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Thursday, January 20, 2011


Every January at the MAHA Winter Meeting there are several rule change proposals that are voted on to determine whether they will move forward to the Summer Meeting in July for a final vote.

New rule proposals need to be submitted by December 15th to get on the agenda for the January meeting. A majority vote at that meeting keeps the proposal alive and allows for six months of discussion and debate among the membership of the youth hockey community before the final determination in July.

If the early going is any indication, we can be assured of some serious discussion and debate in the coming months. There was plenty of that this past Saturday at this year’s Winter Meeting, along with some gnashing of teeth, some anger and some angst. A little bit of an emotional issue for some for sure. The ADM, the American Development Model. Some think its great and are completely on board. Others, not so much.

This past July a rule change was instituted that established that all mini mite or 6 & Under games would be played on a more age-appropriate ice surface. No more full-ice games for mini mites. If you have ever had a chance to watch a mini mite game, you shouldn’t have to ask why. It looked a little bit like ants sliding around the deck of an aircraft carrier. A little too much space. Not that much action. Nobody in the youth hockey community really seemed to have a problem with the change.

This year there is a proposal on the table to make all Mite or 8 & Under hockey in Michigan be on a smaller ice surface. No more full-ice games. Except for Mite AA hockey, with teams of 8-year olds formed via tryouts, but only if the association had a team at the Mite A or 7-year old level the year prior. The theory being that those kids had played full-ice and it would be unfair for them to “step back” to a smaller ice surface. Ultimately an amendment was made to the proposal to allow all 8-year olds to be able to participate in full-ice games for the coming year only. After that, all 8 & under hockey would be played on a smaller surface.

Consternation and anguish
I completely understand the positions and concerns of the various groups as it relates to this proposal. Change is never easy. It is all that much more difficult if one doesn’t understand it or care to look at it from a different perspective.

Some parents are downright angry about a potential change. They really think that their kids are losing out on something. I get that. But I also can see the other side, where there is an opportunity for the players to get more out of the game.

I guess it really depends on the parent and what they value most and why. I think much of the consternation from parents has to do with the “look” of the game. They think it really doesn’t “look like hockey”. I think that the case could be made, depending on your definition of what hockey looks like, that all Mite hockey doesn’t really look like hockey.

Most parents don’t spend a lot of time watching practices. But they love to watch the games. They love to see their children compete and some really love (maybe too much) when their child’s team wins and get a little too unhappy when the team loses. Maybe they get a little too much into it. That’s not necessarily all that bad. But I do think that some parents think of this potential change more in terms of how it might affect them than how it might affect their child.

The other issue some parents have is that their child is being held back, forced to play with the weaker kids and ultimately having their potential stunted. While I understand that, I also know that there are very few “exceptional” players.

The current system provides a huge potential advantage to the early-maturers and a significant potential disadvantage to kids born later in the year. The bigger, stronger kids get picked at tryouts and given more ice time and the more experienced coaching while the leftovers get what is leftover.

I can really see how a parent of a “pretty good mite player” might have some anguish over what is believed to be a missed opportunity for that child. But I also have been around long enough to know that there are just as many or more early-maturers who flame out when puberty hits. At the end of the day, in terms of “development” for the future, nothing really matters until the kids are in their mid-teens.

All the kids
Some coaches are upset about it. I can understand that viewpoint as well. But I also have a hard time believing someone is coaching “for the right reasons” if they are getting that upset about it. Coaches should be coaching to help out all of the kids. Not just the ones that might show the most potential at 7 or 8 years old mainly because they happened to be the biggest and most mature 7 or 8 year olds.

The coaches who are upset about it are more concerned about the loss of control of their coaching career. A bad coach’s reputation is made or lost based on the players they get to pick at the youngest ages. A good coach will find a way to make all of the players better.

Having coached youth hockey and soccer teams for over ten years and having instructed kids in power skating and hockey skills for over 25 years I can assure parents and coaches that from the players’ perspective a more age-appropriate sized playing surface has significantly more benefits than negatives.

I have seen first-hand the differences in development and enjoyment of the game for the players when they have played on a full-size playing surface at 7 and 8 years old and younger and when they played on a smaller, age-appropriate field. From a developmental standpoint, if that is important to you, a smaller ice surface is definitely a plus.

The unknowns
Some hockey association administrators and rink operators are wondering whether it will be a good thing. Less ice time will be used by the 8 & Under age group. So who will use it? Will more kids participate in the game because the cost to play will be less because more kids are on the ice at the same time? That is one of the tenets of the ADM and if it holds true then in the long run it should pay off. But in the meantime, there is a definitely some risk involved, some unknown, and that is never easy to stomach.

Being familiar with the ADM program and the Long Term Athlete Development concepts, I have a good understanding of what it is all about but I still have questions. And I also wonder whether long-term athletic development should be the greatest priority of a youth sport. Or is it the recreational experience itself? Can we have both?

