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Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Rise of the Middle Class

Many hockey players - and many more hockey parents - get freaked out when they (or their child) are (is) not one of the better players on a given team or in a given league.

Every player wants to be one of the best. Every parent wants their child to be one of the best. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is an admirable goal, something to shoot for.

But not everybody can be the best. On any given team, in any given league, there will be exceptional players, the ones that most often really make a difference in the game.

There will also be the players on the other end of the spectrum, the ones that struggle to play at that particular level. They can also make an impact on the game but, more often than not, not in a good way.

Then there is the group in the middle, the largest of the three groups, the group whose members could go either way or stay the status quo.

But it’s also the group whose members just might have the opportunity to become the best players of all of them in due time.

The developmental process of a hockey player is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes years and years of commitment and effort to be one of the best. It’s not where you start, it’s where you end. What happens in between is what it is all about. That’s where the experience can benefit a player, or not.

Some kids start out strong and continually improve, some kids start out strong and level off, some start out dominant and fall back into the pack while others start out slower and then the light bulb goes on and at some point they rise to the top. Every player is different, every situation is different.

Size and speed
At the younger age groups, the most dominant players are usually the most dominant because of one of two reasons, size or speed, or both. The bigger, stronger, often most mature and more often than not the earlier birthdates in a calendar year, have the greatest opportunity to be the best players at the younger ages.

The players that are the fastest skaters also have a significant advantage at the younger ages.

Watch any mini mite or mite practice or game and is quickly apparent which players make the difference in the games. Those kids have the puck more, they make plays, they score goals and their confidence is sky-high. They feel good about what they can do and they love playing the game. The table is set for success moving forward.

But is it always achieved? Are the best players at mite usually the best players at midget? Sometimes, sometimes not. While they were lucky to have the advantage of nature early on, being bigger or faster skaters, nurture starts to play a much bigger role.

Over time everybody grows and matures, some sooner than others, some grow bigger than others, but every player goes through significant physical changes on the journey.

Coaching and competition become more of a factor in the journey. Both are important. It is critical for both to positively influence a player along the way. Coaches can teach skill technique, knowledge of the game and provide guidance along the way in practices and in games.

Riding their coattails
For the better players, the ones that matured earliest and were more dominant at the youngest ages, coaching is much more important. If coaches choose to just let these players play the game the same way they always have as they as they progress up through the age groups, they are doing them an incredible disservice. In fact, they are not coaching at all. Instead, they are taking advantage of the players and more or less riding their coattails to win hockey games.

But eventually it will catch up to them. What worked at mite and squirt doesn’t necessarily work at pee wee, bantam and midget. The game changes. The players change. If the better players don’t evolve, they will quickly get surpassed by the players that do. It is quite common to see players that were “can’t miss” as eight-year olds be “can’t play” as fifteen-year olds. Sorry, that might be harsh, but it’s reality. And at that point it is too late to wonder why. That is where coaches can make the difference.

But the game is also a great teacher. And in many cases it is a much better teacher than the coach. The coach wants to win so will sometimes make sacrifices to give that the best chance of happening. The game doesn’t do that. The game is always teaching if a player is willing to pay attention.

Leading the pack
The group of players that has the potential to benefit most from what the game has to teach is the middle class. These are the players who aren’t dominant at the younger ages, they don’t have the puck a lot, they don’t score many of the goals, they don’t make a lot of plays.

But if you really think about the game in terms of an individual player, most of it is played without the puck. If a player has the puck a lot of the time, it can be pretty hard to learn how to play without the puck. Don’t get me wrong, it is great to be able to have the skill set to control the play with the puck. Those skills are extremely important and can always be improved upon no matter what level a player is playing at. When you have the puck you want to make the right play and be productive with it.

The players in that middle group don’t start out with the physical advantages of size or speed that the top players have. They typically don’t have the puck a lot, might not win a lot of races to it or battles for it or have the skills to keep it once they do get it. So they need to learn to survive. That is what the game can teach.

Skating, puckhandling, passing, pass receiving and shooting are skills that can be improved immensely by coaches who teach and reinforce proper technique in practices. They are very difficult skills to improve in a game situation when there is only one puck on the ice and 10 skaters and the primary focus is on competing to win the game.

But the game creates the perfect environment for players to learn how to play the game. Defensively they learn to read the play and figure out where the puck is going before it gets there. They learn to take away time and space and cover opponents away from the puck to take away options.

Offensively they learn how to read the play, to support the puck, to get in the right place to be a passing option for a teammate, how to find open ice in the offensive zone to create scoring chances and how to interact with their teammates. They have to. If they don’t, they won’t be involved in the game.

And over time, by developing their skating and puck skill base in practice along with their hockey sense in games, by the time the race gets closer to the finish line the players from the middle class often find themselves leading the pack.