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Friday, December 17, 2010

Born to Play

Happy Birthday to all of the youth hockey players born in December!
While the festive season really is a wonderful time of the year, it is not necessarily a great time to be celebrating your birthday. Not only do you get bamboozled out of an extravagant birthday celebration and gifts that kids born in other months of the year might get, you also have the privilege of starting out the hockey career race with the equivalent of having both skates untied, your helmet on backwards and a broken stick.

In other words, you have a few more challenges to overcome than kids born in other months of the year.

It is sort of the youth hockey version of drawing the Jail Card in Monopoly. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Go to the end of the line behind all of the bigger, more mature kids born in the July, August or September. You can find them behind the bigger, more mature kids born in March, April or May. And of course they will be directly behind the most fortunate souls, who were born in January, February or March. A January 1st birth date is like winning the hockey lottery. December 31st, not so much.

Obviously there has to be a cut-off, a start date and an end date and ultimately there has to be an oldest and youngest player in each age group. There is no way around that. To me it makes sense to have that cut-off right around the time that the season starts, sort of like they do with school, as opposed to in the middle. But either way you are still going to have a one year gap in age. By using a two-year age group instead of a single birth year, at least the youngest players have the chance very second year to be in the middle of the age group as opposed to always being the youngest.

Why it matters
Right about now you might be asking why it matters? What difference does it make? It does have significance in a couple of different areas.

First of all is opportunity. Clearly, all players are not provided with the same opportunity. And that opportunity, or lack of it, extends across all levels and age groups. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell devoted a whole chapter of his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, to the disparity in birth dates in junior hockey in Canada. As would be expected, junior hockey team rosters are more heavily weighted with players born in the first quarter of the year, followed by players born March through June. There are typically fewer and fewer kids represented in each month as the year progresses.

Not that I think it is all that important that we structure our youth hockey programs with the primary goal of being player factories for the National Hockey League. While that might be a nice by-product of a well structured program, it certainly should not be the main objective. That being said, the fact that a miniscule percentage of youth hockey players do realize their dreams of playing professionally at the highest level makes me think that we should provide that same opportunity to all players, instead of creating a system that unfairly benefits so few who just happen to be born in the right months. And wouldn’t there be potentially significantly more players capable of fulfilling those dreams of playing at a higher level if players in all months were given that same opportunity?

Check the numbers
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the breakdown of players this year on the rosters of the five Detroit area teams in the Minor Midget Division of the Tier One Elite Hockey League: Victory Honda, Honeybaked, Little Caesars, Belle Tire and Compuware.

It should be noted that this age group is for 15 and 16 year olds, 1994 and 1995 birth years, and that it is the first age group comprised of two birth years. All younger age groups are made up of players from one birth year.

Of the 97 players on the rosters of the five teams, 21 players (22%) were born in January, 15 (15%) in February, 19 (20%) in March, 14 (14%) in April, 5 (5%) in both May and June, 4 (4%) in July, 7 (7%) in August, 3 (3%) in September, 2 (2%) in both October and November and exactly zero were born in December. Breaking that down by quarters, 57% of the players were born in the first quarter, 25% in the second, 14% in the third and 4% in the fourth. Doesn’t appear to be much of a chance for the October, November and December kids, does there?

Obviously not every age group of every competitive level will have this distribution. But there is a good chance it will be close in most leagues where the players are chosen by tryouts.

The advantages
It starts at the youngest age groups. In Mite A and AA hockey, for 7 and 8 year olds, the coaches will usually select the biggest, strongest, fastest players on the ice at the tryout. Typically those players are also the oldest players, the ones born earlier in the year. One to three months can make a huge difference in the physical and mental maturity of 7 and 8 year olds. So those kids get an advantage right from the get-go.

To compound the issue, those selected teams often get more ice time than the rest of the teams at their age group. For example a Mite A or AA team typically has three one-hour skates (games or practices) a week while a Mite B (house or drafted) team might only get two one-hour skates per week. And to add to it even further, the A/AA teams usually get the more experienced coaches while the house leaguers often get the dads who might be great guys and do a wonderful job with the kids, but might not have a lot of experience at playing or coaching the game.

So who do you think will be most prepared to make the A or AA team the following year at tryouts? Would you be surprised to find out that it is again the older, bigger, more mature players, many of whom also benefitted from more ice time and more experienced coaching than their peers?

The cycle repeats itself year after year after year all of the way up to Midgets and then on to Junior and above. Obviously there are other factors that influence the outcome, such as how hard a player competes, athleticism, intelligence and this thing called puberty.

But more often than not the herd is pretty much the same herd from year to year. A herd that was thinned far too soon, way before there is any reason to thin it out. And the unfortunate by-product of that thinning is that kids born later in the year are saddled with obstacles that are incredibly difficult for them to overcome.

Don’t they all deserve the same chance? Not just to advance to the higher levels of hockey, but to be in a position to be one of the better players in their age group at some point? How fun can it be to always be starting the race in the back row?
Timing plays a huge role in the game of hockey. The players that are in the right place at the right time have the best chance to impact the game. Those who were born at the right time have the best chance.

Monday, December 6, 2010

How Far Do We Need to Go?

The concept of travel hockey is a very interesting topic, one with a number of different dynamics and several different roads leading in many different directions.

In its most simplistic form, the idea of travel hockey makes good sense. But as often is the case, in our haste to get to the finish line first we push the boundaries of rationality, the train leaves the tracks and we forget why we even got on board in the first place.

In Canada, travel hockey is also referred to as Rep hockey. Tryouts are held for the players within an association and the team selected represents that particular organization at that age and competitive level of hockey. Players not making the cut for that particular team would tryout for the next competitive level down and at some point the remaining players would filter into the recreational or house level of play.

In Michigan it is somewhat similar but at the same time very different. Teams are formed by tryouts but if a player doesn’t make the association team it is pretty easy to travel to a different arena, association or club to find a team that the player can make. It’s not anything close to Rep hockey, because in many cases the players that form the travel teams never ever played in the organization previously. The only connection in terms of representation is that those players get to wear that organization’s colors and use their team name. At least until next season when they could very well be representing a different organization.

But the basic tenet of travel hockey is fundamentally sound. There is a need for different levels of play within the same age group, because of the simple fact that there are some players who, for any number of reasons, are better than many of the other players. It could be because they have played longer, they are bigger and stronger, they are more athletic, they are more competitive or they are more serious. They play a somewhat different version of the game. That is not to say that the rest of the players can’t and shouldn’t play hockey. They absolutely should, and for them, eliminating the more dominant players from the group could very well make the game more enjoyable.

The hard part
That all typically makes sense to groups on both sides. But that is the easy part. The difficult part is determining the line, that cut-off point between B or house hockey and A/AA or Tier II travel hockey. And then a step further to the line between A/AA Tier II hockey and AAA or Tier I hockey? Where exactly is that line? Who determines that line? What does a B or “house player” look and play like? What defines the travel or A/AA player? What exactly is the AAA player? I hear these terms used all of the time to describe the different levels of play, but honestly I really can’t tell the difference in many of the players.

The reality is that there are plenty of house or B players who can play travel or A/AA hockey. There are plenty of A/AA players who can play AAA hockey. They are plenty of players currently playing AAA hockey who would probably have a much better experience if they were playing A/AA hockey. And there plenty of A/AA players who would probably enjoy the game more if they played at the B level.

Actually there are no lines. No black and white. It is all just one big mass of gray. Players can play at the level they choose to. And in some cases the level that a player participates at has more to do with affordability than it does with any playing ability that the player might or might not have. There are plenty of kids playing house hockey who are good enough to play travel but their parents can’t, or choose not to, afford it. There are also plenty of A/AA players whose families can’t commit to the time and money to play AAA hockey. Conversely there are many players playing a higher level of hockey than they probably should be because of the fact that their parents can afford it and are willing to spend that time and money.

Nothing about any of this is necessarily wrong. But it might not be all that right either.

In theory, there should be a clear delineation between players and teams at each of the different levels. But there isn’t. For example some of the better Pee Wee AA teams in the LCAHL are very competitive with some of the weaker Pee Wee Major AAA teams. Can they compete with the top level AAA teams? Probably not. But they also probably would have more competitive games with the lower level AAA teams than they would with the lower level AA teams in their own league. There are also some stronger B teams that would beat some of the weaker AA teams.