Which brings me to the players, whose opinion probably matters the most but whose voice is heard the least. But are they in a position to have an opinion at 7 and 8 years old? They don’t know what they don’t know.

Frankly I don’t know that many people really have a good understanding of what the ADM really is, what it really is supposed to look like and what it really is supposed to accomplish. And that is the greatest challenge in all of it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Too Much Too Soon

Hockey, like many but not all sports, is very competitive. Hockey players typically, by nature, are very competitive. They pretty much have to be. Hockey coaches and hockey parents are as well. Competition is good. It’s healthy. In most cases.

Sometimes our competitive nature gets the best of us and we go too far too fast. In striving to jump out to a lead or to win the race we get caught up in the short-term and lose sight of the big picture.

Girls hockey in Michigan is a perfect example of that. In an effort to get ahead or stay ahead we often tend to make poor short-term decisions that don’t pay off in the long run. Not because we want to, but more likely because we don’t know any better or we have pressure that forces us to bite off more than we can chew.

If Tier II hockey is good, then Tier I hockey must be better, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on how you choose to look at it. And it depends on when you look at it. And it depends on from whose perspective you choose to look at it.

Its human nature for players to want to play at the highest level and for parents to feel proud about their children being able to play at the highest level. I see plenty of SUV window stickers with “Such and Such” Travel Hockey or AAA Hockey on them but I don’t recall ever seeing one that said “Such and Such” House Hockey.

Just a middle and a top
In Michigan we pretty much have two levels of girls hockey, Tier I and Tier II. Unfortunately for girls there are really no other levels besides those even though there is a classification called Tier II House/Rec, but it has very few teams.

It really is very much different than boys hockey where there are three very different levels: house or B hockey with teams formed by draft, A/AA hockey with teams formed by tryouts and limited to a maximum of three out of district players and AAA hockey with teams formed by tryouts and no restrictions on where the players come from.

There is very much a base on which the boys hockey structure is built. There are typically more house or B teams at each age group than there are A/AA teams and there are more A/AA teams in each age group than there are AAA teams. The top level is fed from the middle level which is fed from the bottom level. While it is definitely not a perfect system, it does at least work to a certain degree.

The girls world is much different. There is essentially no house hockey for girls. There is a Tier II or “travel” level of play with teams formed by tryouts. There is a Tier I level of play with teams formed by tryouts. There really is not any difference between Tier I and Tier II other than what the teams choose to call themselves. And there are no district restrictions in girls hockey.

But worst of all, there are not the number of players that there are in boys hockey. There is no structure in place for the bottom to feed the middle to feed the top. In fact there is no bottom. Just a middle and top. With nothing underneath to support it.

Girls essentially start as Tier II players and more often than not they are in a hurry to get to Tier I as quickly as they can. While that is not a bad thing for them as individuals, it is not necessarily a good thing for girls hockey in Michigan.

Checking the numbers
Let’s look at some numbers. In the current hockey season in the LCAHL and TOEHL there are sixteen 12U girls teams in Michigan with five of them being Tier I and eleven Tier II. At 14U there are four Tier I teams and seven Tier II, five Tier I and five Tier II at 16U and five Tier II and four Tier I at 19U. There are also fourteen girls high school teams in the Metro Detroit area. Additionally there are a few girls teams sprinkled around throughout the state, but they are few and far between and it is difficult for them to find teams to play against.

I have coached girls Tier II hockey for seven years and girls Tier I hockey for two. At the risk of hurting anyone’s feelings I can tell you that for the most part there is not a whole lot of difference between the two in terms of the majority of the players. I have seen girls who have played Tier I drop back into Tier II and be average players. The majority of girls in each age group would fit into the large part of the bell in a bell curve if you combined the two Tiers. There are exceptional players on the top end of Tier I and there are extremely inexperienced players on the bottom end of Tier II. But the vast majority of players in between could easily be either average to above average Tier II players or average to below average Tier I players.

For some perspective, let’s look at girls hockey numbers in Minnesota where they do not have Tier I girls hockey. In the girls 12U A classification in Minnesota there are 58 teams and there are 42 teams in the 14U A division. At the High School level there are 57 Class A teams and 68 Class B teams. Some pretty impressive numbers. Not surprisingly if you look at the USA Hockey national team rosters you will find Minnesota well represented. More players playing always results in more better players as they mature. It’s that simple.

Only a label
So what’s the difference in the two states? We both like to think of ourselves as the Mecca of Hockey. Minnesota has more community-owned arenas with stipulations that females receive their fair share of ice time. That is a factor. There is more opportunity for girls to get started playing in Minnesota. Plus there is the opportunity for girls to represent their high school on the ice.

But the other main difference is that there is not the Tier I status that we are so enamored with here in Michigan. I coach in a Tier I program but I will be the first to tell you that the Tier I programs are Takers. We add little or nothing to the game but reap the benefits from it. Why? Because we can. Players want to play for us and parents want their players to play for us. Whether the players really are of Tier I caliber or not. If you are playing in a Tier I league you must be a Tier I player, right?

