Parents of beginner hockey players come from a variety of backgrounds with different levels of knowledge about the sport. Some are experts who played at a high level. Some are novices who know nothing about hockey.
But many of those parents might share one thing in common: They don’t really know what an 8U practice should look like from start to finish. Roger Grillo, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, describes an 8U practice as “recess on steroids.” But he’s willing to get more specific.
For the uninitiated – or even those who think they know – here’s some help from Grillo regarding what an 8U practice generally focuses on and looks like.
Get there and go
How soon before an 8U practice a parent needs to arrive with a child depends on the player, but in general Grillo says it doesn’t take long to go from zero to 100.
“As far as their ability to get ready, I know coaches like to warm up the kids, but at 8U they come pre-packaged warmed up,” Grillo said. “Christmas morning, they don’t stretch before they come running to see what Santa brought. I don’t see many hamstrings pulled. Having fun and making sure they’re moving is the key.”
If there are two ice sessions a week, which is common, Grillo said it’s recommended that one of the sessions lasts for 90 minutes and involves 30 minutes of off-ice work.
“It’s really a stripped-down, generic gymnastics class – tumbling, jumping, rolling, something that helps build their confidence on their feet that translates on the ice,” he said.
Embrace the chaos
Once the kids hit the ice, it might not look the way you imagine. If you’re used to orderly warmups and a lot of standing in lines waiting to do drills, prepare to be surprised.
“It’s complete chaos, and that’s good,” Grillo said. “I mean, at this age, we’re not trying to make hockey players – we’re trying to make really good athletes. They’re in their suppleness window of trainability. The major focus is activity. The worst thing that can happen are a lot of lines and structure and a lot of adult principles.”
That can look a little strange to parents, whether they played the game years ago when practices were run differently or if they lack experience but have preconceived notions of what a practice looks like.
“I think it can cause panic for some parents because it looks chaotic, and they think standing in line and discipline is most important,” Grillo said. “You have to hold kids accountable to pay attention, follow directions and not hurt each other, but you also have to embrace and feed off their energy.”
Along those lines, the role of a coach is different at the 8U level than it is at older levels. It’s not about motivational speeches or long lectures. It’s more about demonstration, encouragement and fun.
“We have a saying that little kids play to learn and older kids learn to play,” Grillo said. “Undercoaching is key at 8U, letting them experience the game with what is basically structured pond hockey. Coaching isn’t about talking. Coaching is doing. We as ADM regional managers often say the goal of a youth coach is to build passion and make the kids better.”
Keep it moving and then leave
If kids are on the ice for 50 or 60 minutes in a session, with roughly 40 kids on the ice at once, you will rarely see everyone doing the same thing at the same time or doing it over the full length of the ice. Instead, sessions are divided into six stations, with seven or so skaters at each one. This is the structure, but still there is flexibility.
“They’re doing skating, puck handling, shooting and other skills at each station, but I call it their Flintstone vitamins,” Grillo said. “If I’m doing edge work, I’m doing it with frozen tag or jumping over tires, staking around cones, racing each other, playing musical chairs, putting a soccer ball at a station – something not easy to do with a metal blade that’s an eighth of an inch wide. You’re working on stuff that’s designed to make them better players, but it’s hidden in fun.”
Kids should be at each station for about six minutes, but Grillo said coaches are encouraged to leave time while the stations are being set up for free time – “to let the kids do their deal and have some fun.” At the end of the stations, kids might play a cross-ice game, using the width of the ice instead of the length.
It might not be what a parent envisions. But is it the right thing?
“I think the answer to that question is whether your kid wants to play hockey again,” Grillo said. “Is it fun? Fun is passion, and that’s the priority.”