No matter how you slice it at any level of youth hockey, there will always be really strong teams and really weak teams at each level. Some would say that the stronger teams should be playing at a higher level and the weaker teams at a lower level. But who are they to say? Who decides where that line is?

Searching for competition
The problem becomes the travel. Our never-ending search for competition always, and I mean always, seems to result in more travel. The stronger teams want better competition so they seek out teams from other areas. The weaker teams get tired of getting beaten upon and look for more competitive games with teams from other areas. Heaven forbid that a Pee Wee AAA team play a local AA team or that a girls Tier I team played a Tier II team. Could you imagine what would happen if the lower level team won? It would be the equivalent of crossing the streams of the Proton Packs used to weaken and capture the ghostly spirits in the movie Ghostbusters. The universe as we know it would end.

So when we choose travel, we get plenty of exactly that. Long distances. Granted there are some places that are forced to travel to play because there are not enough players or teams in their area to be able to play locally. But when there is an area that has plenty of players and teams, does it really make sense to have to leave that area to find competition? And what is the guarantee that traveling longer distances to play will result in more competitive games and better hockey?

Michigan has plenty of players and plenty of teams. At every level. If, and that is a huge if, our priorities were aligned with the best interests of the majority of the players and their families, we would find a way to create realistic, affordable, competitive hockey with a reasonable amount of travel. It could be done.

Believe it or not the Midget Major and Midget Minor age groups in the Tier One Elite Hockey League include teams from Los Angeles to Boston, Dallas to Detroit and everywhere in between. Sure they are broken up into geographical divisions but there is still plenty of travel involved. We are talking about players as young as 15 and 16 here. Is a league this widespread really all that necessary? Are the games that much more competitive, the level of play that much better?

Really you could ask those questions about any level of travel hockey. How far do we need to travel before realize that we have gone too far?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Benefits of Two-Year Age Grouping

It has always struck me as a little odd that the USA Hockey age groupings generally are for a two-year period, yet at some levels of play in Michigan we choose to use single birth years when forming teams.

I have to surmise that there must be at least one (or more?) really good reason(s) to form teams this way. But I really couldn’t tell you what they are. If anybody knows, I would love to hear them.

The two-year age group is used at the “B” or House level of play, for Girls hockey and for the Midget age groupings for Tier I and Tier II. In “B” hockey we have 8 & Under, which is typically for 7 and 8 year olds, 10 & Under for 9 and 10 year olds, 12 & Under for 11 and 12 year olds, 14 & Under for 13 and 14 year olds, Midget B for 15 and 16 year olds and Midget BB for 17 and 18 year olds. Girls hockey is 10U, 12U, 14U, 16U and 19U.

Yet Tier I (AAA) and Tier II (A/AA) hockey are predominantly single year age groupings. At the Tier II level the A signifies the first year of the two year group (Squirt A is for 9 year olds) while AA is the second year label (Squirt AA is for 10 year olds). At the Tier I level they are designated as Squirt Minor (9 year olds) and Squirt Major (10 year olds). That holds true through Pee Wee and Bantam as well. But oddly enough, Midget hockey becomes a two-year age group. Midget A is for 15 and 16 year olds and Midget AA for 17 and 18 year olds in Tier II. The same ages are classified as Midget Minor and Midget Major at the Tier I level.

For a number of different reasons, a two-year age grouping makes a great deal of sense for all levels of hockey. Obviously a mechanism would need to be in place to ensure that there were a minimum number of first and second year players on each team so coaches couldn’t load up on second year players. (They wouldn’t do that, would they?)

Getting cheated
First and most importantly, would be the benefit to the players as they would have the opportunity to realize the complete hockey experience which would allow them to better develop their skills and knowledge of the game. With a one-year age group, every player is cheated of that opportunity.

As first year players in an age group, most (but not all) players are younger and smaller than the second year players in that group. Obviously a January birth date player wouldn’t be that much behind a December birth date, but generally speaking the second year players would have the opportunity to be the “bigger, stronger, faster, better” players on the team.

Playing with and against older players, the first year players would be pushed or challenged to improve (don’t we hear that one all of the time?) by being put into a situation where they might not have the puck as much and might have to learn a different way to contribute and be successful. They would have to learn to work harder and work smarter just to keep up. They wouldn’t always be that dominant or better player that they might otherwise be every year in a single year age group.

But every second year they would have the opportunity to be one of the better, bigger, stronger, faster players because half of the players that they play with and against would be a year younger than them. Currently many players never get this opportunity. A third liner or 5th or 6th defenseman at Pee Wee A is pretty much going to be in that same role at Pee Wee AA. They are deprived of the opportunity to have the puck more, make plays, be a leader and learn to play the game from that perspective. A two-year age grouping gives them the best of both worlds, the opportunity to compete and develop a complete hockey game.

From a player development standpoint there is no better system. A secondary benefit would be that players wouldn’t have to “play up an age group to be challenged”. They would automatically be doing that every second year.

Secondly, the competitive playing field (or ice surface) would become somewhat more level, which is not only a benefit to the players, but also a benefit to the families paying the bills and to the game itself. Eliminating the ability for teams to load up on all of the best players in a particular age group (because they would be limited to half of their team in that age group) would mean that the wealth would be spread out more. The gap between the haves and the have-nots would close somewhat.

Smaller population areas with a lesser number of players in each age group would be able to be more competitive. Instead of struggling to have two weaker teams in single year age groups (or no team at all), they could ice one stronger two-year age group team at that level of play.

In areas with larger player pools there would be more teams in the two-year age group than in the single year. For example, in looking at the Squirt age group, instead of there being ten A teams and ten AA teams in a given area, there would be twenty two-year age group teams. More different teams is always better. More importantly, more teams that are competitive with one another is always better.

No more super teams
One of the biggest problems with our current system is the ability to create “super teams” because of the nature of how teams are formed. These teams often have a hard time finding competitive games locally so they have to travel far and wide to find teams to play.

Wouldn’t it be great to have competitive hockey within a reasonable geographical area? Making the game more affordable and convenient to play can’t be anything but a plus. However, the dissenters will say that the game would be “watered down” and the level of play not as high and we wouldn’t be able to compete with Canadian teams or the teams from other states in the National Tournament.

How important is it to compete with Canadian teams or teams from across the country anyway? Doesn’t it make more sense to have strong, local, competition? Especially for the “good of the game” and the players in Michigan?

And if we can’t compete with teams from those other places, could it be because our system doesn’t do a good enough job of developing good players? And if we have strong, competitive local hockey, how much does it really matter how competitive we are with teams from other places (aside from the egos of the parents and coaches of course)?

So why the one year age groups at some levels of hockey? Because it is easier? Because it gives coaches more control? Because we can form super-teams to bring home the trophies and national championships? And if two-year age groups work for Tier I and Tier II Midget hockey, why aren’t they used at the other age groups?

Clearly, more players would benefit from using two-year age groupings to form teams. Who benefits from the single year age grouping and why is it in place? Let me know.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Recognizing Good Coaching

The horserace that is the youth hockey season is just reaching the quarter pole. Some teams have jumped out into an early lead. Others have settled back into the pack. And some have stumbled out of the gate and fallen well back, which might be cause to wonder if they were entered in the right race to begin with.

But at the quarter pole, there is still plenty of race left, plenty of time. A lot can happen between now and the finish line. Depending on the horses and maybe more importantly, how the jockeys handle those horses.

As the quarter pole is the first unit of measure, now is when coaches start to assess and analyze their teams. It is also a time when parents will begin to assess and analyze the coaches of those teams. And that can sometimes be a little dangerous and misguided depending on the approach.

How exactly does a parent recognize what is good and what might not be so good about what the coaches are doing with a team? Are we that attentive at practices and games to watch what is happening on the ice and on the bench in terms of interaction between players and coaches?

Are we even capable as parents of recognizing good coaching and what might not be good coaching based on our experience (or lack of) with the game? Or do we simply measure good coaching based on the win-loss record and the position in the standings?

There are plenty of excellent youth hockey coaches on the ice and behind the bench at all levels of play. Some of them have very little experience playing hockey. But they might have an infectious personality and be great working with and communicating with kids to create a positive experience.

