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Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Rise of the Middle Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Does Competing Against Better Players Make You Better?

Being challenged is a very important part, and a very healthy part, of every sport, and of life for that matter.

Many people, when not challenged, quickly become bored and disinterested in what they are doing. Individually, most players are not capable of really challenging themselves and have to rely on their coach to put them in situations where they are challenged.

Team-wise the only way many coaches challenge their players is by whom they are competing against. Ultimately, it’s the competition that becomes the challenge. A strong opponent presents a challenge, a weak opponent probably does not.

Most parents want to make sure that their kids are challenged playing hockey. Their thinking is that if their son or daughter is on the ice with better players, they will push themselves harder to become better players themselves.

In reality, many players do play to the level of the other players on the ice. It happens all of the time. Very often, a more talented team has difficulty when playing a team that is clearly inferior in talent, yet plays up to the level of a team that is better.

Playing up
Individually as well, many players tend to step up to meet the challenge presented by stronger competition. As a result, many parents try to push their kids to play up a level, in age or classification, so they are always playing against better players, and to always be challenged. Is this a good thing?

It can be. But it can also be very counter-productive in terms of a player’s development. Year after year, if a player is always pushing just to keep up or be in the middle of the pack on a team, he or she is probably not developing as they could or should. While it is good that they are on the ice with better players, and are pushed to be better by their teammates and the competition, it can also hinder them.

Physically, if they are pushing themselves as hard as they can just to play at that level, they will sacrifice development just to survive. They won’t experiment, they won’t try new things, they will avoid their weaknesses and do only what they do best, what allows them to play.

While there is something to be said for knowing your strengths and using them to your advantage, to really develop a player also has to know his or her weaknesses and strive to make them better. If not, development will be limited.

The confidence to make mistakes
Mentally, it is a great thing to be the best, or one of the best players on the ice. It is essential to a young kid’s confidence. It allows them to be creative, to try new things, to experiment and even to work on weaknesses that they might have, knowing that if they make a mistake, they will have the opportunity to get back on the ice and make up for it.

You don’t improve and learn if you don’t make mistakes and if you don’t have the confidence to try things that might result in mistakes, your growth will be limited.

As I grew up playing the game, all age classifications were two years. It allowed you to play with older kids your first year, and most likely be one of the weaker kids on the team, as they were a little bigger and stronger and faster. You had to push yourself to keep up. But the next season, you played with some younger kids, which meant you were probably one of the stronger players. You were relied on by the team to be better, you felt confident, were put in different situations where you could try new things and develop new skills.

Gradual development
At the junior and college levels, my first year was a whirlwind. The game seemed so much faster, the players so much bigger, stronger and more talented. In my first few games, I always wondered how I would survive.

But you were able to develop because of the system. The first year or two you pushed yourself to keep up and just play on the third or fourth line. You learned from the juniors and seniors what it took to be the best at that level. And by the time you were a junior or senior yourself, you took on new roles, and developed the confidence to hold onto the puck longer, to play on the power play, and be on the ice in the last minute of the period.

A friend of mine, Mike Donnelly, played high school hockey in Detroit, then after a year of junior hockey walked on at Michigan State. In his first year he played minimally and scored 7 goals. His second year he played more and scored 18 goals. His third year he earned more ice time and scored 26. His senior year, he consistently played on the power play and in all key situations and scored 59 goals. That didn’t happen by accident. Over the years, he gradually improved his physical and mental skills and developed his game. There wasn’t a chance that he would have scored 59 goals as a freshman, even with twice the ice time he had as a senior. Ultimately, he played professionally for ten years. But if he hadn’t been allowed to develop gradually, over a period of years, it would never have happened.

At the professional level, each NHL team has a minor league system where they can develop their prospects at a level where they can taste success. There isn’t that much difference between a fourth line NHL’er and a first line minor leaguer.

What’s important is that they are in an environment where they can be the best, play in key situations and develop completely.

Not the way we do it
Many players have had their careers ruined by being rushed into situations where they had no chance to survive because they didn’t have the confidence or skills to compete at that level.

In terms of development, I think we make a big mistake in the way the current A, AA and AAA system is structured in Michigan. By having age groups comprise of only one birth year, we are not allowing our players to completely develop into what they could potentially be by not allowing them to play in different situations.