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How to Dramatically Improve Skill Development

By Jamie MacDonald, Special to Mass Hockey, 10/04/17, 3:00PM EDT


For a few years now, “small” games have become a big part of USA Hockey’s youth hockey development – and with good reason.

ADM Regional Manager Roger Grillo putting on a clinic at the Boston Bruins Coaching Symposium.

For a few years now, “small” games have become a big part of USA Hockey’s youth hockey development – and with good reason. The advantages are so clear that even critics accidentally help tell the story of why districts and local programs have moved to embrace them. 

Those critics can have their opinion, says Roger Grillo, USA Hockey’s Regional Manager of the American Development Model for New England and longtime coach who sees the myriad benefits of shrinking the rink and drawing players of all ages – from the single digits to the pros – closer together.

More of What’s Good

When the same number of players occupy a smaller space, hockey plays happen more quickly and more often than on a full sheet that, for, say, a 6-year-old, is almost incomprehensibly large. Cut in half, or into quarters, players are going to enjoy a whole lot more action.

Small-area games are about placing players of all skill levels in a setting where their touches, their skating and their decisions are coming faster and with far greater frequency. In other words, your practice comes with more practicing.  

“The bigger the space, the less likely it's going to happen over and over again,” says Grillo, who spent 12 years at Brown before working with USA Hockey. “They get repetitions and decision-making in game-like scenarios, over and over again.”

More Conflict

So much of what makes hockey so much fun for so many of us comes from the changes of pace and direction, the quick moves in tight quarters, the immediate thinking that’s required to make something special happen under some duress. Which could also be describing game action. 

“The biggest issue that I see now is that, when you practice in too much space, there is not enough conflict,” Grillo says. “There's not enough reality. They're skating in circles. There aren’t enough turnovers or failure. It’s really about dealing with those things and responding to the negative in a positive way.”

When the ice is divided, everything happens in a fraction of the time. At the younger ages, it’s teaching more athleticism more quickly. At the older ages, it’s teaching more skills more quickly. And it’s something even the most reluctant or recalcitrant coaches have been learning.

Let Them Play

Consider all that can happen when, say, nets are on the faceoff dots in one zone and the width of the ice becomes the “length” of the ice.

“You're letting the moment and experience be the teacher instead of talking,” says Grillo, who grew up playing unstructured hockey on the lakes and outdoor rinks of Minnesota. “Good coaches don't talk a lot. Players get it through trial and error. [Coaches] might explain a few things and direct a little bit, but they step back and let the environment be the teacher.”

Coaches can also take note that small-area games don’t have to mean thinking small. The possibilities are just as broad as an imagination. 

“It's unlimited,” Grillo says. “Anything you can do in big spaces, you can do in a small space. The positive of a smaller space is that things happen quicker and with less energy. It's a win-win all the way around.”

Change Comes with Challenges

There was a time when an old-school parent or coach might look sideways – or down – at a small-area session. Fueled by a that’s-not-how-we-used-to-do-it ethos, the sentiment has turned. 

“In my mind, most of the comments of resistance actually help,” Grillo says. “If people actually see it doesn't work, the criticism doesn't work. There is a positive to tradition, and there is a negative to tradition. Change comes with challenges.”

Immediate Feedback

What small-area work has done, though, and in short order with nearly immediate feedback, is prove just how different the experience is for the player. For the uninitiated, there are even tools to help follow the marked differences for playing in smaller areas. 

“We have the activity tracker,” says Grillo. “You can track how many passes or hockey moves or how much activity a player gets. So, depending on the age of the athlete, you're focusing on different things. At younger ages you're trying to build athletes, so you're focused on activities. At 12-and-under, now you've gone into the skill acquisition level. Then, when they do get older, you're talking about quality and good habits. Now you're talking about doing it correctly.”

Dramatic Improvement

The proof is all around, too. Grillo was asked about the nature of the skill level compared to five years ago.

“There is a noticeable improvement,” he says. “And I think the large-scale reassurance is coming a couple years from now. I think it's getting better all the time. I’ve never heard a coach say, ‘That guy is too skilled.’ So any way you can have an impact on a guy being better, that’s a good thing.”

Small-area games have, indeed, come a long way.

“There's been good stuff happening all over the country for years, for decades,” Grillo says. “And it's just trying to get more people doing it. You very rarely walk into a rink and see a full sheet of 10-year-olds with 10 or 15 kids out there. You can still run a really good practice with 10 or 15 people, but, if you're really doing it right, it's in a small space.”