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Can You Teach Hockey Sense?

By Jamie MacDonald, 12/14/23, 4:15PM EST


USA Hockey's Heather Mannix and Ken Martel explain

You know what isn’t likely to teach hockey sense? Cone drills. Or lining a team of players up in a corner and sending them around and around and around the faceoff circles for minutes on end. 


Or having five lines of skaters go up the ice, slowly and deliberately without any hint of opposition, making exaggerated C-cuts from goal line to goal line. Or having them wait at the other end for a minute, then come back with, say, a backwards version of that exaggerated C-cut from goal line to goal line.


And, while not specifically the mortal enemy of hockey sense, drills such as those tried examples are that much more a threat to hockey sense when they’re in the hands of a coach who fully believes in them.


Instead, a good start for teaching and developing hockey sense is for a kid to be coached by someone who believes that hockey sense can, in fact, be taught and developed.


“We are firm to believers that it can be taught,” says Heather Mannix, USA Hockey’s Manager of Education and Player Development. “That's a big push for us right now in our coaching education. It’s understanding: How do you teach hockey sense? How do you teach scanning and awareness?”


When we caught Mannix in mid-December, she had just arrived in the Washington, D.C., area for a five-day 8U roadshow, a span over which she and Ken Martel, USA Hockey’s Senior Director of Player and Coach Development, would visit seven rinks in those five days, spreading the good word of the National Governing Body’s aims for the age group.


Martel, an assistant coach for the first U.S. World Junior Team to win gold at the IIHF World Championships, the 20th anniversary of which arrives on Jan. 5, 2024, has since been instrumental in USA Hockey’s moving to the ADM and through its evolutions. Hockey sense has benefited in that time since. 


“I will say, and it's not just because he’s sitting here, when it comes to being forward-thinking, kind of pushing the envelope and not being afraid to go against the grain, I think that's where Ken likes to live,” Mannix says. 


When it comes to teaching hockey sense, the idea is, yes, that it can be taught. Perhaps not as it was years ago when it was a matter of some players intuitively "getting it" more quickly through their own natural wiring for the game, with the inverse often leaving scores of their peers behind. 


But by trying to develop hockey sense in more players in more ways and at younger ages – not so much as an accident of their wiring but as an intentional effort from adults who can affect change – USA Hockey is making the effort to see that more hockey players are having more fun and are becoming better hockey players at the same time.


But … how?


“I think it all comes from practice,” says Mannix. 


Mannix grew up in Michigan, playing with the Michigan Capitals and Little Caesars programs before going on to study biology at Wayne State University and earning a Master’s in Exercise Science at George Washington University, after which she spent six years studying what makes sports fun for kids.


“I think the more that we can create game-like decision-making in practice, the more that skill is transferable to a game-like situation,” she says. “So often we see block practices where players don't have to make a lot of decisions. Or the decisions are the exact same. Or they already know what the outcome is because it’s a predetermined drill.”


Predetermination can be an enemy of creativity and hockey sense. If you know where you're going, those drills can create ruts that, yes, do look like mastering that simple drill, but it can also lead to boredom and learning the drill at the expense of spending time learning hockey sense.


“If we can get more coaches to think about creating game-like problems, putting kids in situations where they have to solve those problems in practice and giving them more and more reps in that, I think that skill transferability from practice to the game is more effective,” Mannix says.


Helping expose players to more game-like situations may close the gap, too, on the kinds of players who thrive in practice and the kinds of players who thrive in games.


“We talk about the difference between a skill a player who is really good in practice, that player who in practice is technically sound who can dangle around cones all day long, and their stickwork is ridiculous,” says Mannix, “but you put them in a game and you can't find them with a GPS tracker.”


Practicing the way you want to play takes on new meaning when the practice looks like you might be playing in terms of a mindset as much a a physical endeavor. Hockey sense can blossom in that space.


“It's being able to have that technical ability and being able to execute it within a game,” Mannix says. “A lot of that comes from having the awareness. Those are the players where the puck just seems to follow them – it seems find them. The reality is that they put themselves in the right position to see it and find it. And they know where it’s going. So, it’s being able to read the game and be a couple steps ahead of the play at a given moment.”


When you’re in a practice of rote repetition – circle drills and line drills and cone drills – that may not serve as an environment for fostering little more than being ahead of the next circle or line or cone.


“We talk about a flow drill and what it takes away from players if they know they have to skate around this cone and then that cone and then get a pass from that coach and take a shot there,” says Mannix. “You've taken away all of the decision-making. You know what the outcome is. So how do we put kids in what my colleague Joe Bonnett [USA Hockey’s Manager of Player Development] calls the jungle? If we don't replicate that in practice, we are setting our kids up for failure in a game.”


For Mannix, a practice that might help develop hockey sense doesn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, look all that polished.