Others might look like they could be great coaches and actually may have been or still are great players, wheeling around the ice in practice firing pucks off of the glass and impressing the parents with their serious skills. But are they doing any coaching?

A recipe for success
As we know, perception can very easily be confused with reality. If you want to be perceived as a good coach, here is your recipe for success. Spend a lot of time recruiting all of the best players to your team so you have the best team in your age group. Or if you are coaching in a house league, make sure you do whatever you can to pick all of the best players to stack your team.

In some cases at the travel level, you won’t even have to spend any time recruiting. Once you have a good team, the best players will come to you. Then all you will need to do is cut the players who have played for you previously because they aren’t as good as the new players.

Once you have a stacked team, be sure to play your better players way more than the weaker players (even on a stacked team there will be players weaker than the better players). Understand that the players really do matter. Well, the better players do anyway. Ride those horses into the ground. They will make or break you. Don’t risk your reputation and put the weaker players on the ice at an important juncture in the game. Don’t worry about giving them experience and opportunity to see what they can do in the event that you might really need them at some point in the season.

Put your top dogs out whenever you can, especially on power plays, penalty killing, and the first and last minute of each period. Fill in wherever needed with the other players, but only to give the best players a quick break. Never give the weaker players the chance to let you down.

Be sure to get the most mileage you can from your top players. Don’t spend any time teaching them how to interact with their teammates. Tell them not to pass the puck. The weaker players will just lose it anyway. Exploit your stars and make sure they play an individual game and go end-to-end whenever they can. If they don’t actually learn how to play hockey as a team game it doesn’t matter.

Once you have earned your reputation as a winning coach the better players from other teams will come to your team. There is no shortage of players and parents who want to be part of a winning team with great coaching. Don’t worry about coaching any of your players. Use them as needed until you can replace them.

A different approach
Unfortunately, there are some coaches who operate that way. Sadly, there are some parents who actually think they are good coaches.

If you want to actually be a good youth hockey coach you will need to take a different approach. The journey might be a little bumpier but it will be a lot more enjoyable.

First of all you will need to detach yourself from your ego. If you want to make it all about you, then you should definitely not coach kids. Go and play in an adult league where you can be the star or play in a fantasy league where you can get satisfaction in making all of the right moves that the NHL coaches and GM’s just can’t seem to make.

If you can park your ego, you might be ready to coach kids. But you have to be willing to accept that your role is to coach the kids, all of the kids, and not take advantage of them. As John F. Kennedy (I think he was the first coach of the Capitals) once said, “Ask not what your players can do for you, but what you can do for your players.” Or something along those lines.

A good coach strives for improvement in all of the players on the team. A good coach takes pride in the improvement in all players on the team. Good coaches provide the opportunity for all players to play in all situations. How would you know how a player will react in a situation if they are never given the chance? How do players have a chance to learn and improve from experience if never given the opportunity?

Good coaches don’t wait for the opportunity to replace their weaker players at the next tryout. They coach those players to give them the chance to improve so they are not longer a “weaker player”.

Good coaches don’t exploit the advantages that the early maturing kids enjoy, being bigger and stronger and faster than most of the others. Good coaches know that at some point, nature evens the playing field and the others catch up. If the early maturing players aren’t taught how to play the game properly and rely solely on the early physical gifts they received, they will quickly be passed by. How is allowing that to happen considered good coaching?

But most of all, good coaches know and understand that an approach that allows for harmony in the short-term (what is best for the team) and in the long-term (what is best for individual players) is much, much, more important than coach-term (what is best for the coach's reputation).

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Problem With Playing To Win

The ultimate goal of any competition is to win. It’s doubtful that there would be any debating that statement.

Some games or events are bigger or more significant than others so winning might seem more important in those cases, but in the end it all comes down to which team comes out on top in any game that is played.

Oddly enough a team could play poorly and still win on the scoreboard and the perception by most people would be that everything is peaches and cream. Winning will do that.

Conversely, a team could play unquestionably its best game of the season yet come out on the wrong end on the scoreboard and the consensus would probably still be that they came up short. Losing will do that.

Obviously, winning is important. We always play to win. The more wins we get the better. The more wins we get the higher in the standings we finish.

What happens if we don’t?
But what if we don’t win? What if the team has little or no chance of winning, because of circumstances beyond their control, like when their coach enters them at a level where they are over-matched and have no chance of success? And what if a team is so good that it never loses or is never challenged and wins every game with little effort? Are those wins really that important? Are they even really wins if the outcome was never ever in doubt?

Ultimately wins are nothing more than units of measure, like markings on a ruler or mileage on the odometer of a vehicle. The difference is that some of those miles are on a much better trip than others. Some are of a much higher quality than others.

The concept of winning and losing in youth sports is a bird of a different feather than at the professional level. And by professional level I mean the levels of play where people’s jobs are at stake. That is definitely not the case, or if it is it shouldn’t be, at the youth level. It would be pretty sad that someone’s livelihood was determined by the ability or inability of the performance of kids in a recreational sport.

Way too serious
Even so, there are many coaches and parents who take winning way more seriously than they should. They get far too excited and feeling good about themselves (even though they were not involved in the outcome) when their child’s team wins and far too upset after a loss.

At the end of the day, the outcome of a single game or a team’s position in the standings really shouldn’t have that much of a positive or negative impact on any adult’s life. Other than we should be proud and supportive of our kids’ efforts and glad that they have the opportunity to compete and realize the benefits derived from participating in a team sport.

But all too often we lose sight of the process and get fixated on the outcome. We are so worried about our objective that we don’t take the opportunity to enjoy the ride.

If we really opened our eyes we would see that there is way more to the journey than there is to the destination. The problem is that it is much more difficult to gauge where you stand without a unit of measure like winning a game or sitting on top of the standings. Can we really determine that our team played well if they lost the game? How can we really tell if there was any improvement or growth by the players? Can we really call ourselves a good team if we are sitting at or near the bottom of the standings?

Short-term solution
And that is where we often get into trouble as it relates to playing to win. Getting the win becomes all too important because it is the only way we can assess where we stand. The measurement becomes way more important than anything else. Way more important than it should be.

In youth sports, when coaches make decisions based on the scoreboard in a game or the team’s position in the standings, the results are typically more negative than positive. The short-term solution to winning a game is to play the better players more and the weaker players less or not at all.

If you really think about it, there really is not much in the way of “coaching” involved in that decision. There is no opportunity for the players that are perceived to not be able to get it done to actually get it done. It’s tough to do anything sitting on the bench. How does a coach really know what they can or can’t do if they never have the chance? How do those players improve and learn how to compete and get experience in different situations if they never have the opportunity?

Worse yet, all too often the better players get over-played, even to the point where it is detrimental to their performance because they are too worn out to be able to compete to the level that they should and could if they were getting a proper amount of time. So nobody wins in that scenario. At least not from the players’ standpoint.

Skill development takes time
When the scoreboard and the standings influence decision-making too much, coaches tend to get impatient in practice planning and begin to spend a disproportionate amount of time attempting to teach their team concepts that they think might give their team a better chance of winning. Typically coaches will spend a great deal of time working on organizational and strategic things like breakouts and power plays.

The problem is that to execute breakouts and power plays and offensive zone cycling and neutral zone forechecking, players need to have the technical skills to skate and be in the right position, handle the puck, pass, receive and shoot with their heads up and have a sense of positioning, timing and the decision-making ability to do the right thing at the right time.

Without the technical skill sets that require hours and hours of proper repetition in practice, the execution of breakouts and power plays is virtually impossible and the practice time wasted.

Probably the most frustrating feeling as a coach is when it seems like you aren’t making a difference. Skill development can be time-consuming and tedious and improvement never seems to come fast enough. It can be easy to think that you are going nowhere. Especially when the only quantifiable unit of measure for most people is wins and losses and the team’s position in the standings. Especially when you are doing more losing and winning and the team is closer to the bottom of the standings than the top.

Probably the worst mistake a coach can make is to coach by the scoreboard and the standings. More often than not, bad short-term decisions translate into worse long-term results for the players.

It’s not that winning is not important. It is. But it should be the by-product of good coaching decisions, not the driving force for bad ones.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Where do you fit?

