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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).