Getting more out of Hockey Practice
If there's one thing that I've struggled with since the kids' very first organized hockey practice, it's explaining the purpose of practice to them.
Sure, they totally understand that the purpose of practice is to get better and, of course, whether they treat it that way or not, there's a 50/50 chance things will actually pan out that way...
But it's not really that simple when you start to dig in and think about it.
To stress the "value" of practicing or, um, "non-value", in this case, I often refer to an easily relatable scenario with my older son.
If you walk around the block...everyday...does that make you a better walker?
Like, is that practicing?
I mean, unless you're under 18 months old, the answer to that is pretty much always...no.
That's not practicing. The way you walk isn't going to change... or get better.
He totally understands that.
Same goes for hockey practice.
It you're doing warm-up laps like it's public skate, are you practicing?
If you're just causually stick handling around cones, is that practice?
In both cases... It's a total waste of time.
All three of my kids have been guilty of "going through the motions" at hockey practice...or worse, private lessons where I'm being charged significantly by the minute.
And, with near certainty, it's followed by some terse, and one-sided, conversations on the ride home.
So, to me, whether it's a game or a practice, the most important thing is effort.
If I see a solid effort -- and we all know our own children better than anyone -- I'm perfectly happy. Even if they're terrible.
Explaining effort to a kid isn't easy either. I've tried.
And tried again.
Then my wife tried.
The coaching staff tries.
And, then again, I remind them of effort before every single ice time.
But still, my kids are all so inconsistent...and it's not their skill set that's lacking (usually?), it's simply dependent on how much effort they apply at any given time.
One moment they're a super star going end-to-end...and, the next, they would fit in perfectly in a beginner learn to skate class clutching a cone to stay upright.
Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration but it's still frustrating, to say the least.
If you find yourself in that same scenario -- sorry, can't help you.
Some kids just have it.
Some kids age into it.
Some kids just lack the drive.
So, stopping myself from going on some long tangent to nowhere, here are a few things you can do to help "focus" your player a little more in practice -- that may actually give the appearance of more effort...that will hopefully stick and turn into, you know, a solid effort.
For my kids, the hardest thing to explain to them is that it's ALWAYS a race.
Every drill is a race.
All of them.
At the same time, I also like to stress that they do the drill correctly, everytime. Don't cheat.
That's super important too.
Unfortunately, these two things contradict one another in the mind of a pre-teen.
In an outside edges skating drill, the kids that "win" the drill are always the ones who don't use their outside edges at all...and are also the ones that don't start on the line.
The players that "win" any backwards skating drill are the ones that take 5 forward strides at the onset to gain a huge lead before turning around.
The players that "win" battle drills are the ones that take shortcuts or skip cones that, if done correctly, they're supposed to go around.
And with a former coach that openly promoted the "you need to cheat to win" concept -- and my kids seeing it "work" for other kids in practice every week -- it was an impossible task even attempt to explain the very confusing mixed messages they were receiving.
I've yet to find a way to effectively explain to my kids that I want it both ways -- you need to win and you need to do it right too.
So...cause my boys are rule followers over anything else, I stress doing it right over doing it fast. It's just easier that way.
Might explain why my two oldest are such slow skaters. Ha!
But, stressing the importance of doing the drills the correct way, I don't just let the "race" thing go by the wayside.
Oh no, I still try to explain, err, trick them how to "race" too.
We've all see it. Two kids line up on opposite sides of the goal, on the goal line and race in a drill where they mirror one another. Both, without fail, spend half of the drill peaking over at their opponent instead of, you know, putting all of their effort into winning the race.
I don't know about you, but I skate a lot faster when my head is facing forward, towards my destination.
During my glory days in the early 1990's, I was an accomplished distance runner.
I specialized in the longer distance events -- 3200m, 5000m, 10000m -- but to brag, err, give you some perspective of the level I reached, I ran a 4:09 mile in competition as a 15 year old.
That's not good enough to win an Olympic medal or anything... but I wouldn't get lapped either.
Racing was kinda my thing. I know how to race.
A long stride and structured upper-body motion were taught to me...hey, just like skating, right?
But the one piece of coaching I received (from Kurt Fioretti) that made me better than nearly everyone back then was to never EVER look back.
Don't give an opponent behind you any hope of catching up.
You wanna see how close they are?
Get far enough ahead that you can see them on the other side of the track -- that's what he'd tell me.
This worked for me time and time again.
And in the unusual instance that I wasn't leading the field, if the competitor ahead of me turned around to see how far back I was, I knew I was catching them.
They were worried...and now I knew it.
It's a mind game.
I can only think of one instance where I wasn't able to reel in someone ahead of me that took a peek back... That guy eventually did compete in the Olympic trials.