Tier I, Tier II, AAA, AA, A, BB, B, A, House, Travel, TOEHL, Adray, LCAHL, Yzerman, Lidstrom, Howe, Mite, Squirt, Pee Wee, Bantam, Midgets, Minor, Major.

So many classifications and so many monikers. What does it all mean? And more importantly where do you fit into the equation? Where should you be? Where should you aspire to be? How do you know when you are ready? How do you know when you aren’t?

Those are some very tough questions. And they apply both to individuals and to teams.

For individual players and their families it can often be very difficult to navigate their way through the hockey world. Especially for those who are new to a sport that has its own unique culture and language. But it can also be very confusing for those who grew up playing the game because so much changes over time. What once was might no longer be.

House hockey? At one time “house league hockey” was a description for teams that played their league games at one facility, in-house. Players in each age group were divided up evenly onto teams so that there was parity within the league and opportunity for all of the teams and players to have success. A wonderful concept, if you really think about it, when it comes to youth sports.

Travel hockey? Those teams were formed by tryouts and because the better players in a given age group were on the team, those teams would “travel” to play similar teams from other areas. Another wonderful concept, if you really think about it, because it allowed for the better players to play at a higher competitive level. They had to travel to find that competitive level, but it provided that opportunity for those players and teams, and it also provided more opportunity for the players and teams in the house league because those games were no longer dominated by the better players.

Shades of gray
What started out as black and white as house and travel has now morphed into gray. A lot of different shades of gray.

There are very few facilities or associations that actually have true “house” hockey anymore. Most places don’t have enough teams at a given age group to have their own in-house league. So those teams end up traveling to other facilities to play what is still called house hockey by many. Confused yet? There are also some places that do have enough teams to have their own in-house league at their facility, but still choose to play in a league with teams from other facilities because they don’t want to just play “house hockey”. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Playing house hockey, I mean. While it still is “house level” hockey, with teams formed by a draft, I really do think that there is a perception that because teams actually have to (or get to) travel to play games, that the hockey is somehow better. It might be. But it just as easily might not. It also appears to be that the farther that a team travels to play a game that the level of play will be that much better. Again, it might be. But just as easily it might not.

Multiple levels
In theory, “all house hockey teams are created equally.” Well at least with equality, or parity, in mind. But that is not necessarily the case. Player pools in each area are very much different. While one association or arena might have enough players for ten 10 & under teams, another place might only have enough for one.

Some of them might be very good players. Good enough to play travel hockey, but for one reason or another (can’t afford to, don’t have the time, there is no team at that level in their area) they do not. So is that team really the same level as a team from an arena or association that divides up the players to form ten equal teams? Definitely not. In essence, there are multiple levels of house or B hockey.

And travel hockey is no different. There are multiple levels there as well, but for a different reason. Travel teams are formed by tryouts with minimal restrictions on where the players can come from. The better the team, the more players who will want to play on that team. Some teams get close to 100 players trying out. Others barely get enough to field a team. Yet these teams might end up playing each other. Does that seem right? Definitely not.

So to resolve that issue we create multiple levels of play, Tier I, Tier II (also known as AAA and A/AA) and even within the A/AA or “regular travel” category leagues have created various levels to try to create a more competitive environment. Also a wonderful concept.

The problem is that there is often more competition created off the ice (for players) than there is on the ice when the teams play each other. Do the teams fit into the level or does the level define the team and their ability to attract players? Ultimately the level of play very much defines how good a team will be or won’t be and how big its potential player pool will be.

How to decide?
So how do families and players decide what level is best for them to play?

How do teams decide what is the best competitive level? Where do you fit?

The good news is that there are a multitude of choices. The bad news is that many people have no idea what the consequences of those choices might or might not be.

In theory you would think that the principles of supply and demand would help guide people to their level. Players that don’t make a Tier I team would then attempt to make a Tier II team and failing to make that would play B or house hockey. The problem with that is there are multiple levels of all of those levels of teams. Some house teams are better than some A or AA teams. Some Tier II teams (A/AA) are better than some Tier I (AAA) teams in the same age group.

If a player wants (or his or her parents want) to play at a certain level of play, it can be achieved. There are always teams looking for players. It just depends on how far you want to travel and how much you want to pay.

Somehow within this system, the majority of teams and players actually do find the right competitive level to play. But some don’t. And for them, the season can be long and miserable.

There is nothing worse for a team than not being competitive with the teams it plays against. There is nothing worse for individual players than not being able to contribute as part of a team.

There has to be a balance of success and failure throughout the year. Too much of either is never a good thing. The beauty of competition is that, if you pay attention at all, it will let you know where you fit.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I'm Just a Kid

As we drop the puck on another hockey season, it’s like a new day dawning, a fresh sheet of ice, a long and winding road ahead ready to be taken.

Many new adventures will unfold. Each practice and each game a new chapter in the novel that is the season. Countless lessons will be learned by those new to the game and re-learned and re-learned over and over again by those who have experienced it for years. Sometimes we forget. But the game never stops teaching.

As a coach and a parent I know every year that I need to remind myself to make sure that I am approaching the game from the proper perspective. As we all know (or if we don’t yet we soon will), it is pretty easy to get caught up in the emotions of the moment and do something or say something that we will very much regret later on.

What’s it really about
But there are plenty of reminders around us at almost every youth sporting event that takes place, be it soccer, baseball, football or hockey. Someone, somewhere will get out of hand and have to be reminded of what exactly this stuff is really all about.

One such reminder occurred this past spring. It was one of those beautiful spring nights in mid-May, warm enough yet cool enough to make for a great night for a game. And there were plenty of games going on at the Northville Community Park that night. Three soccer games on adjacent fields back-to-back-to-back with a lacrosse game just a Chuck Stevens 5-iron to the south.

Plenty of action and plenty of excitement. And as could be expected, plenty of noise. Much of it coming from the parents and coaches on the sidelines of the soccer fields, shouting, among other things, encouragement and directions to their young stars and starlets on the field.

As much as I have grown to have an appreciation for “the beautiful game” (although it is not even close to hockey in terms of being a sport) the one thing that I will never quite accept is the fact that the parents and spectators are right there with the team on the sidelines. If not “right there” then just down the way.

And with that closeness comes the noise, the encouragement and cheering part of it good, some of the directions and sideline coaching, not so much.

On this particular night what caught my attention, somehow rising up and standing out above the din that is the sidelines, was an exchange from the field directly behind us. Two teams of what looked like nine-year olds were squaring off in a hotly contested match. Two athletic looking, athletically dressed alpha male coaches prowled the sidelines, toting clipboards and barking orders non-stop to their young charges on the field.

Suddenly one of the coaches, a little angered by something he saw on the field by an opposing player, blurted out something to the effect of, “Hey #7, keep your hands to yourself or I’ll show you what to do with them!” But apparently it was unheard or ignored because it was soon followed up with a “Hey #7, I told you to watch it or we’ll take care of you!”

That apparently caught the kid’s attention because his response was something that everybody heard, not just on their field but for three fields over. Not so much because of how loud he said it, but what he said.

“Hey Mr. I’m just a little kid!” was his response. I happened to turn in that direction just as the words were coming out of his mouth. Seeing the confrontation was interesting. A barely four-foot tall nine-year-old standing up to and staring up at a six-foot-three, two hundred and twenty five pound thirty-something coach. The coach’s reaction was priceless. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t respond. How do you respond to that? He turned, put his hands in his pockets and slinked down the sidelines, head down. Lesson learned. Maybe. At least for that night. The silence was deafening.

The coach probably wasn’t a bad guy. Most coaches aren’t. It’s tough to call anybody a bad guy for devoting the kind of time, energy and commitment it takes to coach a team in any sport. Most coaches mean well. As do most parents. Sometimes we just get caught up in the emotions of the moment and need a little dose of reality to set us straight.

That scene is sure to get repeated over and over and over this hockey season as it does every hockey season. Not the response from the player, but the over-exuberant yelling from the coach. Many coaches do it. Many parents do it. If not at the field or the rink, then probably on the way to the rink. Or worse yet on the way home after a tough game where the kid didn’t play quite up to expectations.

