As much as USA Hockey encourages players to get away from the rink during the summer months, we all know that most kids will still find a way onto the ice during the offseason.
However, that doesn’t mean that young hockey players need drill-regimented training sessions during their summer excursions to the rink.
In fact, they may benefit more from simply having free reign on the ice (or in the driveway or street hockey court).
“We can learn a lot – I think as young athletes we do – by playing and having some creativity and maybe get a little bit of the word ‘no’ out of it,” said USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program head coach Danton Cole, as he talked about letting kids play unstructured “pond hockey” during the offseason. “During the summers, if it’s unstructured and there aren’t parents or referees, nobody’s keeping score. There are a lot of gains and you can try some stuff and you can test your limits and you’re not worried about doing something wrong.”
Let Them Play
Cole, a former NCAA and NHL player himself, said that when they are given the chance and the circumstance, kids will make up their own games, and not even realize how they are improving their athletic abilities.
“I look back to when we were kids, whether it was hockey or I played a lot of baseball growing up, I think the best games are the things kids make up,” Cole said. “A lot of times when you have short numbers or odd numbers and you have to figure out a way – in baseball, we would have three or four guys, and if you’re going to play a game in that situation, you have to pick your field. That’s a great way to learn to hit to right field, or to pull the ball at times. It’s the same way with hockey; you can come up with tons of different games and all of a sudden, you’re doing small games and situations and odd situations and you can find yourself.
“I’d just let the kids play. They’re going to keep score, they’re going to have winners and losers in there, and then they’re going to come up with somebody else. I would just say hey, let them go, and you don’t want to give them guidelines. That’s almost the opposite. Do these 10 drills; no, don’t do these 10 drills. Instead, just let them go out and play the game and find out about themselves.”
In their own created scenarios – a lot of which will be similar to American Development Model-recommended small-area games – players will be able to use their peers as measuring sticks, which serves as great motivation during the offseason.
“Find out what your limits are and how far you can stretch them,” Cole said. “You will find out stuff that you need to work on. Johnny over there is really good at that, I’d like to be good at it. Well, go home and work on it, and then the next day you’re on the field or on a court or on the ice, maybe you can do it.”
More Reps, More Development
A small game of shinny or street hockey also presents the opportunity for more repetitions for specific skills, as well.
“We want guys to fail,” Cole said. “You learn from that failure. It’s just a snapshot – it’s not where you’re at. When you learn that, the first time, we’ll say using angling as an example, the first time I went in, I took too shallow of an angle and the guy beat me. The next time, I took too high of an angle and he got underneath me. If you’re going through a drill, you might go through a set practice and have one or two instances of that, so there’s not really enough feedback. If you’re just goofing around and you’re playing and you’re in your basement and there’s 15 feet between goals, you might get that situation 20 times. You will figure it out. You will take the correct angle eventually.
“It’s something we see in society now. One, we don’t want to see kids fail, or we don’t let them fail, and then, two, we think they have to be told everything that they’re going to learn, and there’s not enough in terms of responsibility and maturity. I think that hinders development, and then when guys get to an age where they are held accountable, where they will have responsibility, they’re not sure how to act. Quite frankly, one of the biggest things we have to get over the hurdle with for our guys is getting them to that point, getting them to understand – we have a big sign up there for it that reminds them. It says, ‘you’re responsible for your own development.’ We take that seriously, but that’s a skill. If you are going to make it, you’re going to have to be able to do those things.”
Play Other Sports
Of course, Cole stressed the importance of still taking a break from the sport during the offseason.
“I’m a big advocate of other sports,” the NTDP head coach said. “I think we’ve gotten into this, I think people have taken the 10,000-hour rule out of context, because it’s not that I just have to do this basic thing, like if I’m out playing baseball, I’ll use that as an example again, hand-eye coordination and fielding the ball are outstanding for hockey, and it’s a completely different pathway that I’m using. There is a lot of crossover. If I’m playing basketball, the offensive patterns and how to use my body and how to shield the ball, it’s the same as protecting the puck. Those hours count up. Climbing a tree isn’t the worst thing in the world. There’s a lot to learn from that for strength and dexterity. I think all of those things add up to make us more complete athletes. If you want to be a good pro or be a professional hockey player, be a good athlete first.”