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Keeping Practices Fun and Fresh

12/19/2013, 3:30pm EST
By Jessi Pierce

Tired of running the same drills and sticking to the same practice plan every night? It happens to the best of coaches. Getting in a routine of running your players through the same practices might seem like the right idea, but how effective is it? And how fun can that be for the kids?

Station-based practices and small-area games can change all of that AND keep practices fun.

Jamie Rice, head coach at Division III Babson College, has seen the gamut of coaching levels. Rice currently coaches his twin daughters at the Mite level along with his son’s Peewee team.

Small-area games and station-based practices are the way to go.

“I use that style of practice for all of my players,” said Rice. “You see the younger kids excited to come back to the rink when you have different stations and mix in games and that’s what you want as a coach at any level.”

It’s not only fun, it creates the perfect environment for skill development.

It’s Part of the Game: Central District Coach-In-Chief Doug Dietz puts it simply: small-area games are a part of the larger game.

“The game of hockey itself is broken up into segments,” said Dietz. “If you look at where things are done on the ice – in the defensive zone, plays in the corner, in front of the net, tight spaces in the neutral zone – everything takes place in a small area. Work on those with a small-area game or station and I think your goal production can go up and you will see your goals against go down.”

Hockey Sense: Rice recalls watching his girls coloring one day. The 6-year-olds were doing a great job staying inside the lines.

“And I never drilled them on coloring,” said Rice. “They figured it out themselves. That’s what small-area games do in practice. They force players to figure out parts of the game for themselves.”

Putting players in those game-like situations in a less-intense environment allows them to acquire hockey sense on their own.

Staying Engaged: Sometimes practice triggers the word “boring.” With different stations and a few games mixed in, players and coaches won’t have the option to be bored.

“When kids get to practice and see a set of cones set up, you can usually see the eyes just roll back and they kind of check out,” said Rice. “You have to draw them in, especially those younger kids, within the first five minutes. I’ve seen firsthand station-based practices do just that. You can switch things up at that station and then move them to a small-area game where they have even more fun.”

Use the different stations to engage players in different ways to keep them on their toes.

More Puck Touches: Stations and small-area games work so well because they allow more puck touches for each player. More puck touches equals more fun and improvement.

“The more reps a player gets with the puck, the more they are learning the game,” said Rice. “That’s so important to a player’s development.”

Lots to Learn: One small-area game can teach a player five different skills in one setting. Players learn to skate under pressure, change direction, compete and puckhandle while having fun with their teammates.

“Anytime you use small-area games, the kids are getting the skating and skills, but it’s also fun and they don’t know they’re getting conditioned,” said Dietz. “It’s a game situation without being set and at the same time it promotes the fun and competition making it more upbeat. That’s what it should be in practice. That’s a perfect practice.”

Keep Them Coming Back: Seeing a player get excited to be back on the ice is what hockey coaches strive to see.

“You’ll always have those few kids who love being at the rink no matter what,” said Rice. “But with stations and small-area games, you have the whole team with that same excitement. Isn’t that really what it’s all about as coaches and parents – to make sure the kids are having fun?”

To get some ideas for stations and how to use small-area games in your practices, visit the coaches section on USAHockey.com. Better yet, download the USA Hockey Mobile Coach App for free!

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