They already know
Here’s a little news for you if you weren’t aware. The kids already know when they don’t play that well. It’s not that difficult for them to figure out. They know what they did wrong and what they can try to do better next time. And rest assured, if they didn’t know during the game, at some point they were told about it by their coaches. More often than not they are told more times than they need to be.

That’s sort of the nature of coaching. It’s about correcting mistakes and trying to right wrongs. But obviously it is much, much more than that. About teaching the game, allowing players to learn the game, building skills and inspiring confidence.

All too often we coaches spend too much time on the correcting and not enough time on the inspiring. I know I am guilty as charged on that one. It’s something I try to remind myself about every time I go to the rink or soccer field.

What is a little sadly humorous is that while the players already know where they stand and what they did wrong well before any of us adults unnecessarily drill it into them again and again, is that they really don’t care as much about it as we adults do. It’s not that they don’t care about doing well and playing their best and winning and losing. They really do. But it’s just not as important to them as it is to the adults. They are kids. They move on to other things in their kid lives. It’s not that they don’t care. They do. But sometimes they do a much better job of keeping it in perspective than some of the adults do.

Something to think about on your way to the rink this season. They’re just kids.

Friday, September 3, 2010

So Much To Do, So Little Time

For many people it often seems like there are just never enough hours in the day to get accomplished what needs to get done. So much to do, so little time.

The same can be said when it comes to coaching a hockey team, no matter the age or ability level of the players on the team. There is always so much that can be done and so much that needs to be done. But it never seems like there is ever enough time to do it.

For hockey coaches, the beginning of the season can sometimes be a lot like standing at the foot of Mt. Everest, looking up to the summit and wondering how in the heck they are ever going to get there. It can be very easy to get overwhelmed. On a journey to the top of a mountain it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the destination on a cloudy day. But it can be just as easy to lose sight of the base as well. And to me, that might be a more important target to keep an eye on than the top.

Getting to where we want to be

Quite often when we are on a journey we tend to get so focused on where we want to go that we lose sight of where we are and what we have to do to give us the best chance to get to where we want to be.

That can happen a lot in the hockey world. And not just with coaches and their teams over the course of a season. But also with parents and their players over the course of their “career”. It’s common to want to get to the finish line first. It’s not so common to focus on what needs to be done to get to that objective. The old tortoise and hare fable is very much applicable.

Two or three fifty minute practice sessions a week are not a lot of time to work with a team. Add another half hour to each of those and I would bet most coaches would think that still wasn’t enough time.

Hockey is a very complex sport involving some intricate individual skill sets and some complicated interaction among teammates all done at maximum speed while attempting to overcome resistance from the opposing team.

It’s not an easy game to play, not an easy game to coach and not an easy game to watch and understand. It has a lot of moving parts. Parts that are very much dependent on one another.

The biggest error in judgment that many coaches tend to make is focusing on what they think will get their team to the top fastest. And while that is nowhere near as dangerous or potentially deadly, like a bad decision might be on the ascent to the top of Mt. Everest, it can have the same impact in terms of not allowing an opportunity to reach the destination.

Hockey-wise what that means is that coaches often tend to spend an inordinate amount of time on team-related strategies that will allow their players to work together as a unit. Short term, this is not really a bad strategy. More often than not it will even result in success.

For example, a team might spend a good deal of practice time working on a powerplay set-up or some breakouts or a forechecking strategy. Those type of elements take a lot of time to teach and to implement to get everyone on the team on the same page. So obviously they take up a lot of practice time. Early in the season there is a pretty good chance that there will be a payoff.

On-the-job training
Depending on the opponent (and whether you want to believe it or not, much of “success” in youth hockey depends on the quality of the opponent), teams that play with a lot of structure will have an advantage over teams that are more or less figuring it out as they go. On-the-job training takes a while and there will be some bumps in the road along the way.

But in my opinion, there is no more effective way of allowing players to learn and understand the game and how to play it than to actually let them experience it.

By spending a lot of time on systems and structure early in the season, the players might know where to go. But they might not have an understanding of when to be there. Or worse yet, might not have the skating skills to get there when they need to. Or the stick skills to do what they need to do if and when they do get there.

Which brings us back to the so little time and so much to do problem. What should a coach spend time on in practice to maximize the benefit to the players and the team? It can be easier and more productive in the short-term to “coach” the team by implementing some team structure or strategy that allows the team to as a whole to compensate for the lack of individual skills of the players. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts is somewhat true.

But at the same time the team is really all about the players. They are the parts. And the better the parts are, the better the team can become once they learn to work together. But before that happens they have to have the individual skills to be productive parts.

Building the foundation
Which brings us back to not losing sight of the base when looking upward to the peak. There is no mountain if there is no base. There has to be a foundation. And for hockey, the foundation is the fundamental skills necessary to play the game. And they are a very complex set of skills. A set of skills that requires hours and hours and hours of practice time to improve and perfect.

So which is it? Work on skills that might not have a recognizable immediate payoff? Or on structure that definitely will offer short-term gain, and will probably even evoke a few “that’s a well-coached team” comments, but might not be in the best interest of the players in the long run?

Over time a system and structure is only as good as the players executing it. Execution involves making the right decision at the right time and having the skating and puck skill sets to be able to do it. If those skill sets are not being constantly practiced and improved, at some point the system and structure will be irrelevant.

Practice time is clearly best spent on developing a skill base. If you want to have a good team and do what is best for your players, then spend at least 1/3 of the time practicing skating skills, the most important skill set for players. Not for conditioning. But for improving skating technique, which means not doing it when the players are tired or distracted by worrying about getting the puck or scoring a goal.

Another 1/3 of the time should be spent on fundamental puck skills including stickhanding, passing and receiving (which are the most important individual skills as it relates to the team), shooting and stick checking.

The last third should be spent on competitive situations that simulate game conditions as closely as possible.

A team that can skate, handle the puck and competes hard will be prepared both as individuals and as a team to have the best opportunity to get to the top. And that is a productive use of what little time we have.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Path Taken

Noted philosopher and former professional baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “When you see a fork in the road, take it.”

As talented, young hockey players enter their mid-teens and high school years they are presented with that very scenario. A fork in the road. And deciding which path to take can be a very difficult decision to make.

On one side there is the college hockey route. And once that choice is made, there are still a number of different considerations to factor into the equation as it relates to which school to attend.

College, in general, is about the experience. Young people moving away from home, gaining independence, making choices, accepting responsibility and gradually transitioning into adulthood.

The majority of people who attended college will include their college years as some of the best years of their life. And that could be for a lot of different reasons, some productive, some probably very unproductive. What is common to all though is that the college experience is the bridge to adulthood.

The college hockey experience includes all of those elements of the college experience, plus the opportunity to play a very high level of competitive hockey. In essence it allows the student-athlete the flexibility to pursue two career paths simultaneously, academics and athletics, and from that respect provides a great deal of flexibility for the future.

Choosing the other course, major junior hockey, takes a player in a very different direction and typically on a much faster journey. The Canadian major junior hockey world is structured very similarly to the professional hockey world. Quite different from college hockey in that respect. Hockey is clearly the number one focus. Really, it is more like an apprenticeship for professional hockey. There is the opportunity to pursue academics at the same time, but the environment doesn’t really lend itself to success in that area. A player needs to be extremely disciplined and driven academically to succeed.

A difficult decision

So which choice is best for aspiring hockey players as they begin their journey into hockey adulthood? It’s a great question. And it very much depends on the player, their skill sets (both academically and athletically) and their goals in life. It’s not an easy decision and very often it has to be made when a player might be too young to really understand the potential consequences.

Unlike other major sports, very few hockey players jump directly from high school to college. For all but a few there is a stop in between, junior hockey. A year or two, or sometimes three, of seasoning in the junior hockey incubator allows players to mature mentally and physically to step into the college hockey world and be prepared to compete.

Major junior hockey provides another alternative for players. But it comes with a price. The majority of junior hockey leagues across the United States and Canada are viewed as non-professional by the NCAA and thereby serve as the competitive training grounds for teenage hockey players in high school and in their post-grad years prior to attending college.

