Anyone familiar with American Development knows that we spend a considerable amount of time promoting the merits of small area games. As we embark on a new season, we will continue to encourage coaches registered with USA Hockey to incorporate small area games into every practice session.
These small area games are important development tools for our players because they stress the execution of hockey skills in a competitive environment that push players to react quickly in confined spaces.
When parents walk into the ice rink and watch their sons or daughters play the various small area games, some may have a puzzled look on their face as they wonder what any of it has to do with ice hockey. The answer can be found in the different types of small area games that coaches use in their practices.
While it would take a lengthy explanation to describe each category of games, I want to focus on two different games that have tremendous value in teaching vital skills that will transfer to game-like situations.
These are what we call applied games. They feature a basic hockey structure, but they force players to develop specific sets of hockey skills.
Backward Skating Game
The first is the Backward Skating Game. Players compete 3 on 3 or 4 on 4 in a cross-ice environment. What separates this game from a normal cross-ice game is that all players must continually skate backward.
Obviously this is going to work on every player’s backward skating skills. It also forces players to keep their heads on a swivel to continually look over their shoulders to maintain awareness of the play and their surroundings.
Teaching players to keep their heads on a swivel will allow them to survey the ice and be aware of what’s going on around them. It’s a vital skill that can be a challenge for any coach to teach.
Hidden in this game is a much more desirable element to hockey success. Skating backward with a puck will augment a player’s willingness to use his or her backhand.
When playing hockey while skating forward, it’s instinctively easier to use the forehand side of the stick blade. Conversely, when skating backward, players instinctively want to use the backhand side of the blade, which gives our players much needed practice using their backhand.
The second game is a version of Cross-Ice Soccer.
Teams play soccer cross-ice with the goal of every player maintaining possession of their own puck throughout the game.
Coaches are always trying to encourage young players to carry the puck with their heads up. However, you can tell a player to ‘get your head up’ during a drill, and player will do it for a few seconds, but he or she will quickly revert back to having their heads down because what is most important to them is maintaining possession of the puck on their stick.
In our cross-ice soccer game, the players’ focus shifts from the puck on their stick to the soccer ball being kicked around the ice.
It’s important for coaches and parents to know that these types of games encourage players to work on important hockey skills in a fun and creative environment. These types of small area games are more effective than having a coach telling players how to perform a specific task. They teach and reinforce difficult skills to master by hiding them in a fun game that brings out the competitive nature in all players.
As our players improve their physical and cognitive skills, we will incorporate even more game situations into our small area games.
But that’s a topic for another day.
Ken Martel is the director of USA Hockey’s American Development Model.