“At the young stages, even at the older ages, practice should look messy,” she says. “If it looks too neat and it looks like every pass is tape-to-tape and there isn't a ton of conflict, if it looks too pretty, then it's probably a red flag for us. Maybe they aren’t challenging their players enough. But if it looks chaotic and it looks a little messy, that's usually a good sign that you're pushing a player a little bit out of their comfort zone and forcing them to fail a little bit in practice. They’re getting an opportunity to learn from those mistakes in a safer setting.”


Safe settings include practices where the skill development is sort of woven into the playing of practice. By the nature of a practice designed with developing hockey sense in mind, the skill development will come.


“If they can't physically do something, the variability is in their instability, so it's OK to go ahead and do [more beginner drills],” Martel says. “But there needs to be some layering in of outside information so that the development of your technical ability and the ability to adjust is in relation to your ability to perceive what's going on. You develop them together. It's hand-in-hand. And I would say that, for kids hockey and for youth hockey, outside the performance realm, every day should be trying to get better.”


Says Mannix: “Instead of line skating 200 feet, have them skate at each other so they have to keep their heads up. There are ways to layer in the variability so that it's not so blocked and not taking in information that you'll have to be aware of in the game.”


Mannix and USA Hockey are also working with fellow NGBs to collaborate across sports on what works for their own populations. 


“We're trying to attack it from multiple levels,” she says. “That's why we meet with our partners in other NGBs, learning from them and what they do well and what their challenges are, bouncing ideas back and forth. We are the boots on the ground and we're also trying to make ourselves better from an organizational standpoint.”


In the spirit of their own cross-collaboration, USA Hockey would encourage hockey players also to play other sports.


“Physical literacy is at the core of our best athletes,” says Mannix. “And that develops not just in the sport, but, a lot of times, through playing other sports. It allows you to think a little bit more strategically and allows you to have a different type of vision.”


Martel points to a study from 2019 showing that the vast majority of players in the NHL were multi-sport athletes into and throughout their teens.


“There is variety and variability in what that looks like,” Mannix says. “So you're not only developing a better skill set and putting more tools in your toolbox in terms of your physical abilities, but also developing your mental awareness and the way that you see the game. You're looking at it from multiple lenses while playing multiple sports. It broadens that perception.”

In the coming weeks, months and years, USA Hockey will continue to try broadening the perception of its curriculum as the ADM continues to evolve. As you might imagine, scaling programs across the country is no easy task. Hence the road trips, the on-ice work with programs, the meetings with other NGBs. (Over the course of four weeks around Thanksgiving and into the end of the calendar year, Mannix will spend barely three days at home.)


“I’m trying to kind of train the trainers, if you will,” says Mannix. “Getting our coach-developers, the ones who are actually delivering our clinics, on the same page and upscaling is a lot of the travel. And there are some people who just get it – out there trying new things, trying to push the envelope a little bit. When you can start to see the shift happen at the administrative level and you can start putting things into place at the association level, that's why we're doing an 8U roadshow, going around and talking to coaches and parents, trying to explain what's happening on the ice and why it might look a little bit different than when they played hockey. Again, if we can get everybody moving in kind of the same direction then it'll start to pick up some momentum.”


Both Martel and Mannix are encouraged by the more they have seen in the game and in the fruits of their considerable labor.


“We have a project going on with National Hockey League and our National Team Development Program and Norwegian Ice Hockey Federation, and the project is to study awareness at elite levels of hockey and figure out what we can extrapolate down to the youth levels and how we can teach it,” Martel says. “What is a player aware of in the moment? And it's really important.”


In the time since Team USA won its first gold at the IIHF World Championships 20 years ago (Team USA is up to five golds now after winning in 2010, 2013, 2017 and 2021), the game has changed tremendously.


“Certainly, over the last decade or two, we can think about the physiology and the technical ability,” says Martel. “And I'm sure we’ll learn more from a physiology standpoint, but with all the things we do to help our players get bigger and stronger and more effective, we've really pushed in that area. But if you think about the sport in the future, I don't know what the game is going to look like, exactly, but the players aren't going to become less interchangeable and the game is not going to become slower. One place we can adapt is between the ears and being aware of the right information during the game.”


So, it seems, the evolution is in good hands.


“We’ve revamped our curriculum over the past five years or so, really concentrating these practices really pushing constraints-led approaches,” Mannix says. “We’re looking at: How does it impact the environment? As coaches, we can impact the environment. We’re hoping the days of just picking up a practice plan and running with it are going away. We’ll find out how sticky the new curriculum is first. Then we’ll go out and collect the data. We’ll look to see: Are we seeing coaches try new things? Are they pushing the envelope? That will help with wider and deeper base of players. I'm really excited for the future.”