However, the highest level of junior hockey, the Canadian Hockey League, which is comprised of the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, with approximately 60 teams spread across Canada and sprinkled throughout five American states, is considered by the NCAA to be a professional league. Players who participate in these “major junior” leagues are pretty much ineligible to play NCAA hockey. There is a limited amount of petitioning that can be done to reinstate eligibility. But in most cases, once a player has chosen the major junior hockey path there is no turning back. The college hockey door is pretty much closed.

From that respect, the major junior hockey league teams have a significant advantage when competing head to head with college hockey teams for the services of a potential recruit. Major junior hockey teams are comprised mostly of 17-20 year old players but there are a few 16 year olds and even a few 15 year olds who have played.

In contrast, college hockey teams are restricted by NCAA rules to initiating contact with prospective student athletes until they are entering their junior year of high school. The player/family can contact the school if they choose, but the school can not contact the player. Quite obviously, advantage junior hockey in terms of the ability to make a strong first impression.

Predicting the future

But this decision is really just not about first impressions. It requires a great deal of thought about the future. And predicting the future is not easy. Managing the here and now is. Being able to understand the potential long-term ramifications of today’s decisions? Again, not so easy.

So how does a player choose? Succumbing to what we know today is tough not to do. A bird in hand might be more than two in the bush. It is difficult to resist temptation when someone is telling you how great you are, how much greater their program can make you and how the road to your National Hockey League dream runs through their major junior hockey program. Especially if you are 16 and the other option requires two more years of junior hockey before you can start college. Especially if you have had limited or no contact with any college hockey programs.

When you boil it all down, it very much depends on the skill sets and goals of the player. A projected first-round draft pick could make a strong case for choosing major junior hockey over college. That being said, there have been many first round picks that have never played a game in the National Hockey League, let alone made a career there.

Both routes provide similar athletic experiences and both have proven successful gateways to professional hockey. College hockey has a little shorter season with fewer games and more practices. Major junior hockey has more of a professional league schedule and environment, including the potential of being traded from team to team.

A big difference

The biggest difference is the commitment to academics. If a player is not as committed to performing in the classroom as he is on the ice then he is probably best off to go the major junior route.

As a former college hockey player, I can speak from experience in saying that the greatest benefit of college hockey is the flexibility that it provides for players for life. If they take advantage of the opportunity and are serious academically. I was fortunate enough to play professional hockey for four years. But I also had to be prepared to transition to a career for the next forty years.

That’s the scary part. But that also might be one of the benefits that major junior hockey provides. Desperation to play at the professional level. While getting an education during or after a junior hockey career is possible, it is much tougher to do and the environment is not very conducive to doing so.

To me the greatest factor to consider when making a choice is that there is no guarantee that a professional hockey career will happen. Even if it does, there is no guarantee that it will be long enough or lucrative enough to be able to ensure financial independence for life. The only real guarantee with a professional hockey career is that it prepares a person for absolutely nothing when it comes to the rest of your life.

When facing the choice at the fork in the road, the most important consideration is not where the path will lead you at the start, but where it will take you much further on.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Essentials of Player Development

Without a doubt the most over-used word in the youth hockey world is “development” - and it’s become exponentially moreso in recent years with the advent of USA Hockey’s American Development Model.

People throw around the ADM acronym like a peanut vendor at Comerica Park during a twelve-game home stand. Although personally I think very few people even really understand the program from bottom to top.

Which isn’t surprising, because I don’t think that most people have that great of an understanding of what exactly “development” is anyway, as it relates to hockey players. No disrespect intended, but some people couldn’t spot development if it was developing right in front of their nose.
Yet I always find it somewhat humorous, and at the same time somewhat alarming, during the youth hockey tryout season because it seems every coach and every team is touting the incredible amount of development that they have to offer for your player if you choose to join their team. Which always makes me wonder, if there is so much development going on at that team why are they looking for new players?

It could be that the players actually have developed and have chosen to move up to a team at a higher level. But that’s probably the case only in a few instances, as there just aren’t enough teams and roster spots at higher levels for all of the potential players being developed.
Maybe this development that is being sold isn’t really all it is cracked up to be? Maybe these coaches are just using that catch-phrase to attract really good players to their team, which makes the team better and makes the coach look good? Maybe the key to a good team and being considered a good coach is to have a really good marketing department creating your tryout ads?

How do you really know?
How is a parent of a hockey player to know? How do you recognize if development is really happening or not? Is it based on wins for the team? The tournaments that they have won? Goals and assists for the player?

What exactly is this thing we like to call development? How do we describe it? How do players get better? And why do players get better? And why at different rates and times? Why do some players start out strong and get passed by as they get older? Why are some kids late-bloomers?
The truth is that there are a number of different factors that figure into the mix of development for each player. Some completely out of anyone’s control and some that are substantially more significant than others. But they all play a role and they are all somewhat intermingled:

The Practices – Coaching does play a role, but not nearly as much as most coaches like to claim it does and most parents are told to believe it does. And there are probably considerably more players who have had their “development” stunted or stopped completely by coaches than there are those who have had it enhanced. In fact there are plenty of players who have developed quite well in spite of their coaching, not because of it. It could go either way.

Good coaches understand that the players are kids and the game needs to be fun. That’s more than half the battle. Coaches who create a fun and upbeat practice environment give the players the best opportunity to develop. Those who like to think they are coaching a professional team and there is no room for the F-word (rhymes with sun) are the ones that suck the life and any chance for development out of the players and the team. The best thing a coach can do in practice is try to teach proper technical skills and then re-create age appropriate game specific situations that the players can learn from.

The Game – Kids love to play the game. And the game can be the most valuable developmental tool for the players. If the coaches don’t get in the way and micro-manage it away. The great thing about the game is that we keep score and the players have a chance to compete. The bad thing about the game is that we keep score and it gives the coaches the chance to compete.

And to be fair, in many cases the coach’s desire or need to win is very much dictated by the parents of the players. Not enough wins equals mass exodus of better players. Winning is important. But losing can be just as or even more important. The key is balance. Too much of one or the other can be harmful to players if not handled correctly.

Good coaches understand that the game is the best teacher and allow their players to learn from it. Hockey is a game of mistakes. If a player never has the opportunity to make any they will have a hard time progressing.

The Player – Finally, and most importantly, it’s the player who ultimately plays the biggest role in their own development or lack thereof. How they approach practices and games and how they interact with their teammates and coaches very much has an impact on how they develop as a player.

Yet while there are many variables that players do have some control over there are some that are completely out of their hands. As a player, it is tough to do anything about your size and your physical stature. You are what you are. You can train to become faster or stronger but you can’t become taller. Smaller players may have some physical disadvantages, but at the same time in many cases they overcome that deficiency by becoming a quicker, smarter player.

Three more things
In my opinion there are three characteristics that have the greatest impact on a player how and if they will develop as a hockey player.

First there is athleticism. You have to be athletic to play hockey which means you need to have a solid mix of size, strength, balance, agility, coordination, quickness and power. Some players are lucky and come by those attributes naturally. Others have to work much harder and longer to compensate. Athleticism means more than just hockey-specific. The best hockey players are oftentimes the best players in other sports as well.

Desire comes next. You have to love to play the game so much that anything put into it doesn’t feel like it’s an effort to do so. Enjoyment of the game has a huge impact on desire. No fun, no desire. It’s that simple. Sometimes we get so hung up on development and where we are going that we forget about where we are at. If we don’t take care of the here and now, where we are going in the game is really irrelevant because we won’t be in the game long enough to get anywhere. Players who have a great desire to play never feel like they are sacrificing anything to play.

The last and maybe most important component is confidence. To be one of the best you have to believe you are capable of being one of the best. Confidence is a fragile thing. It can come and go in a heartbeat. One day you feel like you can knock a wing off a fly on the goalpost on a shot from the top of the circle and the next day you can’t hit water shooting off the end of the dock.

Over-confidence, while not necessarily a good thing, can lead to a lack of confidence in a hurry. One of the great things about the game is that it can quickly humble the over-confident.

Developing the confidence in your game is a lot tougher to come by. But when you have the confidence to compete, you never know what can happen from there.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Winds of Change

Every off-season at their annual meetings USA Hockey and the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association make some changes that affect their hockey playing members and their families.
Every year these changes become a topic of great discussion and debate. Some people are all for them, some dead-set against them. What most people typically look at is how the change affects them. What’s in for me? What’s been taken away from me?

