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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.

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