When trying to get the most out of their players, youth coaches can sometimes lose sight of what hockey is: a game. So, why not play more games in practice?
Taking a games-based approach to practices can be both fun and improve your players’ cognitive skills. The games-based practice plan comes from the idea that our actions are based on our perceptions and what we see in our environment.
“While it is a games-based approach, it’s not necessarily strictly games like we have to keep score for everything,” said Zachary Nowak, Mid-American Hockey’s Goaltending Coach-in-Chief. “More like games in terms of objectives.”
Games at young ages, for example, can be as simple as tag.
“There are so many variations and where it falls in the games-based approach where the kids have an objective, they’re either trying to evade a player or catch a player, which is very game realistic and allows for a lot of transfer of skill within that environment.”
Nowak, who is also the bench boss for the Kent State University men’s hockey team, said the games-based approach comes from ecological dynamics. This is where players will learn from the environment that they are put into. He uses the games-based approach in his own practice plans for college kids.
Players will often try to bend the rules to gain an advantage. Coaches may have to add in constraints, but, overall, it's a good sign.
“You’re putting them in this environment and they’re trying to solve the problem that you presented to them,” Nowak said. “Sometimes it’s not the way you expected them to and sometimes we have to make a new rule. But that’s a pretty cool thing to see with the kids.”
As much fun as it can be for a coach to watch their players try to outthink them on the fly, the players will reap the most benefits.
“Kids love to compete. They love to play games together. They love to have fun with their friends,” Nowak said. “It’s a great way to mix some of the science with some of the fun and excitement we see with kids falling in love with the game of hockey. I feel like it’s the best of the two worlds with behavior learning and fun for the kids.”
Nothing gets a player’s heart pumping like a big game. However, if you take a games-based approach to practice, you can put your team into high-intensity situations before the spotlight shines on them.
“One of the biggest things people talk about is transferring the skills that we practice into the game-like environment,” Nowak said.
However, that’s easier said than done when it comes to practice. Rarely do you see kids skating as hard in a set drill in practice than when you add in competition. In a games-based approach, the idea is that coaches can put their players into high-pressure situations before adding in refs, fans and scoreboards.
“Really with anything we do in life, when we face emotion, it changes our behaviors,” Nowak said. “If we create this idea of ‘there’s a lot of pressure you have riding on the game,’ we put those pressures on players in practice, hopefully those skills will emerge come game time.”
One way to do this is by creating a game where one team is down a goal with a short amount of time on the clock – emulating a tight game. This elevates the importance to score for one team, while the other team is trying to protect the lead.
“At the college level, there are kids who don’t get the opportunity to get the game-winning goal because in college you’re putting your best players on the ice at the end of the game,” Nowak said. “That’s a little different at the younger ages. It gives everyone the opportunity to show that they can come out in clutch situations and gives them the chance to practice in those environments that they don’t normally see.”
“If they get into a game with a minute left and we pull the goalie, they are used to that pressure. This isn’t new to them, even if they’re a fourth-line player. They see that emotion in practice every day.”
One thing that sometimes creeps into the youth game is the idea of teaching “systems” – situations like breakouts, forechecks and neutral-zone faceoffs. However, youth coaches should be concentrating on teaching their players to be adaptable.
“When you look at the idea of games, each game is going to be different. Even if you play the same team twice in a row, each game is going to be different,” Nowak said.
One of the most important parts to a system is the interaction between five players and what they are doing against the other five players. Coaches can put players into game-based scenarios where they can learn how to work together against their opponents rather than performing, for example, a 5-on-0 breakout.
“For a breakout, what if we practice a short breakout where the winger is always open, or need to get low in the zone? What if a team is defending low in the zone? What do you do now? What if the defenseman is coming down the wall?” Nowak questions. “When we take them away, we’re not helping our players become adaptable. Which is what I feel is the most important in systems we’re trying to implement.”
Through a games-based approach, coaches can train an interaction with all the players on the ice to accomplish a goal together to beat the other five players.
For coaches, one of the biggest benefits for a games-based approach is the ability to change the environment of the game. Minor changes can dramatically impact the way players approach the game. With this, the players will learn on their own, without the need to drill, constantly blow the whistle and slow down practices.
Nowak gives the example of a 3-on-3 cross-ice game.
“It’s pretty free flowing. There’s not a ton that they need to think about outside of traditional go and play.”
But what happens when at every shift change, a coach dumps the puck behind the net?
“Well now we’re going to influence their behavior,” Nowak said. “Now they went from just playing to breaking the puck out.”
Split the ice with a line down the middle and call offsides and the game will change again.
“Now they have to come lower to support each other because they can’t stretch the ice because of the offside line,” Nowak said.
Finally, give the forechecking team a bonus point for creating a turnover before the puck possession team gets the puck over the offsides line.
“Now they’ll change their behavior to be more aggressive to get a turnover before the other team enters the zone,” Nowak said. “Within that one game, we changed the constraints and environment they are working in so they are now adapting to what the game is presenting them.
“Ultimately, that’s what we want from our players in a real game. We want them to be able to adapt to the environment and game they’re playing in and come up with solutions as an individual and as a team.”
As coaches, sometimes it’s better to let go of the steering wheel. The games-based approach to practices allows for players to learn through adaptation. This will increase their hockey sense and feel for the game.
“The biggest thing to this whole approach is letting our players explore and let them come up with solutions,” Nowak said. “We always want to help them by giving them the answers, but they’re going to learn the most by being able to explore and becoming adaptable players by learning through problem solving. You’re there to set the environment and guide them if they seem lost.”