Any coach knows that even the most skilled hockey players won’t win you many games if they don’t know what to do with that skill. While skill development is of the utmost importance for coaches, we should also focus on building smarter hockey players. Cultivating better decision-makers on the ice leads to more development, success, and ultimately, fun.
Paul Moore, coach-in-chief for USA Hockey’s Massachusetts District, has spent a lifetime working on hockey IQ with players and coaches, and he said that nothing works better than small-area games.
“That’s the whole idea behind the small-area games – put them in competitive situations where there are a lot of confrontations and a lot of body contact,” Moore said. “I think the younger the age you start small-area games, the better you develop decision-making.”
Moore, who won USA Hockey’s William Thayer Tutt Award in 2012 for his work with Falmouth Youth Hockey, has watched the benefits of cross-ice games unfold in his own community. Falmouth, Mass., has a half-sheet of ice, constructed in part to help Moore’s association incorporate ADM principles into their training, and the investment is paying off.
“We saw it evolve right in front of us,” Moore said. “That small rink, you just watch and you see it happening. Someone is always in the play. That’s what you want. In a small-area game, they’re all in it, they’re all in the play. They’re engaging in it. That’s what we need to constantly reinforce. Doing full-ice drills with young kids, not everyone is engaged. You get a lot of people standing around, and it’s not a good use of ice.”
Moore pointed out that practicing in small areas helps create game-like situations for the players to experience. The former professional hockey player and longtime coach pointed out that small-area games have been utilized for generations, and by legendary coaches like Herb Brooks.
“We’re talking about decision-making and situational awareness, some people call it hockey IQ,” Moore said. “If I’m doing a 1-on-1 drill out of the corner, and the defenseman’s at the blue line, and he’s going to go full-ice and go down one-on-one, that’s not a game situation. How often does one kid go from one end of the ice to the other with just one person on him?
“We’re going to put them in a small-area game. Set it up, battle down low in a 1-on-1 or a 2-on-2 and you put him in the corner. He has more confrontations, he has no time and he has no space – he is forced into making quicker decisions. That’s the small area we want to force that kid into, so he’s inherently forced to make decisions. That’s why the ADM works so well in the small-area games and the cross-ice, because it benefits everyone on the ice. The best player on the ice is being challenged, and certainly the weakest player is, because there is no time and space.”
The Player’s Perspective
The Massachusetts coach-in-chief stresses that his peers need to try to see the game from a player’s perspective – especially at the younger ages – to keep them engaged in a practice. If they’re bored or ‘checked out’ then they’re not improving – especially on the mental side of their development.
“When you’re dealing with younger kids, if our coaches are thinking like younger kids, then they’re not running a drill for eight or nine minutes,” Moore said. “Six minutes, in a tight area, and then you’re on to the next one. In that tight area, you’re getting challenged. There are people tugging on him, pushing on him.”
Along the same lines, Moore wants to see coaches let players develop their decision-making processes on their own. Players can learn how to handle situations on the ice through trial and error and by competing against their peers.
“You know, I think one of the most important things we can do as coaches is let the game be the teacher. Have the adults get out of the way, and let the kids play,” adds Moore. “It all depends on what level you’re dealing with, but certainly 12U and down, let the game be the teacher, and have the coaches get out of the way. That’s when you see the magic happen. That’s what I was doing 30 or 40 years ago on the pond. There was no teacher out there, there was no coach out there stopping the play and telling the kid what he did wrong or how to play the game. Let the game be the teacher. It’s very, very important. Sometimes we get in the way, and we don’t need to.”