What they often fail to look at is the potential impact on the game itself. And really, that is the important thing. The game itself is much bigger and much more important than any one player, any one family, any one team or any one organization. That is what USA Hockey and MAHA need to keep in mind when making decisions and implementing change. Personal agendas do not apply. And oftentimes that is very difficult for people to understand when change occurs.

That being said, this summer there was nothing really that remarkable in terms of changes. Although some people would beg to differ on that because of their perception of how the changes affected their personal situation.

No 12U Nationals
One of the more hotly debated topics was the elimination of USA Hockey National Championships at the 12U age level for both boys and girls effective in the 2012-13 season. Oh my gosh! What an opportunity lost for these young players! Whatever will they play for now?

I am only slightly tongue in cheek with those comments. Some people actually ask those kinds of questions. And I can understand why. But I also understand why USA Hockey made the choice that they did in the best interest of the game and the players playing it.

First of all, I would hope the players would play the game because they enjoy playing it, not because of the quest to win a national championship. If that was the case, 99.9% of us would be failures every year.

Very few people actually get to go to the national championships. And for those that do, I can see how they feel it is "wonderful once-in-a-lifetime" experience.

I was fortunate enough to coach a team that participated as the host team in the national championship tournament this past year. It was fun, it was exciting and the players and their families had a great time. But it was not really that much different than any other tournament that they participated in. If we didn’t do it, it wouldn’t have had that much of an impact on us.

What most people don’t consider when it comes to national championships is that the teams from all over the country are formed in a number of different ways and can "run the gamut" in terms of their ability to be competitive or not.

From a strictly "best competition" standpoint, many teams actually get better competition in tournaments that they go to throughout the year. Their league or state playoffs might actually be more competitive than the national tournament because their teams are formed in the same manner.

Don’t get me wrong. I think a championship of some sort is good. But a national championship in a youth sport is really not that important. And I would argue that it has a more harmful affect on the game than it does positive, especially at the younger age groups.

Making decisions
Unfortunately a national championship opportunity can very heavily influence the decision-making of coaches and families when teams are formed.

Long-term athlete development and age-appropriate coaching methods get thrown out the window for what will win a championship now.

What really should be an opportunity to compete for a national championship earned by doing the right thing for the players all season long very easily gets replaced by being rewarded for doing the wrong things for those players.

Some people just can’t help themselves. Ultimately the "over-the-top" coaches actually get "rewarded" (at least in the short-term) for their actions because they do things to be successful and are actually viewed as successful even though what they are doing is not in the best interest of their players.

Most parents have a hard time judging who is a good coach or who is not a good coach, but jeez if they went to nationals they must be good, right? Not. They might be, but they could just as easily not be.

The truth is we don’t need nationals at 12U. It is way too young to be led down the wrong path. In fact I am not so sure we need them at all in any age group. Canada, the leading hockey playing country in the world, and one that we often look to for guidance, doesn’t have national championships. They seem to get along just fine without it. So all in all, a good move by USA Hockey. One that is better for the game and the players playing it.

The Locker Room
The second significant change from USA Hockey this year is the new Locker Room Supervision policy that addresses the concern with "locker room activities between minor players; minor players and adult players; adults being left alone with individual minor players in locker rooms; and with non-official or non-related adults having unsupervised access to minor participants at sanctioned team events."

This also could very well be called the "CYA Policy" (and that doesn’t stand for Chicago Young Americans). Or it could just as easily be called the "Uncommon Sense Policy" because I really am starting to believe that common sense is not common at all.

I "get" why USA Hockey is introducing the policy. It has to be something that they are telling people to adhere to. Some lawyers live for opportunities presented when policies aren’t spelled out. What is scary is that there actually are some people who have to be told. The wording of the policy is a little vague and maybe intentionally-so to be open to interpretation. Does an adult actually have to be in the locker room supervising? Or just outside the door? Maybe I am dense, or maybe I just don’t want to believe they are actually mandating that an adult needs to be in the room at all times.
Sorry, I am a little old-school on this one. I firmly believe that the locker room is a sacred place. A place for the team. A place for the individuals on a team to interact and grow together.

For kids, it should be a place where adult supervision is not necessary. Absolutely coaches should lay the ground rules of what is expected and what is unacceptable in the locker room. Absolutely coaches should be a presence, in and out of the locker room like a cop walking the beat. But they don’t need to be there all of the time. They can guard the door and pop in and out as necessary.
We have to give kids some space to grow and experience things for themselves. We can’t be constantly smothering and micro-managing and nit-picking. We have to let them figure some things out for themselves. What safer place is there to do that than in a locker room?

For younger kids, there might be a greater reason to have more presence to help them with equipment. But I also know that young kids can do incredible things (like dress and undress themselves in hockey equipment) if we let them. Probably not tighten their own skates, but they can even do that at 9 and 10-years old if we actually let them do it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What the ADM could mean

By now you would have had to have been living in a cave or be a complete newbie to the youth hockey world to have not at least heard of the American Development Model, more commonly known as the ADM.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you even remotely understand what exactly it is. Few people really do. And I am fairly sure that if you asked ten different people what it is, you would get ten different answers.

The ADM is exactly that. A recommended model, a blueprint that can be used by those who choose to. It is not a mandate forced upon the hockey community. It is a model developed utilizing the principles of Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) and extensive research and studies of how children learn and grow from toddlers to pre-teens to teenagers to young adults.

If you have had an opportunity to see a presentation by the USA Hockey staff you had to have been impressed. It makes a lot of sense and there is plenty of supporting data.

However, change is never easy and it will probably take the better part of a decade to really see any noticeable impact on the youth hockey world in this country. But not in Michigan. Noticeable changes have already started and we should be very much concerned about the effect those changes could have on the game here.

A bottom up approach
The ADM is essentially a bottom up approach to developing the player pool in USA Hockey. At the base, the entry level to the game, it is structured to allow for more players to get involved in playing the game by maximizing ice utilization to ultimately make the game more affordable.
It’s a pretty simple concept really. More players on the ice means the cost of that ice is split up among more players, which means it is less expensive for each of them. It is a rational approach to breaking down one of the barriers to entry - the perception (and in many cases and places reality) that the game is expensive to play.

From there it becomes about providing the same opportunity for all players to enjoy the game and develop their skills as they grow and mature. Which is in stark contrast to the current hockey model that demands that the biggest, most physically mature 7- and 8-year olds get promoted to the “travel” team with more ice time and “better coaching” while the remainder of the kids who were not blessed with an early-in-the-year birth date or a pre-pubescent growth spurt are thrown into the house hockey pool and treated as second-class citizens of the hockey world.

Ironically enough, some of these early outcasts survive and eventually surpass the early developers who for any number of reasons (stop growing, burn-out, inflated ego, pushy parents) flame out. Unfortunately there just aren’t enough that have the chance to overcome the early odds they are subjected too. If that sounds a little like the “Tortoise and the Hare” it’s not a coincidence. The growth of a hockey player is a marathon, not a sprint.

As players hit and surpass puberty, that’s when it starts to really matter. Kids have physically and mentally matured to the point where the real hockey players start to separate themselves from those who matured early and didn’t continue to grow and evolve. High Performance Club teams are formed from the best players in a program and those teams compete against teams from other clubs.

Obviously there is much, much more to it than that very simplistic overview. At the end of the day, the objective of the model is more players playing and more better players being produced. And like any model, it has its strong points and its weak points which could be debated forever.

The biggest challenge
The biggest challenge facing the implementation of the ADM is that the majority of coaches and parents with kids in the game today really aren’t that concerned with anything other than their team (the coaches) and their player (the parents). The future really doesn’t matter to them. Other players and other teams don’t matter to them. They just don’t want to be “held back” by others. Just show me the quickest way to the finish line.

According to USA Hockey registration reports there were 57,033 registered players in Michigan in the 2000-01 season and that number fell to 50,793 in 2009-10. The alarming part is in the details. In 2009-10 there were approximately 3,000 less 8 & Under players, 3,000 less 9-10 year old players, 3,000 less 11-12 year old players, and 2,000 less 13-14 year old players than there were in 2000-01. For those of you who are good at math, that is about 11,000 less total youth players. Yikes. To quantify, that is 25% less 8 & Under players, 38% less Squirt players, 33% less Pee Wees and 26% fewer Bantams. Ouch.

