Every coach agrees that hockey sense is vital for their players, but when should players start being taught and learning hockey sense?
To set the foundation, hockey terminology and rules should be started right away. Players at the under U9 (age eight and under) level still need to pick up the basics skills and athletic abilities. Once the basic foundation has been formed it’s time to start teaching and influencing their hockey sense.
- See also:
Teaching hockey sense while they are acquiring their skills gives the players an intuitive ability to apply their skills to game sequences. Top players can start around age 8-9 while others should be started by age 9-10. In the US this means coaches should be implementing drills that hit on hockey sense during first year squirt year and beyond.
Why start at ages 8-10? There are 3 main reasons:
- Key operational stage
- Trainability windows
Age 8-10 is when these young players are in their ‘concrete operational’ stage. It’s when players are able to start grasping logical thought and can correlate actions with success/failure.
For background, there are three large phases we must work through when developing players:
- Preoperational (age 2-7): Children are acquiring motor skills and are unable to think logically and hold abstract thoughts.
- Concrete operational (age 7-12): Children begin to understand logical and rational thought in relation to things they can see or touch. Players in this age group will learn a lot by watching others and trying what they just saw.
- Formal operational (age 12-adulthood): Individuals develop abstract reasoning skills. They can think logically and rationally without having to depend on visual or touch aids.
If players don’t have a base for their hockey sense by age 11-12 it’s very difficult to put many of those intuitive hockey sense elements into their game. It’s particularly more difficult to get those elements into automatic subconscious level during their formal operational stage.
Research has shown that the biggest development in creativity is reached during childhood. Synapses (structures permitting neurons to pass signals along) get weaker with age, making creativity difficult to develop later on. Earlier the better when it comes to matching skill development with skill application (AKA using hockey sense to affect the game).
These are stages in development where a player’s specific training can have optimal effect.
By the time we should start teaching hockey sense, flexibility (suppleness) and speed window one are coming to a close and players are in their skill window. It’s critical they learn to apply those skills to game sequences. Skill acquisition and skill application go together like peanut butter and jelly.
Now that we know when and the why… how to go about teaching this?
There are three key elements when talking about hockey sense. Coaches can influence all of them:
Pattern recognition: Giving players more reps, puck touches, and movement. Once honed pattern recognition enables great forethought and anticipation during a game.
Situational knowledge: Getting players into situations they will see often during a game. Once honed players will have better positioning, timing, feel, and vision.
Decision making and problem solving: Putting players into environments where there are decisions that have to be made. Once honed players will be able to understand how decisions affect success or failure and make better decisions on the ice.
In practice a coach sets the environment and allows players to explore it with their skills, ideas, and tricks. I’m a believer in giving players the why behind the drill and jointly brainstorm ideas that players can use to problem solve. Not all players have the same skillset and need the freedom to find what works for their game.
Some examples of types of drills:
- Constraints that players must problem solve around
- Active defenders and/or coach taking away options
- Changing focus — multiple pucks or must switch focus from one area to another
- Timing and flow
When planning practice always remember the player’s feedback loop and when possible, speed that up. The faster the loop, the quicker players can see success or failure based on their actions.