We all miss the excitement of high school hockey, the thrill of watching storied youth programs battle it out, and the energy everyone puts into making Minnesota the State of Hockey. It’s an integral part of our culture, which is partially why having it absent is so difficult. There are plenty of structured activities and programs are kids are missing – from the fun out-of-town tournaments to the games to the team pasta dinners. Yet, there is one opportunity that our youth haven’t had in decades – the opportunity to go to the outdoor rinks without any sports commitments and many with reduced class schedules.
This is a rare, unique, and incredibly beneficial opportunity. Ask any kid (or yourself if you played) how much fun playing at the pond was. Ask professional and elite hockey players about what helped them achieve success and many will point to massive hours of unstructured play and training they engaged in. Imagine the amount of puck touches, passes, inside edge cuts, power turns, etc. that a player executes during hours and hours of pond hockey. The kids don’t want to get off the ice! It’s free, unhindered time on the ice, something they have never gotten enough of.
Detractors will respond by arguing that practice makes permanent – that repetitions on the pond re-enforce improper mechanics and tactical errors. In regard to skating form and technique, there is a time and place for incredibly deliberate focus. This type of training is a small fraction of the total at the youngest ages and increases as a percentage over time. Not all training should be this way because it is not the best modality for improving a host of foundational attributes needed to ultimately acquire good skating form.
Imagine a new skater or a mite skater that has played a year or two of hockey. Mental bandwidth is still often used to coordinate and balance the body on two little steel blades. What these athletes need is “time on blades” to explore. When I watch athletes at these youngest ages at the pond, I see them falling! Why, because they are pushing themselves outside their comfort zone and doing so without even consciously knowing it. They build up a foundation of balance, strength, and coordination so that when a skating coach deliberately focuses on teaching the outside edge, improvement is made incredibly quickly.
Plus, athletes naturally take breaks during pond when they get tired – they never hit that point, seen in games, where the legs are so tired, they skate bent over at the waist with straight legs. The incessant urge to have our children constantly doing structured games and practices is, more than anything, what destroys the strides and the passion for hockey in so many of our athletes!
Pond doesn’t lead to tactical errors either. It doesn’t re-enforce bad habits and teach kids to be lazy. It does the opposite! Imagine if at work as you were trying to solve a problem, a boss simply screamed out every mistake you made to find the solution – you’d be hesitant to offer up your services to solve problems, right? You’d turn yourself into the laziest employee you can! The mistakes we make, on the ice and at work, are part of the process of learning what works and what doesn’t. Your athletes are debugging hockey code – learning by watching and doing. And if your athlete can’t figure that process out, I guarantee no skills coach is going to magically turn them into some elite level hockey player. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that only through implicit learning can athletes achieve the elite level processing abilities that professionals develop.
Seize the ice. Let your kids play, unhindered, for as long as they possibly can. Make it fun by bringing food and hot drinks and the memories alone will be worth the effort. We might even help develop some elite hockey players too.
Josh Levine is a coach and director of the Fortis Academy. Follow him on Facebook @thefortisacademy and on Twitter @livefortis.