And while the number of players and teams was substantially reduced in these age groups, the percentage of “travel” (A/AA/AAA) players and teams actually went up. A comparison of team registrations from the 2001-02 season with the 2008-09 season shows 608 mite teams in ‘01-02 falling to 310 in ‘08-09, 501 Squirt teams declining 327, 505 Pee Wee teams becoming 346 and 360 Bantam teams dropping to 292. Mite teams were not classified as “travel” in ‘01-02 but 70 of 310 (23%) Mite teams were travel in ’08-‘09. At the Squirt level, there were 131 travel teams (26%) in ’01-02 and 121 (37%) in ’08-09. Pee Wees went from 164 (32%) to 141 (41%) and Bantams 132 (37%) to 114 (39%).

What it all means
Those of you who are still with me might be asking what all of this means. Essentially, there are substantially less players playing the game with a higher percentage of those players playing travel hockey. House hockey is shrinking and will continue to shrink unless something is done to change course. That is, if we care about the future of the game.

So what effect does the ADM have on this? Right now there is a major push to implement the ADM model at the Mite level which should help to increase the size of the player pool at the younger age groups. It’s the “bottom-up” development approach and a step in the right direction.

However at the same time, under the auspices of aligning themselves with the principles of the ADM, the Tier I (AAA) organizations in Michigan have begun a “top-down” approach by forming Tier II (A/AA) travel teams in their organizations. So instead of the typical Tier I organization model consisting of 8-10 AAA teams, Belle Tire, Compuware, Honeybaked, Little Caesars and Victory Honda are looking to have as many as 8-10 more Tier II travel teams, which could mean as many as 10 new travel teams at each age group. Sounds great. What’s the problem?

The Tier I organizations have “a name” which attracts players (more likely their parents, but the kids do play a part, pun intended). These players will come from association-based travel teams and some will come from association-based house hockey. House players will also now have a better chance of making an association-based travel team. Still sounds great, right?

Not for “house hockey”, which just might be the most important element of the long-term viability of the sport. House hockey is the entry level for the sport. In theory it is a recreational, affordable, convenient level of play for everybody. What most people don’t understand, or care to acknowledge, is that house hockey is what feeds the game. And it’s dying. Hopefully the ADM “implementation” by the Tier I organizations will not serve to accelerate the process.

So what will happen first? The growth of house hockey driven by the bottom-up approach of the ADM at the Mite level? Or the complete demise of house hockey spurred by the top-down approach of the Tier I organizations? Hopefully, the former.

If not, the ADM in Michigan might very well stand for Association Decimation Model.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Right Time

For most people graduating from high school and making the transition to college is one of the major milestone markers in life.

For athletes in most sports like football, basketball and baseball, that transition is usually virtually seamless. The star high school players either become scholarship athletes or walk-ons (non-scholarship) at the collegiate level the following year. Some of them become starters and key contributors and even stars immediately at the college level. Others require a little seasoning, some time to physically and mentally mature or some time to adapt to their new surroundings before they are able to step in and play.

Hockey is very much a different animal with a very different model and one very much different step in the process, junior hockey. Very few players make the jump to college hockey as “true freshmen”, meaning directly from high school. Most make another stop in junior hockey along the way.
For a few very gifted and physically mature players, that might mean one year of plying their trade at the junior level before entering college. For most, it seems that two years of juniors is the required amount of seasoning. And for some late bloomers it might take three or even four years of an incubation period before they are ready.

What that means is a gap in the education process for some players, a year or even more delay in academics while they concentrate predominantly on hockey. Ultimately it means a little later “start in life” for some as they take a sabbatical. Most are willing to take the risk to achieve their goal of playing college hockey and getting a college education.

There is the opportunity to hasten the process though. Some players will actually accelerate their high school academics to graduate early so they can leave home in what would have been their senior year of high school to begin their junior hockey apprenticeship. Others might just choose to move away from home to play junior hockey while they are still a senior in high school. Very few players have the option of living in the friendly confines of home and attending their local high school while playing junior hockey.

Choices to be made
So choices need to be made. Should a player leave home to play junior hockey as a senior or wait until high school graduation to take the next step, knowing that it will result in a gap in their educational path for as long as it takes in junior hockey?

It’s a tough question with a lot of different right answers depending on a lot of different variables as it relates to the player and to the hockey and educational options available.

The college hockey world, like most college sports, can be a very competitive and difficult environment. You have to perform on the ice and in the classroom or you won’t play. It’s that simple. Many of the players are big, strong, physically mature and fiercely competitive. Some of them might even be 24 or 25 years old. In some cases it could very well be men playing against boys. A player had better be ready to play both physically and mentally.

And that is where junior hockey comes in. It is the laboratory, the training ground to prepare players to play at the college level. At least as it relates to those who are interested and eligible to play college hockey. Some junior leagues, those in the major junior Canadian Hockey League (Western Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League) consider themselves to be the assembly line to producing National Hockey League players. Education is not mandatory or a priority, although they do have some educational funding incentives to entice players to play there. Players who compete in the CHL are ineligible to play NCAA hockey, although there is a process to petition the NCAA for reinstatement of eligibility, which very much depends on how much time was spent playing in the junior league.

So not only do players need to decide which path to take, college or major junior, they also need to decide when is the best time to make that move. It is not an easy decision for a 15-year old, or even a 16- or 17-year old for that matter.

A long time ago, more years ago than I care to remember, I left home as a 17-year old senior in high school to play junior hockey. I never really gave it a second thought. It was what I wanted to do. My grades were strong, I was a good enough player to be in the top half of the line-up on one of the best teams in the league and I really didn’t think I would be missing out on anything in my senior year of high school in my very small hometown. It would always be there. It wouldn’t change. There really was nothing holding me there. Although I don’t think it really made my mother all that happy. It also helped that my older brother played on the team. Overall it was a good situation and a very easy decision.

But they are rarely that easy to make. In today’s junior hockey world there are a multitude of teams in a plethora of leagues spread across the USA and Canada. How is a player to know which one would be a good fit, a place for them to succeed and grow? And maybe more importantly, what is the right time to give it a try?

Two different stories
I ended up playing three years of junior hockey and was very fortunate to have the opportunity to further my education and hockey career at Michigan State after that. Part of the reason that I “got noticed” by college teams was that they were all very interested in a teammate of mine, one of the top young prospects in North America. He started junior hockey the same year I did, but he didn’t turn 15 until late November. He was incredibly talented, one of the best players on our team and in the league. The only thing keeping him out of college was that he had to finish three years of high school. He never did.

Although he had a multitude of scholarship offers and eventually accepted one, he lacked the discipline (and probably didn’t get the guidance) to focus on what he needed most to get into college, his grades. Ultimately, after three years of Tier II junior, he played two years in the Western League and then one more year of Tier II junior (six years of junior hockey in total, if you are counting) before exhausting his eligibility. At that point he was lucky enough to go to a Canadian university and eventually did spend a couple of years in pro hockey. But it was nowhere near what it could have been.

In college, I played with another player with a similar story. He started junior hockey at 14 and was an outstanding player. He was also pretty incredible in the classroom, accelerating his education so that he was able to start college as a 16-year old. He didn’t turn 17 until February of his freshman year. He led the team in scoring his first two years and was eventually selected second overall in the NHL draft and had an 11-year NHL career that was cut short by injuries but did include a couple of Stanley Cups and 500 points.

Two very similar players. Two very different stories. In fact, if I had to choose who I thought to be the best hockey player, I would have picked the first one. He was that good on the ice. But he made some poor decisions off the ice, which ultimately cost him.

The moral of the story? Players need to be physically, academically and socially prepared to handle the rigors of leaving home to play junior hockey. They need to be strong students with a real interest in their academic careers. They need to be mature enough to handle the off-ice social situations that they will need to deal with and the good (or not good) decisions that they will need to make.
And on the ice they need to thrive, not just survive. They should be one of the better players, in the top half of the team, playing regularly and contributing to the team. Playing time is important, but so is puck time. Having it and making plays, not just chasing it around in an attempt to break up plays.
If all of those elements are not in place, it is probably best that the player stays at home and wait another year for the right time.