Flashy new jerseys, high-end equipment, long-distance traveling opportunities, premier competition and “guaranteed results.” There are many promises and bells and whistles out there when it comes to youth sports organizations, no matter the age level.
“People are ‘selling the dream’ to parents in many ways,” USA Hockey Coaching Coordinator Matt Cunningham said. “Many of which are unethical to downright sleazy. I think parents have to do research and look at results and past performance; see what the motives really are.”
It’s good to have options. But which organizations and associations are right for your family? Cunningham and United States Olympic Committee Director of Coaching Chris Snyder help parents find the best fit.
Here are 20 things to look for in a youth sports program for kids at the 6U/8U level.
“All these are common themes for many sports at the youth level,” Snyder said.
1. Focus on skills, not scores. Competition should be a key component of fun and development, but that isn’t based on the scoreboard of a 6U/8U game. Instead, competition should be fostered through sport’s elements, like competing for loose pucks and winning fun skill-based competitions and challenges. But if the coaches and association favor winning on the scoreboard over development, beware.
2. Age-appropriate. Everything should be age-appropriate, including the drills, playing surfaces and practice-to-game ratios. Imagine playing on an extra large rink as an adult. It’s no fun and it hinders development.
3. Good people. Talk to parents who currently have a child in the organization. Spend some time with a coach or administrator if you can. By having these conversations, you can usually get a good feeling for if the staff is in it for the right reasons.
4. Safety. Research and ask questions about the organization’s emphasis on safety. What policies and procedures do they have in place? What resources do they have available?
5. Fundamentals. Focus on the fundamentals first. A child must hone fundamental skills in order to reach their full performance potential (and have the most fun). Organizations and programs that don’t emphasize early learning and perfecting of the fundamentals aren’t focused on development. And if they aren’t focused on development, they probably aren’t a great fit for any child.
6. Travel and financial commitment. Understand the full financial commitment that will be required, and most importantly, remember that more travel and more cost does not equal more development. Kids can improve at their local rink, field, and even in their backyard.
7. Fun. Do the coaches, directors and administrators know what “fun” is for a 6-year-old or an 8-year-old? It’s not the same as fun for adults and teenagers.
8. Motivation. Do the coaches know how 6-year-olds and 8-year-olds are motivated? Do they show that in their teaching?
9. Schedule. Are the games and practices scheduled at times that work for the age level of your child and for your family?
10. Expectations. The association should know your child is not going pro at the age of 8, so let’s learn the basics and fundamentals first and have some fun. Progress and development should not be measured on the scoreboard or stat sheet.
11. Talent. Do they understand what talent really is and how kids can become good at sport?
12. Roster size. How many kids will be on the team? Too many or too few players can take the fun and development out of the experience.
13. Player-to-coach ratio. How many players and coaches are the on the ice, field or court for practice sessions? USA Hockey recommends station-based practices, which allows more coaches to work directly with more kids.
14. What does a practice look like? Are the kids constantly engaged in fun drills and games? The last thing kids want to do is wait in line or listen to coaches talk. No lines, no laps, no lectures.
15. Practice-to-game ratio. Practices should be the child’s healthy meal and games are the dessert. USA Hockey recommends a 3:1 practice-to-game ratio for kids up to 12 years old. Practice is where skill development happens. The key is to make practices fun and incorporate games into them.
16. Long-term development. The association should adhere to the principles of long-term athlete development. Are they allowing their athletes to develop at their own pace by providing a proper environment? Is the emphasis on skill development and fun?
17. Dry-land or off-ice. Is there a dry-land or off-ice training component? Is it age-appropriate and fun?
18. Time off. Are there scheduled breaks during the season, for holidays as an example? Are kids encouraged to utilize resting periods?
19. Length of season. Make sure the length of the season is reasonable. Especially at 6U/8U, kids should not come close to year-round participation. There should be plenty of room for other sports and activities to prevent burnout.
20. Encourage multiple sports. Associations should encourage participation in multiple sports. It is in the best interest of the kids and their overall development and health. Let them take a break from hockey, and when fall comes around again, they will be thrilled to put the skates back on.
There are many factors for families to consider when choosing a youth sports organization. No organization will be perfect, but by doing a little digging and asking the right questions, you can find one that best suits your child.
After all, that’s what it’s about: the kids!