When it comes to building team chemistry among youth players, helping to develop and nurture the skills of advanced players can mean the difference between winning and losing. But just as important is making sure that development doesn't come at the expense of less-skilled players, who can potentially fall by the wayside if they aren't worked with.
By identifying both more- and less-advanced players on a team, the needs of both groups can be met equally. And that can mean improving the team and, most importantly, making the game fun for everybody.
When it comes to helping both these groups, it can start with the simplest of strategies.
"If you look at helping less-skilled players, make sure these kids have proper equipment. [With] some kids, the skates aren't right or the stick is too long or other equipment isn't proper," said Dick Bertrand, a former head coach at Cornell and Ferris State, who most recently served as the director of hockey for the East Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association. "The first thing you do is identify these specific weaknesses and strengths that less-skilled and even more-skilled players have. Then you have to work with them on those strengths and weaknesses."
With players in need of improvement, the key is to keep them engaged and interested. With young players' attention spans short enough already, the frustration associated with this process can be enough to turn them off the game entirely.
The key to engaging both groups, particularly the players in need of more development, is to introduce a variety of drills that make the game less monotonous and more fun. Running the same drills over and over can easily wear on a child's patience. Throw in dry-land training and you can engage players in a new and interesting way. USA Hockey even offers a list of dozens of different hockey drills for specific age groups at http://usahockey.com/coaches/coaching_materials.aspx.
"A little off ice training is part of being a hockey player. So do a dynamic workout with kids before games. That adds up to hours [of exercise] over the course of the year," said Ken Martel, the director of USA Hockey's American Development Model (ADM). "We're Red Wings fans in my household. So [Pavel] Datsyuk will do something in a game and my son will go right down to the basement to try it. They want to emulate the star players. These all go in to development for our players."
With more-advanced players, the proper development of their skills can help them take their games to the next level. These types of players are generally easy to identify, but pose a different set of challenges. For one thing, it's important to manage the expectations of not just the player, but parents as well.
"Advanced players are easy to identify. But you have to address the kids who might not be team players. They may be arrogant or spoiled. You've got to address that as well," Bertrand said. "A lot of parents see their kids differently than the coaches. Talk with them. Say, 'They are doing really well but need to work on this.'"
And when it comes to working on specific areas, it never hurts to seek whatever coaches and tutors are readily available. As the game has spread, a cottage industry of private coaches has popped up around North America -- individual tutors who can help players develop everything from skating to conditioning. For example, many of the game's greatest players, including four-time Stanley Cup winner Scott Niedermayer, laud the merits of offseason power skating classes.
These coaches can be expensive and aren't always available in certain areas. But by taking a quick look around the community, players and their families can find programs that can help develop all young people, regardless of their skill level.
"It's really about the kid putting the time in," Martel said. "It doesn't have to be far from home or need all this extra equipment. If the will is there, then there is certainly a way."
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