In the words of Allen Iverson, when it comes to skill development we are definitely talkin’ about practice. Not a game. Not a game. We’re talkin’ about practice.
While Iverson’s anti-practice rant may be taken a little out of context for the sake of this argument, the message still drives home an important point.
When it comes to skill development, especially at the younger age levels, the best way to improve is not by playing more games than an NHLer, but through station-based practices. The number of puck touches and constant activity that take place in a well-run 50-minute practice far outweigh what transpires in a game.
“One properly-run practice is the equivalent of 11 games when it comes to puck touches,” says ADM Regional Manager Ty Hennes.
Think this is just one person’s opinion? Just look back at the puck possession study that USA Hockey conducted in 2002 during the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City and the USA Hockey Tier I Youth National Championships to see how much time even the best players had the puck on their stick.
At the Olympic level, observers followed superstars like Tony Amonte, Joe Sakic and Mike Modano, who averaged 1 minute and 7 seconds with the puck. At the youth level, the best players, including Phil Kessel and Zach Parise, possessed the puck an average of 1:06 per game.
On the other hand, a well-run station-based practice keeps kids moving and working on their skills. There are more puck touches and more for players to work on their skills. In short, there’s more of everything, including more fun.
Add to the mix small-area games, which work on vital skills in confined spaces that require players to think and act quicker, and you have the makings of a winning formula.
“One of the fastest ways to make a kid lose the passion for anything is not getting them involved,” says two-time Olympian Guy Gosselin, who works as an ADM regional manager in the upper Midwest.
“Touching the puck for a minute-plus in a game is not really being involved. You can get 30 minutes of puck-touch time in a station-based practice. That not only helps build their skills, but it’s a lot of fun.”
A glance at the My Hockey Rankings website shows that some Peewee teams play almost as many games as an NHL team, and definitely more games than any U.S. college program. Not only does that not help with individual skill development, but playing too many games at too young an age can also lead to burn out.
“It’s not what league they play in or what team they’re on or how many tournaments they play. Their training model is really the dictator of development,” says Roger Grillo, a former Div. I college coach who crisscrosses New England in support of the ADM.
USA Hockey recommends that teams follow a 3:1 practice-to-game ratio. If teams play 70 games, as several Peewee teams did last season, that means they would need to hit the practice ice more than 200 times. That would put a youth player on the ice every day from the beginning of August until the end of March. And twice on Sundays.
It’s not just practicing but the right type of practice that will yield the best results.
One of the driving factors that has shaped the current competition-heavy model is that parents don’t want to sit around and watch their sons and daughters doing a bunch of drills. They want to see them play games, where there is a winner and a loser, a scoreboard and a clock.
“Unfortunately, most people look at practice like it’s something that you have to do rather than embracing it as a quality experience,” Grillo says.
“The challenge is one where we have to make sure that we’re creating practices that are not only providing players with the quality repetitions, but they’re having fun doing it. Practice for little kids shouldn’t be like eating broccoli but more like eating pizza.”
So yes, we are talkin’ about pizza. And practice.