To get the most out of our developing young athletes, as coaches, administrators and adults, it’s important to put their needs in front of ours.
However, when it comes to implementing practices and programming, how do we truly take a player-first approach? Often, you have to start with each individual.
“For me, when I think kid-centered or athlete-centered, it’s really trying to think about ‘What does each of those kids need?’” said David Hoff, USA Hockey Northern Plains District Coach-In-Chief and head coach of the 2022 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team. “Ultimately if you want them to love hockey and want to play well and play hard, it’s really trying to make them feel comfortable. So, you have to think about what they are used to – it’s so important in today’s world.”
Along with being a hockey coach, Hoff is a mathematics teacher, which can be a tough subject for a lot of youngsters.
“The reality is that those 15-20 kids walking in all need something just a little bit different,” Hoff said.
Just like math, hockey has a wide array of necessary skills that students need to learn and they may learn them differently. Some will pick up things quickly and naturally, while others may struggle.
However, the way they learn and interact might even be impacted by factors outside the rink.
“That might be where they are at [skills-wise], but it also might be about their family background, their personality, just little things,” Hoff said. “So the need might be how I treat them, how I talk to them, building confidence and things like that.”
When you’re concentrating on trying to develop skills and implementing drills, as a coach, it can be easy to forget about empathy.
“There were so many times I pushed hard as a teacher and you find out something is going on with the kid that is way more important than mathematics,” Hoff added. “I think we all have that in our own lives, when the day’s work isn’t the number one thing for us. Why should it be any different for an 8 or 10 year old when something doesn’t go well? Whether it’s coming from home or school. Absolutely those social factors, whatever it happens to be, now with social media at those ages, things can go so quickly from having a good day to a bad day.”
Getting to know your players, what they are going through and understanding where they are at will make a coach’s job easier.
“Those are things we need to be able to pick up on when kids walk into a locker room or step out on the ice and realize that opportunity to connect to each kid,” Hoff said.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, along with the American Development Model, developed this poster: Five ways to know if your child’s sport experience is player/kid-centric.
First on the list is asking kids what they want. For Hoff, coaches and administrators sometimes need to get out of the way.
“We have to put our egos aside. Too often it’s about us telling someone what they need,” Hoff said. “But we need to be able to learn and listen from the participant.”
Sometimes kids might not be the best at articulating what it is exactly they want, but if a coach walks into the locker room and announces, “Today we’re going to work on skating!” and the players all let out an audible groan, coaches might have to rethink how they are teaching that skill. So it’s important for coaches to work on their listening skills along with their oratory skills.
“They can tell us, maybe it’s not always the exact answer, but maybe it’s listening to the way they give the answer or how they tell you what’s going on. That tells you what they need.”
Especially at the early stages of their athletic development, players need a lot of movement and puck touches. If they are standing around too much, not paying attention or not trying, it’s often because coaches didn’t create a drill or plan to get them involved in the action enough.
“When I think about an action-oriented environment, it’s all about the kids,” Hoff said. “It’s the activity level that is right for kids at those ages. They’re not coming to the rink to sit around and listen.”
Spend less time at the whiteboard explaining drills and more time on task.
“What does school look like for 8-year-olds, 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds? If you look at it, they’re active kids at that age because that’s what they need.”
Kids see and approach the world completely differently than adults. Coaches who understand that and allow for their players to play from their own perspective will benefit these young athletes. These players will mess up a lot along the way and that’s not a bad thing.
“Making mistakes is okay. So many times we create the environment where failure is a bad thing. When actually, failure is a great opportunity to learn,” Hoff said. “We just have to instill that it is an opportunity to try again, and again, and again. We definitely need to work on that part, where we allow kids to be creative and that’s where I think we have to be careful with too much structure.”
Letting go can be one of the most difficult things for coaches, particularly ones who are extremely organized, structured adults.
“We’ve got to be okay with the fact that there’s a little bit of chaos in practice, but chaos is okay,” Hoff said. “My wife is a third-grade teacher and when you walk into her classroom there’s a lot of chaos going on in there, but that doesn’t mean learning isn’t happening. That’s just the way it is at that age, so we have to get comfortable with that part of it.”
Athletics is only part of youth sports. In today’s world of technology and screens, this is a great opportunity for young players to connect on personal levels, face-to-face.
“We have to remember, that’s one of the top three reasons they participate: being with friends,” Hoff said. “So if that’s valued by the participants, it has to be valued by the administrators and coaches.”
Hoff gives the example of entering the workplace as an adult. It’s important to be a team player, make connections and communicate with others. In a team sport environment, kids get this practice at an early age.
“Maybe it’s a kid who doesn’t go to the same school or someone they wouldn’t be friends with in another situation,” Hoff said. “But these are great opportunities for coaches to teach kids about building these relationships.”
Coaches will often have a plan going into the season, or a month-by-month chart of the elements they’d like to implement. However, it’s important to get feedback from players at various points of the season and make changes to the plan accordingly.
“We have to be willing to listen to the kids. It’s not always going to be, ‘Coach we need to do this,’ but it’s sometimes how they answer and whether it’s verbal or non-verbal what we’re hearing, we have to adjust what we’re working on,” Hoff said. “That’s just a big part of the teaching process that goes with it. It’s listening to the verbal and non-verbal. Kids can tell us a lot about what they want and need.”
For kids to get the most out of their experience they also need to feel like they have some ownership over it.
“Development isn’t linear. Kids get little jumps and bumps here and there, they might plateau for a while. Might be something going on at home, or maybe a growth spurt, whatever the case may be, and those are things we can’t control,” Hoff said. “Our job is to keep listening to kids in that very instance of time and try to provide the best programing and support at that time. If we keep doing that, we’ll give kids a chance to reach their potential.”
For coaches, the number one priority is getting kids to fall in love with the game. You don’t do that with wins or well-executed Xs and Os. It needs to be fun and the best way for that to happen is through an athlete-centered approach.
After the ages of 14 or 15, Hoff adds, “You might start getting serious about something, in this case hockey, and you have to be willing to put a lot of time in. If you don’t love the game at that point, how do you put all the time in that it takes to play Division I or whatever their goal is? That’s our job, to do that at the youngest ages and create the environment that is about the athlete and allows them to get everything they can out of hockey, have the most fun and learn.”