Development: Pin-pointing the right program for you.

Picking the right developmental program for you is one of the most important decisions that you as a player, or parent for that matter, can make.  One of the most common mistakes that player/ parent  makes is that they move from hockey school to hockey school every spring and summer without a clear and concise objective.  Over the course of a two week hockey school where a player is on the ice twice a day for 5 days a week, he/she will be introduced to many fundamentals, some of which are not primary developmental considerations. I have run hockey schools for over 20 years and have always found that at the end of a School's program, the player really was only interested in a couple of fundamentals, and in many cases, their favorite ones (slap shot for example), not the skills that they REALLY  need to acquire to move up from one level to the next. 

This problem is a very common one due to several factors. Most players are ego centered. They enjoy feeling good about themselves (and they should) and do not like to focus on things that they do poorly. If their slap shot is good, they want it to be excellent as opposed to their crossovers which may be average. We are all pained by doing things that we HAVE to do, not doing the things that we love to do. However, as I have explained to many of my students; it would be like get 6 out of 10 on a math test, seeing which ones we got wrong, then going home to study the questions that we got right. I find that this "outlook" on development from the player's perspective is more the rule than the exception.  I see often that players prefer to scrimmage rather than practice. However, this can be used as an indicator of an athletes commitment level. A very dedicated athlete will travel a 200 miles  or will get up at 4:00 am 3 or 4 times per week to receive specialized training. This level of commitment is rare. However, thousands of players travel thousands of miles to play in tournaments. 

I have found, with average to elite players, that they do not like to work hard on their deficiencies. One of the reasons for this is as mentioned, we too often, when focusing on development, have to take 3 steps backwards to go 5 steps forwards before we can implement a new skill into our game repertoire.  Training deficiencies can fall not only under skills but in other areas as well. I have met players (and their are many) who do not like to train for strength, power or even stamina. Many do it because they have do (team testing and assessments) and subsequently do not maximize their potential.  Personal discipline and commitment are not part of their developmental  picture.

Looking at the following developmental cycle we can see that there are many factors to consider. Hockey is a very complex sport in that a player, in order to maximize potential, must connect all the "dots" correctly. I have found that it takes 5 to 10 years to develop a player  correctly (depending on age and current skill level).  I work with the same players for 5 to 10 years, their position with the training program is held until they decide to move on. While not good from a business stand point, it is the developmental focus that I enjoy and has allowed me to follow a developmental cycle through from beginning to end.


Taking the above cycle into consideration, we must realize that there are several steps that must take place in order for a player to implement their new skills (not improved old ones) into a game situation. As I mentioned, NOT OLD ONES. One of the most important points that differentiate  elite players from average players is that not only do they do the basic skills better, more effectively, and faster, they also possess more of them. This creates many advantages. The one constant about hockey that doesn't really change (think abstractly here) is that the game remains either 45 or 60 minutes long. We can also say that during the game many events transpire (dump-ins, turnovers, shots on net, face-offs) and while these situations CAN vary, how we react to them is directly related to our "SKILL BASE"  The more tools that we have in our tool box, the greater the options open to us. As previously mentioned, players spend much time focusing on the skills that they already have, trying to improve their speed, shooting power, puck handling etc, and not actually learning new skills and their applications. Again, this is due to the limited time that players have during the "off-season". Coaches at the amateur and Junior levels do not really focus on learning new skills - they just expect you to use the ones that you already have to the best of your ability, focusing primarily on tactical training.

Lets look at the second developmental cycle. This cycle is specific to learning a "NEW" skill.  As mentioned in Game Environment Analysis and Event Progression Analysis, skills and skill set development will vary length of absorption into personal game inventory due to number of critical elemental factors involved. A player may implement new skill after one or two weeks or it may take up to two years (which I have seen). 

Again, this cycle of learning a new skill can take anywhere from 2 months to 2 years depending on the learning ability, psychological profile (must do a skill perfect before using or, will try  a new skill right away; "who cares if I make a mistake"), degree of difficulty and/or  coaching environment ("screw up and you sit").  We wonder why players get stuck into roles and never seem to break out of them. The early years are the best, where most everyone seems to believe in development.   What I have found is that with players as early as 8 to 10 years old learn new skills quickly and can be directed towards a specific goal or developmental profile. Older players - 14, 15 and up, require more "untraining" so to speak. 

While the skill itself is not really that hard to teach, it is breaking the old habits that are the hardest.  What I have found is that it is more productive to  focus on teaching skills that are more "entertaining" to the player (more fun or more specific to what they want to learn; slap-shot for example which is everyone's favorite).  I will trick the players into doing what they need to do to improve while giving them specific information that improves the skills that they like to work on.  Over the years I have learned to cross-reference skills which directly effect the development process of other related fundamentals. An example would be quick starts. The drill might be to attack the net and snap the puck off of the inside foot, however, they must take the first two steps laterally on their toes before being allowed to shoot. "Negative start, positive finish".  While both skills are not really related (of course there would be several uses for this type of combination; point, clearing zone, etc), the slap shot is a medium to long range skill, while accelerating on ones toes is a short range skill.

No matter what tricks that a teacher must use, it is important that they get results. 


What is difficult for players and parents is the mapping out of a developmental cycle that incorporates short, medium and long range goals. Development must effect ones play immediately and yet must realize long term development  that may take 5 to 7 years. A player must realize that any champion has a list of personal ideals  that are going to be tested over the course of ones career; passion, commitment, perseverance, integrity, discipline, and I am sure that you could add a couple more. The game in essence just becomes a testing ground for your own personal battle.


