There is no exact science to create the perfect hockey player. Everyone knows it’s not that easy.
Developing intelligent, well-rounded players can be done at an early age, but it is important to remember that kids need to learn fundamentals before they can be taught anything else.
Brendan Taylor is a former OHL and OUA player and the current assistant coach of the Oakville Blades in the OJHL. He weighed in on the Breakaway Podcast on the debate of when systems should be taught to players.
“I think it comes down to a coach’s mentality of trying not to lose and not letting their players play with creativity or freedom for fear of grey zone turnovers at either blue line,” said Taylor. “Some coaches are willing to deal with those mistakes, they think the risk is higher than the reward and they decide to go for it. Let their players play. You always hear about that ‘players coach’. You want to have a mix of it, but it depends what age you’re coaching.”
It is important to remember that minor hockey is not the NHL and that professional coaching systems can’t be applied to players just being introduced to the game. It is up to coaches to teach basic skills before introducing more detailed systems. Without skill, players can’t play in a system.
“You want to give kids freedom. You want to be able to explain that there is a time and a place for a toe drag or a deceptive move or when to pass or how to support the puck. These are things that really need to be taught in practice, and it’s the coach’s job to do this. You can’t just be stuck on one system.”
A mark of a good coach has always been being able to adapt their system style to fit the personnel that exist on the roster.
According to Taylor, young players should learn how to handle the puck, pass, and support the puck and angle before being taught anything further.
It is important to establish the difference between a system and a concept. Concepts are generally more team-oriented and fit a style of play while systems are more scenario-based. He has started introducing concepts at the Peewee level after ensuring that the individual technical skills are there.
“Concepts are angling. Concepts are also how you’re going to play, the coach’s philosophy. We’re going to keep the puck, we’re going to try to not dump it as much as we can and we’re going to try to, in the neutral zone, angle them and force them to dump as much as we can. It’s a building block. If you don’t have concepts that you’ve introduced, you can’t just jump into a system. These are young kids who haven’t done any of these things before.”
In order to build skill and teach hockey sense, Taylor suggests using small-area games like a three-on-three cross ice game. While the practice-to-game ratio is suggested to be around 2:1 or 3:1, that simply isn’t realistic with the high amount of games compacted into a short schedule.
“It’s definitely tough. I think I would, with the younger ages, you’d like to have even more. 4:1 would really be ideal. As you go up, it’s tougher obviously with schedules. For us in junior, our week is about 4:2, so it’s definitely difficult. There’s so much teaching that coaches need to do, especially in a young man’s hockey career, that you have to get on the ice and practice and teach and demonstrate and explain before they get into games. Of course the games are fun, but having more practices doesn’t mean you can’t have competitiveness or use small area games.”
In practice, teams can add elements that don’t involve the full ice to keep players engaged and fresh. Players will get so many more touches and shots in practice than in a game regardless of the drill being run.
“If you make it fun and put them in a competitive setting where they are competing, they don’t remember whether there’s a scoreboard or not.”
To avoid burnout, it is up to the coaches to evaluate the team for when rest is needed. The coaching staff can opt for off-ice events instead that can also be used as learning opportunities.
“I’m a big fan of soccer in general. Supporting the puck, being able to check in and check out, defending, attacking in numbers, supporting, I think soccer does a great job of teaching that.”
Off-ice activities also keeps kids active without being in a hockey mindset. Taylor’s team uses European Handball for that same reason. These games help players learn how to be involved in the flow of a game when they don’t have the puck on their stick and aren’t directly involved in the action. It is a great way to teach systems and concepts in a fun setting almost without players realizing it.
Taylor is a strong advocate of remembering that there is an off-season during the summer and that players can still be athletes during this time without participating in on-ice hockey related activities. For those who are interested in off-ice summer exercises, he recommends the OMHA Players Club as a way to build technical skills on your own.