I have spoken of this subject a few times over the past 32 years, but it needs to be reinforced often. I have seen many Mite games and practices in the past 8-10 years as I have grandchildren (boys and girls) that are currently in Mites, Squirts and PeeWees in the Edina and Wayzata youth hockey associations. For the most part, I have seen good things from these large, well organized associations. There are always a few glitches, however. I have also watched practices at other association arenas and see good and sometimes bad things happening. Some of the concepts I will lay out are good for even older teams/players.
Hockey is rote sport
Like most sports, hockey is primarily a “rote” sport. That means that the skills and actions of hockey are repetitious and are learned by practicing the same thing over and over. They can get it on the pond like I did when I was a kid, by drills, or both. Obviously, some parts of the game also relate to understanding, athletic talent and strength (mostly gained by repetition of exercises). Mostly when puberty sets in. Some people will also argue that hockey players must think, analyze and decide what to do as the action progresses, and this is not rote.
It is my feeling that the think-analyze-decide process is learned from constant exposure and practice. As players get older and the game gets faster, there is little time to consciously analyze anything.
Players react to situations based on having faced those situations before. So, constant exposure of players to situations is what teaches them (in primarily rote manner) what to do when they run into the same situation again. It’s like a running back in football reacting to players in front of him. Players that are “pond hockey smart” got that way by spending hundreds of hours in shinny games and by facing all or most of the situations over and over. And by honing moves and shots. It is hard to substitute for that in formal practices.
So what does this mean to a youth hockey coach? First of all, it does not mean that players cannot be taught. It does mean, however, that repetition of critical skills and situations is the is the key way to teach players how to perform. That includes skating and basic skills for beginners and Mites.
One of the biggest problems I see and hear about with Mite programs is that the youngsters spend too much time standing around or waiting in line doing patterned “play” drills, and not enough time skating or doing “compete” activities. Young players need to skate – as much as possible. Players don’t need much recovery time between drills. In “training” my grandkids over the past decade, I skate with them a couple time a week up through about age 9-10. Just one on one. That means that it is mostly drills, but fun can be incorporated even in these situations. We have great fun! However, we spend most of our hour or so on basic skills. It is skating skills that are progressive. Once the skill is mastered (stopping, etc.) it becomes a little less part of the hour, and other things, like stickhandling or multi-mohawks, become a little more. The concept of progressive drills is another whole topic.
The key idea, however, is that they do the basics over and over – the “rote” part that makes them good at the skill. We also have shooting ranges at the grandkid’s home (on the garage or on the driveway), so they can develop their shooting (and stickhandling) when there is no ice on the ponds (yes, they all have a backyard pond!). Even the garage shooting range can be fun. It is up to coaches to encourage parents to have the place to shoot. It only takes a 4x8 slick (bathroom wall plastic at Menards) board and a net or backdrop.
Fun is important for young players
If youngsters don’t have fun at the beginner/Mite and Squirt levels, they likely will not continue with hockey. There are many choices today. This not only includes literally dozens of organized sports and activities from gymnastics to judo or karate, but also more passive choices such as video games and musical instruments. Standing in line too much or not ever scoring a goal is not fun. Coaches need to think before every class/game on how to make it as much fun as possible. This is especially important toward the end of each practice – AND NO HERBIES (they are not needed). I never used Herbies in practice in all my years – except as punishment. Mini-games, 3-on-3 and little compete games are great.
On-ice actions and activities
There are a number of actions and activities that should generally guide all on-ice actions.
• There should be as little standing around as possible. Delays should be minimized between drills. Even demonstrations are only of limited value for beginners/Mites and Squirts. They need to DO! There are no perfect lines and no perfect faceoff lineups that should delay action.
• Drills should be done “in the scale” of kids. In other words, they are small, so do drills in short distances, not full ice. This is a problem I see very often. One-on-ones, full ice – holy buckets!
• Teach in many small groups so activity is maximized. Use the several stations concept. Don’t leave much space between skaters in drills (when in line); keep activity up.
• Have enough volunteers on the ice so groups of four or five players can be formed; and teaching is done.
• Keep scrimmages to 3-on-3 or 4-on-4; try to match up by skill level (so the one or two best players don’t dominate the puck). Everyone needs to get puck time; in practices and ice time in games to develop – at all levels.
• For Mites, go cross ice, make up cross boards to define sides at blue lines, so you can use three rinks of cross-ice. Don’t spend time with faceoffs. Use cones for nets; set cones 6-8 feet apart so scoring is easy; no goaltenders, if possible, except games.
Never skate to full ice (the scale for an adult would be a rink 500 feet long!).
• Come up with fun games to use for skating and other exercises. Don’t be afraid to innovate. Tag (in small area) and follow the leader (in small 3-4 groups) work well, for Mites for example. Keepaway is good for puck skills. Just little games in little areas with or without pucks or nets.
• Encourage players (and parents) to use small scale sticks; check skate sizes and stick length for parents. Help tie skates.
• Don’t hang up drills for the slowest; segment the groups based on skill level.
• Reassess skill level groups 2-3 times during the “season.” Youngsters will improve at different rates.
• Try to have one Squirt, PeeWee or Bantam player at each class to help. This should be part of older players’ “obligations.” WOW, what a concept!
• Encourage puck carrying over passing in “scrimmages” (passing comes later).
• Don’t ask players to be at games/practices one hour early or keep them too long after. It is too hard on a family if practices take 2-3 hours including travel.
• Try to get players to commit to one or two public skating or outdoor sessions each week. Get players together. Encourage parents to organize and tell them where the outdoor rinks are.
• Schedule extra outdoor practices once per week when ice is good. Make outdoor session shinny plus games only (fun). Encourage players to stay afterwards (transport groups). Provide drinks.
• Meet the team at public skating if outdoor ice is not available.
• Ask players/parents to do “boot hockey” with tennis balls or “zero” balls. Parents playing with kids is important. They can be the goaltender!
There are so many fun ways to teach Mites and Squirts. Not just for the beginner, but the Mite or Squirt A teams of more advanced players as well. They are 7-8 or 9-10 years old. They want to get better, but they want to have fun, too.
Take a look at my previous columns on fun small area games and competitions (points, 3-on-3 tag up, etc.) to teach and have fun.
Just never forget the basic skills. I go online occasionally and watch Sidney Crosby with his skating instructor – doing skating drills like a Mite!
John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and now mentor to the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin and recipient of prestigious hockey awards at the state (Peterson award) and national levels (Snooks Kelly). His Coaches Corner columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey each year since 1986.
Order John Russo’s new chapterized book, “The Best of 26 Years of John Russo’s Coaches Corner.” It has been described as a “must read” for all youth coaches. Go to Russocoachescorner.com for information and ordering.