Something that I have consistently seen in the many years I have been around the game both as a player and as a coach is that the best athletes off of the ice are usually the best players on the ice. Many young players want so badly to be great hockey players, and this can lead to them specializing early. With hockey requiring players to learn to ice skate, I understand why people think they need to specialize early as learning to be an elite level skater is a very demanding task and takes a lot of time and commitment. Early specialization though can stunt overall athletic development which will hurt players in the long run. Athletic attributes like hand eye coordination, foot eye coordination, speed, agility, and other fundamental athletic skills that a great athlete should excel at are acquired by playing a variety of sports. Hockey players need these athletic skill sets and should be exposed to baseball or tennis for hand eye coordination and soccer for foot eye coordination. Sports like football, basketball, and lacrosse are also great at developing athleticism. I am not saying to play all of these sports organized on a team as I know that is likely not feasible, but at a minimum getting together with friends as often as possible to play other sports can really help improve athleticism. I know several coaches that when selecting their teams at tryout time will actually run the players through off-ice drills and make some decisions based on overall athleticism. It is much easier to develop a good athlete on the ice throughout the season than it is to develop a player who is not athletic.
2. Skills, Skills, Skills
Learning to play hockey differs from other sports due to the fact that you have to learn to ice skate to be able to play. Ice skating is not a natural thing like running and a lot of time and energy goes into learning how to skate. Once a player learns how to skate then they need to learn to excel with a stick and puck. Skating, stick handling, shooting, and passing are all skill sets that require a lot of repetitions to become good at. With the limited amount of time players are actually on the ice, it is vital for young players that when they are on the ice the focus is on skills. I often hear parents of players on 8U, 10U, and 12U teams frustrated because not enough time is spent on team systems which can lead to the games looking a bit sloppy with things like positioning. While I understand the desire for team success, team systems should not be prioritized over skills at the younger age groups with the limited amount of time players are actually on the ice. Parents should evaluate the development of their young players based on the level in which their skating, passing, stick handling, and shooting are improving, not the level of team success. It is very easy to teach a 15,16,17, year old player how to play a team system or proper positioning, but it is very difficult for players that age to significantly change their foundation of skating and puck skills. Skills need to the focus for younger players.
3. Watch More Hockey
The term hockey sense is something you hear a lot when around hockey teams. There are a variety of interpretations of what hockey sense actually means, but generally it means understanding of the game and how smart a player is. Hockey sense is not something you can tangibly measure like size or speed, but as players get older their level of hockey sense becomes a vital part of their success. There are things within team practices that coaches do to try and help players improve hockey sense, but something I have noticed is the players that watch the most hockey usually have the best hockey sense. Watching a lot of hockey along with listening to the announcers, player interviews, and coach interviews help young players gain an understanding of the game and game situations. In addition, trying to emulate NHL players and understanding the traits successful players have can also be very beneficial for young players.
Nutrition is something that is often overlooked for young athletes. I think it is even more important in hockey due to the physical demand of the sport. Every shift is equivalent to a 45 second sprint and young players will get approximately 20 shifts per game. Youth teams can often play 4-6 games in a single weekend. I have frequently seen players at the rink eating fast food or drinking sugary beverages. The nutrition choices players make pre-game and post-game can significantly impact performance and recovery. This is something we have spent a lot of time on in recent years and have seen noticeable improvements in performance late in games and late in weekends with improved nutrition. Information on sports nutrition is not that hard to find and I encourage all young players to become more educated on the relationship between nutrition and athletic performance.
5. Be Unselfish
Hockey is the ultimate team sport and high-level coaches are looking for players that are unselfish and put the team first. This is a staple of the hockey culture and selfish players (even the most talented ones) get exposed as they get older. We often see young players not wanting to pass the puck trying to go end to end to score goals. While talented players at the younger levels can get away with being selfish, this catches up to them as they get older. Creating habits of playing with your head down and being selfish are detrimental to long term development. Coaches are constantly trying to preach to young players to get their head up, pass the puck, and be team players. It is very important parents are encouraging this as well. It will pay off in the long run
6. Love the Game
While all of the things mentioned above are very important for a player’s success I think the most important thing young players need to be successful is a love of the game. Players need to love coming to the rink and be self-motivated to do extra to get better. Parents and coaches share responsibility to help create a positive environment for young players. While I understand that parents want their children to work hard and coaches expect players to put their maximum effort forward every practice and game, there is a fine line between being demanding and making it where players are not having fun. The day that players don’t get excited about coming to the rink there are problems. Coaches need to work hard to make sure they are pushing the players to get better, but they are having fun doing it. Parents need to make sure they are not too hard on their kids and making them dread car rides home after games and practices which leads to them not wanting to play anymore. The more the player loves playing the better they are going to become.
Eric Silverman has been at the forefront of developing hockey players in the DFW area for the past 14 years. He is currently the Director of Hockey Operations for both the Dallas Stars Elite Hockey Club and the Dallas Junior Hockey Association. He also is the Head Coach of the Dallas Stars Elite 16U team and the Western Regional Manager for the United States National Team Development Program. His 16U team has been consistently ranked as one of the top teams in the United States and he has a number of alumni currently playing at the professional, college, and junior levels.
Eric has an extensive hockey background. He grew up playing AAA hockey in New York and left home while in high school to play Junior A hockey for the Sioux City Musketeers (USHL). Eric finished his Junior career ranked as the fourth all-time leading scorer in Sioux City history. From there he earned a scholarship to play Division I college hockey at the University of Alaska Anchorage (WCHA) where he was the Seawolves’ leading goal scorer as a sophomore. After college he spent three seasons playing professional hockey. He then spent one season as an assistant coach at the Division I college level before moving to Texas in 2003.
Experts who work with professional & Olympic athletes share information for your youth athlete!