I wasn't catching up to him anyway...but, hey, I know I made him nervous!
The key is to concentrate on you.
Who cares where the other guy is?! It doesn't matter!
Their either going to beat you...or they're not. Looking at them doesn't make a difference.
Intruct your kid, in drills, to concentrate on themself. Full speed ahead.
Doesn't matter what the other player is doing -- getting a head start, skipping a cone, laughing at you -- doesn't matter.
Focus on you.
Don't look over.
Now, obviously, this is different in certain game scenarios -- put that head on swivel -- but for practice, where it's for you to get better, or a race to a loose puck -- the puck should be the focus...not the player you're racing.
Up next is something outrageously simple to do but is so, so, rare in youth hockey practices.
Ready for it?
Finish the drill!
Yeah, that's it.
If a drill is supposed to end at the goal line, that doesn't mean you should stand up straight and glide in from the top of the circles.
Watch any hockey practice and you'll see a majority of the players completing 75% of each drill at around a 50% pace.
It really is pathetic.
The first method I used to get this drilled into my kids' heads was to park further and further away from the rink entrance -- semi mocking not "finishing" the drive over to practice.
That kinda worked.
Then I joined it in with the "every drill is a race" mantra and they started to notice -- hey, if I skate the last few strides, I'm beating like five or six more of my teammates to the line every time.
Small battles, man...
And from that, suddenly, my kids were putting in some more EFFORT in practice.
One thing just leads to another, I'm telling you...
They're all connected.
Doing it right and finishing a drill are really just listening to your coach. I used to say that to my kids all the time too -- listen to your coach.
Doing it fast and making it a competition, a race, foster an environment that promotes effort.
But wait, there's more!
So, here are a couple more things that you can suggest to your kids to make them better hockey players that are a little bit more specific.
Really, these are just bad habits I've noticed over the years that seem to be really widespread.
One thing I've very recently noticed that kids almost universally do that professional players almost never do is turn their back to the puck.
I'm not talking about blocking shots...
Lots of kids turn around when faced with a shot and it's a horrible habit because you wear far less equipment on your back and a puck in the back, anywhere on the back, is going to hurt a lot more than a shot right into where 90% of your padding is.
But I get it -- it's a natural instinct to turn away. It's tough to convince kids otherwise... Do your best.
But what I'm more looking to help correct is keeping the puck in your line of sight at all times.
So many players turn away from the side the puck is on. I don't know if they just have a preferred side to turn to but if the puck goes by you on the left...turn to the left with it. If it goes by on the right, turn to the right so you're following it.
It seems like such a minor thing but I'll tell you, when you see a defenseman turn the wrong way -- turning their back on the puck -- and then get burned on a play that leads to a goal...you'll see it.
Watch an NHL game and watch the players on both offense and defense -- every guy out there is facing the puck...always.
It's such a simple thing but pretty much never coached until it's almost too late to re-learn.
So, yeah, that's an important part of the game that a lot of parents and players are totally unaware of. If you break that habit before the player is ten years old, you're way ahead of the game.
Another thing younger players often do is shovel or flip the the puck -- whether it's a pass or a shot.
First off -- there is a difference between a pass and a shot...and neither should be a shovel or flip of the puck.
Kids flip the puck because it's easier to lift the puck that way -- an unfortunate result of the bardown mentality that's taken over hockey. I totally get it.
Kids flip the puck when they attempt a shot (or pass) when the puck is still ahead of their feet. Take a look:
It doesn't work.
It will never work.
And it's a terrile habit to get into.
Power should be the top priority.
Shoot hard, shoot low.
The high stuff will come with practice and strength and then, instead of a beach ball headed right into the goalie's glove, it'll be a laser into the back of the net.
And the passing... Oh, the miserable passing...
Off-target passes will always plague youth hockey. There's nothing wrong with that.
It's the wimpy passes that get me. I mean, I routinely see passes that move slower than the players can skate -- it's almost comical.
Encourage your player to pass hard. Every time.
Now, that said, passing and shooting are not the same thing.
A perfect pass is where the puck remains flat and on the ice. You can't convince me otherwise.
Do your best to quell all of the "toss the sauce" nonsense the kids see on social media and talk about in the locker room or practice with those silly little nets. If your teammate needs to knock your pass out of the air...it was a terrible pass.
Hard pass, flat on ice, right to a teammate's outstretched stick.
That's a perfect pass.
It's a lot different than a shot too. A lot.
Emphasize the difference and practice hard passes alongside hard shots.
But, most of all, neither should be a flip or a shovel.
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Agree? Disagree? Let me know -- I love the feedback from all angles!