What does it mean to shoot like a girl? For the most part, particularly at the younger ages of youth hockey, shooting is shooting. As the Women's Director of the Islanders Hockey Organization based out of North Andover, Stephanie Wood answers these kinds of questions every day – quite literally, as she's at the rink about seven days a week during the season. For Wood, who played her Division I college hockey at Northeastern, the Islanders have been a labor of love. The fruit of that labor has resulted in growing the program from a handful of girls' teams to its current and impressive total of 20.
Recently, we caught up with Wood to talk about when to stress shooting for girls, building the foundation of a great shot, how to develop that shot and how delivering the message might be better served when you answer why.
Mass Hockey: For girls, when is a good time to start talking about shooting pucks?
Stephanie Wood: Overall, in terms of skill development, obviously, shooting is a fundamental skill. It should be taught at a very, very young age. Just like skating or stick-handling.
Mass Hockey: How are you able to deliver the message at such young ages without burdening really young players with something overwhelming like shooting mechanics?
SW: We try to drive in how important it is that, in order to become great at anything, it requires a huge amount of practice—and that includes off the ice. When they’re really young and new to hockey, telling them they need to go out and shoot 100 pucks a day is totally unrealistic. The goal is to make it really fun and encourage them even to just go out in the driveway and mess around with a ball or a puck.
As they get a little older, say, 10 to 12, you want to encourage them to work on their skills and their shooting off the ice, and you want to say why. I think with girls it’s important to tell them why. You have to practice a tremendous amount of time [to have a great shot].
One thing that’s worked well for us is to make a competition or a game out of it. We might make a shot challenge. For example, an individual or a group that shoots the most pucks off the ice, we might have some sort of prize or something they can kind of look forward to.
Again, the goal is to encourage them to work on their skills and their shooting off the ice.
Mass Hockey: Are there some physical considerations in coaching girls when it comes to shooting?
SW: I think at the younger ages, 8- or 9-years-old, we’ll scrimmage with boys and girls. I find, at the younger ages there aren’t as many differences physically. It’s not until they’re older where there are much greater physical differences. An 8- or 9-year-old female wrist shot may not look all that different from an 8- or 9-year-old male wrist shot. Obviously, there is going to be an upper end and a lower end, but that’s why, at that age, it doesn’t really matter to me if they’re coed or not.
Mass Hockey: From a tactics standpoint, what are some of the teaching techniques you’re using?
SW: To become a good shooter, it starts with proper instruction, teaching the proper technique of shooting mechanics. That starts with progressional development. We know that the wrist shot is the most commonly used shot — you want to really establish a great wrist from the ground up. Then you can add on different types of shots. But, again, it starts with learning the proper technique and format, then it’s repetition, repetition, repetition after that to get really good at it.
Mass Hockey: When you’re running practice, what approach to shooting are you looking to create?
SW: I think it’s having a really efficient practice where one of two of your stations can be allocated to just shooting. If we’re starting out with a progressional plan from start to finish for the season, maybe that first or second week the shooting stations should be focused on proper mechanics, then you’re getting progressionally tougher.
Mass Hockey: What can we tell girls about the mechanics of a wrist shot? There’s so much happening, but how do we break it down to explain it? How do you teach the building of a wrist shot?
SW: Two big things: One, create a simple message of three of four main bullet points of a great wrist shot. Don’t overcomplicate things. Two, have the coach or someone on the ice provide a really great demonstration. That’s always a huge asset for girls on the ice. Having a really good demonstration or visual goes a long way.
In terms of the main bullet points to focus on for a wrist shot to break it down:
1. The hands on their sticks should be well-spaced.
2. Weight transfer: Starting with their weight on their back leg, transfer that to their front.
3. Once they transfer their weight to their back foot, the puck should go behind their back foot. That’s where the power comes from.
Then, as they come trough, transferring the weight from the back to the front, a quick snap of the wrist, and follow through with their stick pointing at the net. Then, of course, follow with a quick demonstration.
Mass Hockey: When do you find you start to see the real gains in shooting effectiveness, when, say, a wrist shot is really doing what a player wants it to do?
SW: It is different for everyone. We have some 7- and 8-year-olds who can shoot and lift the puck. And we have some others where it’s still very new. As long as they can learn the proper technique, if they’re doing the skill right, some are just going to pick it up more than others. But I would say by 8- or 9-years-old it’s not too young to actually be shooting the puck pretty well.
Mass Hockey: When we get to players around 12- or 13-years-old, what kinds of mechanics are at work? Are we talking about building up strength in forearms, upper body and wrists?
SW: Yes, for sure. With that age group, too, once you hit that 11 or 12 age group, it’s good to establish a really great, fundamental shooting curriculum. It’s a good age to start incorporating different types of shots, for example, the slap shot.
We try to encourage the off-ice training, too. In addition to the hockey, you start building up their strength a lot more. Whether it’s just off the ice or with weights, it’s an age where it’s good to start incorporating the training in addition to the on- and off-ice skill work.
Mass Hockey: If you had to choose between an accurate shooter or a hard shooter, which would you pick?
SW: I would definitely go for accuracy.
Mass Hockey: Is there a difference in delivering the message to girls?
SW: That’s a great question. A little bit, yes. With the girls, they tend to respond a little bit better with, “Here’s what we’re going to do … and here’s why we’re going to do it.” Girls tend to be a little bit more literal. They always want to know why they’re doing something: “We’re going to want you to shoot 100 pucks off the ice … and here’s why.” That tends to work pretty well.
Mass Hockey: Do you talk much about expensive sticks or flexes or curves?
SW: I can tell you that when I was growing up, my parents never invested in really expensive skates or sticks or anything until I got to the point I was really serious about hockey and I’d also stopped growing. I think people just have to be thinking about it. To have a great wrist shot, you don’t need to have a top-of-the-line stick. And there may be a bit of a lack of knowledge on the types of flexes that kids should be using at certain ages.
At the younger ages, I don’t think you have to worry about that all that much.
When it comes to curves, everyone is going to have their individual preference, but I think it’s something maybe a coach might keep an eye on. I had a high school player this year and there was just something off with her shot, and it took me a minute to figure out. And then I saw that she had one of the most ridiculous curves I’ve ever seen. I was, like, “OK, we need to get rid of this,” and we made a little adjustment and now she has one of the best shots on the team.
Mass Hockey: We’re lucky enough to have a lot of women’s hockey here in Massachusetts, why would you recommend watching them play?
SW: You’re right in that we have a lot of girls hockey, college hockey, we’re always able to get our players or our teams to see other hockey. I think that’s a huge asset. Wherever you’re located, any time you can get your players to go see girls’ hockey or establish a mentorship or even have players or girls come on the ice every now and then is a huge help in the process. The mentorship aspect is underrated in the process.