The first priority of any youth hockey coach needs to be skill development. More important than tactics and systems is the ability to skate, pass the puck, catch a pass, stickhandle, etc. No system that I know of will overcome a major skill deficit.
As coaches, our impulse is to teach team tactics – breakouts, forechecks and special teams. When we think of coaching, we see a coach next to a whiteboard drawing X’s and O’s, detailing some scheme that will surely fool the opposing team and lead the team to victory. We don’t necessarily see a coach working with a small group of players on how to pass the puck correctly and receive a pass while another works on proper shooting form.
One of the biggest problems with running plays and working on tactical team efforts is the lack of time players are actually moving and improving. Most teams have half the ice for the majority of their practices. Let’s say we are trying to work on breakouts. We dump the puck into the zone and five skaters go skate in to execute a breakout. The defenseman bobbles the puck because of a lack of puck handling skill, then tries to pass to the wing who misses the puck and it flies out of the zone. The coach gets frustrated and tosses another puck in. Meanwhile, 10 players get even more bored while their feet turn cold. It’s hard to watch.
Why not compartmentalize the skills and have players working in stations? One station could work on the pass to the winger who has to properly transition and receive the pass. Another station could work on puck retrieval off the boards. The third station could focus on stationary and movement stickhandling skills.
Now, we are still working on the components of breaking out, but we are getting rid of the inefficiencies. Players are in groups of 4 or 5 and their work-to-rest ratios are far smaller than in a big group.
We can take any set of skills. Shooting, skating, passing, etc., and create drills that maximize repetitions. Over the course of a season, the difference in touches is huge between a skill-first model (1:4 or less work-to-rest ratio) and a systems-first model (1:8 or worse).
Of course, we need to work on putting all the pieces together. But first, the fundamental skills need to be in place. The skill-first model helps build the foundation needed to run a full breakout with our youth teams more efficiently and effectively, leading to less frustrated coaches and warmer feet for our players.
Josh Levine is the Assistant Coach of the Bloomington Jefferson Girls Varsity Hockey team, owner of The Fortis Academy and founder of fortishockey.com. Fortis works with youth associations to implement skill development programs with all teams, from Mites to Bantams. The program includes parent education seminars, coaching clinics and its own skill-based practices. If you’re interested in learning more, shoot Josh an email at email@example.com. Follow Fortis on Facebook and Instagram facebook.com/thefortisacademy and Instagram.com/thefortisacademy.