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5 Elements of a Great Practice

By Michael Doyle, 11/29/21, 9:15AM MST


Explaining what makes a successful practice

For many youth hockey coaches, it can be difficult to gauge the effectiveness of your practice plan until after you see your players executing its design on the ice.

Luckily for coaches who are getting certified with the USA Hockey Coaching Education Program, the curriculum touches on the elements needed to create a successful practice design. For those who have already gone through the training, longtime Alaska District Coach-in-Chief, Rick Trupp, helps walk us through the elements of a successful practice.

The five elements that must be involved in each practice plan include: 

  • Fun
  • Constant decision making
  • Challenges the players
  • Puck touches
  • Looks like the game

As part of the interactive nature of coaching, Trupp has coaches look at practice plans and see whether or not they include the five elements.

“It’s a great exercise for coaches to review what’s out there for drills, to evaluate drills they see in the rinks and also to self-evaluate, and then be able to redesign drills for maximum benefit,” said Trupp, who has coached for 35 years and now facilitates the Alaska District’s Coaching Education Program.


This one goes without saying for all ages: having fun is a must in youth sports.

“Everyone wants to enjoy what they do whether it’s work or play,” Trupp said.

You are not going to get the most of your players in practice if it’s not fun and exciting to be at the rink. This lands on the coaches’ shoulders.

“It’s up to the coaches to help foster a learning environment that is fun for all participants,” Trupp added.

Remember, what’s fun for a 14U might not be fun for an 8U player. Fun looks different across the age spectrum, so take that into account when planning practices, communicating with athletes, and setting expectations.

Watch: Dr. Amanda Visek | What is FUN? The Fun Integration Theory



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Constant Decision Making

Hockey is a fast-paced game that is based on an evolving series of decisions that are made in a split second. So why would our practices not include drills and activities where players are constantly required to make their own decisions? 

“The more effective drills or activities will have constant decision making, so that the player has to react and make decisions to varying situations on the ice,” Trupp said.

There are a number of ways coaches can influence a drill so that players are forced to make decisions: Modifying space on the rink, changing the number of offenders and defenders, really just allowing the player to think to solve a problem. It may also increase the number of mistakes in the short term, but players will learn from them in practice, rather than asking them to just start making decisions in the heat of a game when they are not prepared for it.

Which leads us to our next element…

Looks Like the Game

Trupp took this element from his own experience as a player and brought it to his own coaching philosophy.

“If I hated a drill when I played and it had no transferability to the game, why would I use it with the team I was coaching?” he said.

This doesn’t mean every drill should be 5-on-5, but each one should contain elements that are game-like. Going down the ice in a drill that has set passes and shots in the same order every time is not very realistic (also not adhering to the constant decision-making element), so make it game-like by adding defensive players and/or backcheckers.

“Every activity on or off the ice when teaching the game, should relate and provide context of the game,” Trupp said. “Another key to making it realistic is to have a transition aspect. Offense to defense or defense to offense is important to include. There are hundreds of transitions in a typical game. We should design activities that have transition.”

Watch: “We Got a Game for That” – Game Design to Create Learning Experiences



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Puck Touches

In a game, a player will actually spend very little time touching the puck. So it is important to incorporate a lot of puck touches in practice so players are ready to maximize their time with it when it comes to games.

“In practice, by designing your activities, you can ensure that players get a lot of puck time to improve their puck handling, passing and team-play confidence to improve that game-touch relationship,” Trupp said.

Create repetition without repetitiveness. For example, don’t always use the same drill to work on stickhandling (repetitiveness); incorporate stickhandling in different ways (repetition). Adjust constraints within the drill to incentivize or discourage behaviors. Coaches can modify the space smaller or bigger to have players make decisions quicker or give them more time. You can also add defenders that are stealing the puck away. 

Puck touches can also be repetitions of quality game-like situations that will give players opportunities to solve the game problems in different ways. Coaches want to repeat the process of finding the solution; not repeat the process of giving the solution. This will help players improve the transferability to the “real game.” A simple 2v1 keep-away activity can help improve players’ ability to break out the puck by working on the players with the puck’s ability to make the defender move and the ability to find space. On the flip side, this 2v1 can help the defender improve forechecking or penalty kill skills by taking good angles and having a good stick position by taking away passing lanes.

Challenges the Players

This can be the trickiest element of a successful practice, as coaches may be working with groups of kids with different ages and skill levels.

“As a coach, you want to dangle the carrot just out of their reach. You want them to feel success when they reach the reward, but it can’t be too easy or hard,” Trupp said. “Finding that activity or drill that can motivate all of them while getting them outside their comfort zone without losing confidence and momentum in the process.

Understanding that line of pushing players out of their comfort zone will come with time, but if a particular drill is too easy, it’s important to add a new wrinkle that will challenge players. Otherwise, if they are not challenged, they won’t get much out of the drill.

“It’s a balance. It’s being a positive, encouraging teacher and designing a good learning environment all in one,” Trupp said. 


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