One of the more challenging aspects of being a youth hockey coach is determining how hard to push their teams – how much is too much and when is it appropriate to demand a little bit more over the course of a long season.
The American Development Model provides an excellent blueprint with science-based recommendations that put the focus on building all aspects of hockey performance and development in an age-appropriate framework.
No coach wants players to be bored, but they also don’t want them to feel so overworked or overwhelmed that they dread coming to the rink.
Former St. Lawrence University skater and current youth hockey coach Becky Street understands this challenge better than most. Street coaches 12U and 14U girls teams in Vermont and is also the owner at PT360, which offers care such as prevention, rehabilitation and facilitation of life-long health and wellness. Street, who has a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from the University of Vermont, shared her thoughts on how coaches can keep young players engaged and also safe while on the ice.
USA Hockey: What are some tips for coaches to keep younger kids engaged?
Street: One of the biggest things for engagement is keeping kids involved and always moving during practice. We do mostly station-based, small group games. We find that’s helpful because the kids are continuously part of the action. We also like to inject some fun into practice, so we might have a theme for the day. The players love finding out the theme. Today’s is “support.” One of the themes was “breakouts,” another was “odd-man situations.” This helps them focus and we include some silly games to keep things loose.
USA Hockey: How do coaches know if they’re pushing too hard, or not enough?
Street: It’s tough because every kid responds differently, but if you notice in general that your players don’t have focus, aren’t skating for the puck as much, their strides are shortening up, if they repeatedly are tired after practice, then maybe you’re pushing too hard. That’s when you run the most risk of overtraining and injuries, like muscle strains.
Former St. Lawrence University skater and current youth hockey coach Becky Street coaches 12U and 14U girls teams in Vermont.
USA Hockey: When is it okay for coaches to ask for a little bit more from their group?
Street: Honestly, sometimes players will ask for more if they’re ready. They may suggest their favorite drills or things they want to work on. This happens more when they’re older. If I see that my 14s have a drill or skill down and don’t look too tired and can give a lot of energy, I’ll add one more complication or piece to it. Might add another turn, or have them take more shots, more skating. We’ll start simple and add more pieces to the puzzle.
I think it’s the same for the younger kids. The ADM breaks down the skills that are best for each age. Again, it’s starting with simple concepts and once they get that, add another piece. When I’m coaching in the spring, it’s 8U all the way up to 14s. I’ll run similar drills and just tweak them based on the age group. It’s easy to add or subtract elements to make it easier or more complicated.
USA Hockey: What’s more important for youth players – building skill or athleticism?
Street: For the very young ages, like eight and under, it’s building athleticism. Being an athlete is the very base of becoming a hockey player. You’ll work on skills as you go, but you have to build coordination, balance and speed, then you can master skating, stickhandling, shooting and game awareness. Being an athlete is the first building block.
USA Hockey: What are your favorite drills or games for practices to build athleticism?
Street: When we’re doing station work, have them put their sticks on the ice and do edge work around the stick or over the stick. Without the stick to lean on, they’ll have to learn to balance their upper body. As they get older, we’ll have them go across the ice with the stick on their shoulder, more complicated movements. For building speed, I’d turn that into a fun competition and do things like puck races. Nothing gets the players more amped up than to compete against a friend in a fun way.
USA Hockey: How can coaches help teach and enforce a safe environment and eliminate dangerous hits?
Street: Even if it’s a non-checking league or younger age group, we should be teaching the kids how to use their bodies on the ice. We might work on battles for a day, learn how to pin someone on the boards, protect space as a defenseman and how to use that to your advantage. So it’s using your body but not hitting. We also like to do drills with multiple players doing multiple things, like stickhandling in a circle but having four kids in the circle. We may have a small space game with 2-on-1s happening. So with that much going on, they have to be aware of what they’re doing and what their teammate is doing but also the other mini-game going on nearby. This teaches them to be more aware, to keep their heads up and develop a sense of awareness. Sometimes kids keep their heads down and that’s where you end up with big collisions and potential injuries.
USA Hockey: You’re a hockey coach but also a physical therapist. Do you have tips for coaches to keep their kids in better condition over the course of a long season?
Street: I’m a huge proponent of pre-game and pre-practice dynamic warmups. It’s important to get the blood flowing before you get dressed or on the ice. Coaches can find good examples of workouts on YouTube. At home, players can focus on stretching their hip flexors, at the front of the hip. Because when you’re in your skating stance, your hips are bent, you’re in a small squat. So players tend to get tight in that area. Stretching that area, simple kneeling with one knee down and one forward, will help prevent hip or groin injuries. Hamstrings are another big one. You’re pushing out and coming in when skating and bent over. So stretching, in general, is huge.