But the label really means nothing. The majority of the players fit into the middle with extremes at either end. However, our tiering structure forces an upward sucking of players with the Tier I programs benefitting from the spadework of the Tier II programs.

Unlike boys hockey, there is no B or house hockey to feed Tier II girls. As a result they sputter and spin their wheels and each year there might or might not be a team in a given association. Which means there might or might not be a place for girls to play and that ultimately means less girls playing.

In our quest to get to the top, to achieve so much so soon, we are mortgaging the future of girls hockey in our state.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Comfort Zone

If you want to find out how hard a player is willing and able to work, watch that player during a tryout.

At no time throughout the year will you see a player work harder than they do when they are trying out for a team. If in fact they really want to play on that team. Not during practices, not during regular season games, not during playoff games.
So why is that? Is it because they want to make the team so badly? Or is it because they so badly fear not making the team?

I guess that could be open for debate. Just like what motivates people when they compete. Some people say they are motivated because they love winning. Others say they hate to lose. But is it hate or is it fear?

Fear can be an extremely powerful motivating force. Although many people don’t like to admit that they are motivated by fear. They are more likely to say they are motivated by something else. But I think in reality it is fear that drives them and here is why.

That sense of desperation
In youth hockey, it is virtually impossible to re-create a tryout environment. In a tryout, you either make it or not. There is no in between. You can’t be half pregnant. You are or you aren’t. There is a definite finality there which in turn spawns a sense of desperation.

But once the season starts and you are on the team, is there anything that is that powerful of a motivating force? The player is on the team. Can’t get cut at that point, right? Well maybe, in some circumstances they can, but in most cases, probably not. They are there for the season. And oftentimes they don’t think far enough ahead to think about next season. What they fail to realize is that in the mind of a coach every game and every shift is in essence a tryout.

So its human nature to let down your guard once you make the team, isn’t it? Many players do, but there are some who don’t, or at least appear like they don’t. There are still many motivating factors for players once the team is made. It could be wanting to win, wanting to score, or wanting to play on the power play or in key situations. Or it could be the fear of not achieving any of those things, couldn’t it?

Bottle that intensity
In any event, most coaches will tell you it is tough to re-create Tryout Intensity. I wish I could. I wish I could find a way to bottle it and feed it to the players at certain points throughout the season. I wish I could get them to understand how hard they had competed to earn a spot on the team. And get them to compete like that all of the time. In every game and practice.

But I know that I can’t. It is unrealistic to expect that players can sustain Tryout Intensity all season long. There is nothing that I can do that can manufacture the desperation that players feel when they really want to make a team or not be cut from a team. Once they are on they are on it’s easy for them to start to settle into a comfort zone for the season.

At some levels of hockey the threat is always there. National Hockey League players can get sent to the minor leagues. Junior players can get cut or sent to a lower level league. At those levels, and also in college or high school hockey, while players might still be on the team, there is always the threat that they might not get to dress for a particular game. That’s when the coach rolls out the old “It might be a good time to step back and watch the game to learn from it” but what he usually really means is “you are not working hard enough to deserve to be in the line-up, maybe this will get your butt in gear.”

The desperation for border line players is omnipresent. It never goes away. That is why you will often hear of players having a “sophomore slump” after a strong rookie season. They start to feel like they belong and get comfortable. Which could be good in terms of confidence, but could also be a problem if they stop doing the things that allowed them to be successful in the first place.

Finding that balance
But in youth hockey, once the team is formed and the season starts to unfold there can be times that coaches wonder how they can get their individual players to compete as hard as they did when their position on the team was in jeopardy? How do you push them to be as good as they can be, yet at the same time put them into situations where they have the opportunity to succeed, gain confidence and grow without being paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes?

So in essence, a coach’s job is to resolve conflict as much as possible and at the same time create some conflict. While you want your players to be comfortable and play with confidence, you also have to constantly have the whip at the ready. The reality is that you want your players to be uncomfortable being comfortable and at the same time comfortable being uncomfortable.

To be successful, players need to feel good about themselves and be comfortable in all situations. To be on top of their game they have to play with confidence and poise, assessing situations, weighing risks and making the right play, unafraid of making a mistake. While they have to be in a comfort zone, at the same time they can’t get too comfortable and not strive to push harder and achieve more. In other words, uncomfortable being comfortable.

On the flip side, when things aren’t going as they would like them to during games they need to understand not to panic, but to dig down for that little extra. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Good coaches will try to create uncomfortable situations for players in practices. If the practices are tougher to handle than the games then the players will be much better prepared to compete in the games. While they have to be able to handle pressure situations, they can’t be overwhelmed by them. In other words, comfortable being uncomfortable.

If a coach can hit both ends of the spectrum with his or her players, then they have found the true comfort zone.