By: Dan Arel
It seems no matter what age group you coach there is an expectation to create a winning culture, and for many that seems to come from doing things “the way they’ve always been done” which means practices right out of my 1990s childhood. Bag skates, and full ice drills that leave kids standing in line, skating from one cone to another, and then getting back in line.
While this method of conducting practice may result in kids who can skate straight, follow directions, and maybe some increased stamina, you aren’t building a winning culture even if by chance you are winning games.
I coach a group of 10U kids currently and here and there I watch other 10U practices and I see a lot of what I described above. The old way of doing things. Then I look at my practice. We get half ice for an hour two times a week and I need to utilize every moment of that ice. And while a winning culture keeps parents happy, it doesn’t necessarily keep kids on the ice for years to come, but fun does.
What many coaches fail to realize is you can have fun for your entire practice and get in all the repetitions, game like scenarios, and in the end, that winning culture. Because a team that wants to be on the ice, wants to have fun, and is learning the entire time, well, those teams win.
I begin every practice with some form of a game, something I learned from Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. Get the practice tempo up right away and have the kids enjoying themselves. We will play coach keep away, tag, or another game in my catalogue. We then usually switch to a skate, but we don’t bag them, or at least they don’t think we do. We work on edges, our stride, or even run an obstacle course (see, fun!) and rarely, if ever, just skate them in a straight line. From there, we will run a cross ice skate for 45 seconds and we track the top 3 skaters each session. 45 seconds of back-and-forth racing to stay in the lead (find my hidden bag skate?). This builds stamina, but without sending them all the way down the ice and back, and 45 seconds is just around that shift sweet spot.
It’s then we break into stations, and we run only open-ended drills. I hate box drills. When in a game does a kid skate to a cone, circle it, skate backwards to another cone, etc.? They don’t! Instead, each drill has an objective and the players need to find the best way to get there. Battle drills are preferred because the kids love them. We create a battle in every drill we can.
Most importantly, we explain the why to our drills. They come away understanding why we ran it, and what outcome we wanted. We can complicate drills as they get better at them and add additional elements.
We run these stations for about 10 minutes each, and then with our remaining 10 to 15 min of practice we end with another game. Sometimes 3 on 3 or 4 on 4, sometimes it’s a large battle drill that has quick cycles so kids’ time in line is just enough to catch their breath and they are back in.
We’ve removed all the boring, monotonous drills and found ways to teach those skills in fun ways. Tag has our kids working on edges, coach keep away has them stick handling, puck protection and keeping their head up.
In the end, our kids can’t wait to get back on the ice, but come game day, they have all the fundamentals they need to win a hockey game. They can battle in corners, they can outwork the opponent, and they can utilize open ice because we taught them to look for solutions, rather than skate from one spot to the other robotically.
At any age level, we should strive to create kids who want to play hockey for life at any level, and by creating a culture of fun, we can accomplish that.