It’s an age-old question that coaches hear at the end of every season: “What should my son or daughter do this summer to be ready to play next year?”
It’s accompanied with a slew of other questions about next steps. Should they be going to camps? What skills need improvement? Will they fall behind if they don’t play?
“There’s no magic solution to what they should be doing in the offseason,” said Mike MacMillan, USA Hockey national coach-in-chief. “It just needs to be fun and age-appropriate.
“But coaches need to work with parents on developing their child. Meet with them, talk to them about it. Coaches should be more educated than a parent on the offseason development and development of players at a certain age. They are a valuable resource for parents to turn to.”
Whether it’s the child’s first year of mites or they are ascending the teen-aged hockey ranks, coaches should be able to steer parents in the direction that best suits their child.
Mites shouldn’t use the offseason the same way a bantam does. In fact, for 8- to 12-year-olds, hockey should be kept to a minimum in the summer.
“At 8U, 10U and 12U, their bodies and brains are more receptive to muscle movement patterns,” said ADM Regional Manager Ty Hennes. “If they only continue to use the muscles used in hockey, they aren’t training to be a better athlete, and we want to see them develop their all-around athleticism.”
If they want to sprinkle in hockey training, short and simple drills that focus on shooting and stickhandling are beneficial. Grab a stick and work on going up and down the driveway. Toss random items around the garage and have kids dangle around them like Patrick Kane. Just make sure they are having fun and the parents aren’t pressuring the child. If they don’t want to practice anymore, don’t force them.
At 14U/16U, a large window of skill trainability remains. At these ages, players are going to focus more on hockey and train through the offseason. Recommend they do so in an unstructured way.
“By playing in an unstructured environment, they are gaining a big advantage in creativity and are allowed to make mistakes without the fear of getting benched,” Hennes said.
For older players, strength training comes more into play in the summer months. Rather than just hitting the gym or weight room, players can work on core and muscle strength through every-day activities. Jump rope, rollerblading or other sports help provide an entire-body workout, rather than just over-training certain muscle groups.
Increased game activity can also be on the rise at these ages. Make sure you tell parents to limit the amount of on-ice games played to between 12 and 14 to avoid burnout.
Play Anything – Except Hockey
One sound piece of advice for kids of any age: play another sport.
“You see NHL and college players – they take 3-4 months off and never come close to the rink,” said Hennes. “They aren’t in full hockey mode year-round.”
Taking a break from hockey avoids burnout. It keeps a player’s passion for the game alive. Even more importantly, it reduces the risk of injury.
“As a development coach for high school hockey, I saw more injuries from kids who were skating year-round, than any other kind,” said Matt Herr, ADM regional manager for the New York and Atlantic Districts. “When you’re doing that, there’s an overuse of those same training motions. Constantly using those will result in injury.”
Sports that translate best to hockey players include soccer, lacrosse and baseball. But individual sports such as tennis, gymnastics or track and field are equally as beneficial.
Outside of organized sports, coaches should also recommend that players simply get out and ride their bikes or play impromptu games at the park. Whatever it is, stress the importance of a break from hockey.
Let Players Decide
You’re going to have players who love the game too much to put the stick away for very long. That’s okay, but let parents know that the decision to play should be left up to the player, not the parent.
“It depends on your kid,” Herr said of playing summer hockey. “I have a 9-year-old son, Cam, who knows that he doesn’t want to touch the ice when it’s over. The same goes for when soccer and baseball are done. He just doesn’t want to see it after the season.
“I think we want to have our kids figure that out for themselves. We want them to figure where they are and to make sure it’s fun.”
However, parents should take the lead and direct kids to be active in non-hockey ways during the summer – even if it’s hockey they want. Make sure they keep a variety of activities going, athletic or not, throughout the summer months.
Do What’s Best For Your Player’s Development
Parents tend to have a “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” mentality. Coaches should remind parents to do what is best to develop their own player. The rest will take care of itself.
“It’s hard because hockey is competitive and we’re always worried about the kid next door getting ahead of us,” said Herr. “But in the end, improvement will happen if they’re good athletes, not necessarily because they played hockey year-round.
“Parents and coaches should be most concerned in the offseason with wanting their kids to have fun. That’s what the game’s about. That’s what the offseason is about.”