When the clock is winding down and a youth hockey coach looks up from the bench at a one-goal game, there is a natural temptation … to win. And with that temptation comes the competitive-nature’s no-brainer to handpick the best players for the next few shifts and salt away the W.
And when that temptation to shorten the bench comes … don’t. Instead, roll the next line.
“If you're in a critical moment of the game, it's imperative that everybody plays,” says Roger Grillo, USA Hockey’s Regional Manager of the American Development Model for New England. “Everybody plays the same amount. Don’t send a message that you don't believe in a young player. Because you don't know who the best player will be five or six years down the road – even a year down the road. Giving every kid the opportunity to be in critical situations is imperative.”
The arc of every player’s hockey life extends far beyond any single youth hockey game, almost no matter of its perceived importance, and it’s up to coaches to place the development of all of his or her players ahead of winning that single game.
A shortened bench runs the risk of curtailing both the joy of the game and the length of time a young athlete might play the sport.
“Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war,” Grillo says. “You also have to remember that your responsibility is to the individual athlete and not that game. I think where coaches get sideways is when they focus on the team and not the individual athlete. In my mind, that's the wrong way to approach youth sports.”
Grillo, who spent 12 years at Brown before working with USA Hockey, though, certainly understands not only the pressure to win games from coaches, but also from parents who appreciate their sons and daughters winning games.
“We're trying to educate moms and dads so that they will [understand],” says Grillo. “The message back to the parents is that we are athlete-centered. The reason we’re having this discussion is that the competition model has taken over the training, practice and development model.”
Grillo would like to see the pendulum swing back in the direction of training, practice and development: “What if we could get our teams to embrace the training culture at a younger age? How much better would players be? How much deeper would the pool be? And how many more kids would reach their full potential?”
Potential is a tricky word when it comes to youth sports. Some players show clear gifts at a very early age. Some won’t for years. The true gift comes from the joy a player takes from the game, and whether they last long enough to realize that potential. Shortened benches run counter to both.
“I think all coaches feel like winning is important,” Grillo says. “And we never want to say that winning isn't important. You just can't take a shortcut to a win. One of the biggest shortcuts is that you limit the icetime of your weaker players.”
Reaching one’s potential can come in any number of ways, through town programs or private programs, in Grillo’s estimation. But it won’t come from playing where benches are artificially shortened.
“I don't get caught up in what a program costs,” says Grillo. “This is America, and you can decide to go where you choose. I think there are people who do a really good job in both [town and private hockey program] worlds. I think it has more to do with the environment and the kid. Is it athlete-centered? Is there skill development? Is it embracing failure? What it costs or what it doesn't cost isn’t necessarily what makes it good.”
In either case, per USA Hockey, the recommendation for smaller team sizes often does the trick. You can’t shorten a bench when only five more players are on that bench.
“We strongly encourage roster sizes to be almost to the bare-bones minimum,” Grillo says. “Once you get past say 12 or 13 kids, it can get to be frustrating for a young athlete because they're not playing enough. It's not as much fun and it's not developmentally sound.”
It may, however, lead to a loss or two that could have been a win or two.
No matter, says Grillo
“The athletes want to win, too, but they have short-term memory loss, which is a good thing,” he says. “They're able to let go of it when they’re younger. They're able to forget about it 10 minutes after the game, five minutes after the game, sometimes a minute after the game. It's the adults who get all twisted up.”
After all, this is about the players. Players who in youth hockey simply want to get out on the ice and play. Their wins and losses are often measured in not falling for an entire hour, or completing a tape-to-tape pass, or remembering to make a play rather than dumping a puck, or taking a puck in to traffic or picking a corner. Their development is the most important schedule.
“It's giving kids confidence,” Grillo says of playing everyone. “You cannot treat youth athletes the way we treat high school, college and pro athletes. They’re two different worlds. The biggest thing for youth coaches is that you should embrace failure, embrace creativity. They’re critical to learning. If you're constantly trying to protect kids from failure, you're not doing them a service.”
So, if a coach looks up at that clock as it ticks down, and there’s a decision to be made about winning or losing based on shortening the bench, it might be worthwhile to instead think about the definition of winning.