Photo Credit: Tim Bates/OJHL Images
One of the most popular games on the hockey calendar is the annual Winter Classic. Stadiums are transformed into winter wonderlands, ready to embrace whatever elements Mother Nature throws their way. Yet no matter the weather, the game goes on because it reminds everyone of the ‘good old days’.
Hockey players look forward to winter because it means that the season is truly in full swing. It means they aren’t limited to just practices and games at the arena. Now they can work on their stickhandling and shooting on the backyard rink. There, they can play freely. Nobody will get upset at them for making a mistake. They can try new things outside of a structured practice without going off track.
There’s a reason ‘play time’ exists in daycare when kids are still developing. It gives them the opportunity to be creative and social among their peers. Hockey players need that same time and exposure to develop their skills. This isn’t to say that kids should skate around freely on the ice during an hour of valuable practice time but allowing them freedom within the structure of a drill can increase development.
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Practices need to look like situations players may encounter during a game. Using small area games or station-based practices keeps players engaged consistently. From an outside perspective, free play or unstructured fun during practice can seem like a waste of time - if it isn’t 5-on-5 full ice then it doesn’t matter. However, that time players have in those smaller areas unlocks engagement within and creativity to develop the mental side of the game.
Younger players learn through experience. If you’re able to let them be creative within a structured drill they will be more open to try new things in a game situation. Forcing players to come up with their own decisions on the ice develops their hockey sense. With a drive for more games and more tournaments there are less practices for kids to test out their creativity.
The next time you remark that the game was ‘better back when I played’, think a little deeper as to what you really loved about your time in minor hockey. Was it the yearly schedule of games and practices? Or was it the friendships made and playing around on a backyard rink with no structure? Let the kids play.