.
“The game is so fast. Plays happen so quickly. So for young players coming up, if you want to be working toward your full potential – and everyone wants to play at their highest level – it’s pushing yourself to play at that speed. I don’t see it slowing down, it’s only getting faster,” Muse said.
That might mean creating short-term discomfort by pushing yourself to try new things when it would be easier to rely on old habits to dominate.
“If you’re 14U, 16U, every practice you have a choice,” Muse said. “For some, maybe it comes easier. But if they want to play at a higher level, they need to push themselves now to be mastering things as fast as they can. If you don’t, and you get to those levels, you’re going to be a step behind.”
Success takes work
Muse has seen up close what goes into the daily preparation for an NHL player and can also reflect on how much work it took for players to get to that level.
“They make it look easy, but their habits and attention to detail are so strong that they’ve gotten to the point that it’s instinctive. That takes a long time and a lot of work, and that goes back to working those parts of their game at a young age,” he said. “You have a lot of players who were blessed with natural talent, but it was hard work for all these guys to get to this point. You see it in the daily habits, how they take care of themselves and their practice habits.”