One of the main problems that players have is that they do not have constant bench marks that identify growth either technically or tactically.  A technical bench mark would be, taking the slap shot for example,  using a radar gun to measure shooting proficiency. When was the last time that you (the player) had this done. Name a tactical bench  mark that a coach would use on a regular basis that would show that a player's puck handling, skating or shooting skills are improving. Difficult. However, if we use a sprinter for example, time becomes a bench mark to measure performance, a much simpler and more exact tool. Elite sprinters train very hard and travel from meet to meet to evaluate their performance by testing themselves against their peer group. This allows them to make adjustments in their training both technically, dietary and physically to achieve better results. What do we do as players to bench mark our performance and what type of control do we have over our programs to make the improvements necessary to achieve the results that we want.


Unfortunately, in  a team sport, a coach is responsible for the quality of your development. Does he assign a personal trainer, a   What I mean by unfortunate is that most coaches are tactical teachers and not skill teachers. Skating, etc is left for the off-season and most of the bench marks set out by coaches are subjective, based on opinion. I have tested players post and pre-season relative to skating a puck handling speed, had them go back to their respective teams and because they put on 15 lbs over the summer and have grown somewhat, their coaches have perceived that they were slower because they were bigger. 


Another person responsible for a player's development is a player's agent. I know many and most have a very poor understanding of the technical side of the game. They tend to refer their players to private trainers based on reputation, whether or not this trainers specialty  really focuses on the player's actual deficiency. I have seen players referred to skating instructors and personal trainers for 3 or 4 years in a row and still see the same deficiencies in their game play. 


A quotable quote: "the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result".


How to correct this and bring a player into correct alignment with his "real" developmental needs is a problem. 


Let us again use the "sprinters" model of;  train, test (track meet), re-evaluate, goal-set, train, test, etc.  We know that the world record is the main focus (be the best).  For a hockey player, is this model practical for the team athlete? Due to the team atmosphere and complexity of the game itself, this becomes difficult in that there are many different skills that one must focus on besides running to be accepted one of, or  the best hockey player in the world.  Number '99' was not the best skater in the world but has been acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best hockey player in the world. Is this perception due to the number of NHL records that he holds or shares? If one is to be identified as one of the best or the best, is it by the record book?  Yzerman, Sakic, Forsberg, Modano, Jagr, Bure, Kariya  and Mario  are other players recognized as being the best in the world. Looking at each one we can identify certain characteristics that identify them as having exceptional  talent and skill;  Sakic's shooting skills, Jagr's puck handling skills, Forsberg's completeness, Modano's fluidity, Kariya's and Bure's speed and deception,  and Mario's finesse. Why then are these player's recognized as being in that elite group.  Is it based on perception or statistics.  This is the world of the team athlete.  For an  individual athlete such as the sprinter, the bench mark is pretty much black and white. According to  time, he/she  is either the fastest or he/she isn't. So what kind of bench mark can we use for the hockey player.


Let's look again at the number of players in the NHL and around the world that fall into the "elitist" category. Each has, in his own way, some perceivable excellence that marvel and amaze the onlooker. Why then do we not take each player's strengths and, by combining them, create a model of what the best hockey player in the world would look like. What then is the main contributing factor that pushes each player into the realm of "superstar" status?


Contributing factors
1. Skating

- fluidity

- speed

- quickness

- agility

- power

- deception

3. Stick Handling

- width; use of

- depth; use of

- deceptive

- fluid

- timing

- quickness

2. Shooting

- accuracy

- power

- release 

- deception

- timing

- comprehension

4. Mental

- comprehension

- anticipation

- toughness

- speed

- discipline


There are other intrinsic factors inherent within the game such as passing, receiving, and checking, etc that contribute to a player's success but the above fundamentals arguably are the most important.


Getting back to development, but philosophizing is fun though, we can break down further into two distinct training environments. This is where parents sometimes feel that they are not getting the biggest bang for their dollar.


1 - The skill learning environment. A player is walked through a new skill slowly, breaking down each element so that a complete understanding both visually and kinesthetically is achieved.

2 - The practice environment. A player takes the new skill and progresses into a high speed "sweat shop" training environment or a repetitive, high skills per minute practice environment.

Many parents love to see their kids working very hard. In the first training environment, sometimes the parent feels that the student is not training hard enough. Getting a "great sweat" does not necessarily mean that they are getting better. Another teaching misnomer is that kids must always be having fun. Personal discipline becomes redundant if it is always fun.  I weight train. I cannot say that it is fun. It is rewarding and it is an exercise in personal conviction. The rewards come later - an important lesson for commitment and discipline. In the second example, the player is working hard and performing the skills he has learned but is the practice environment one that leads to game comprehension. Skating pylons at high speed again does not necessarily make a player better.

Judge your son / daughters personal conviction.  An old coach's personal philosophy that was passed down was that there are two types athletes; those who like to always  have fun - they are the players, and there are those who thrive on personal challenge - they are the competitors.  Set your training program and training goals realistically and after doing so, pick the school that best suits your son / daughters style.

Remember, "Perfect practice leads to perfect execution"   or "excellence is derived from the following formula: 90% preparation, 10% execution". I am sure that you have heard of many such sayings. 

However, it is important to have balance. I always remembered a story that I read many years ago about a Olympic champion skier who stated and I am going from memory here: "One does not truly realize the personal triumph or personal suffering that an athlete goes through after dedicating almost every waking moment for 4 years to end up winning or losing a gold medal by mere 100s of a second. To put it all on the line, to risk everything, to make the ultimate sacrifice to scream down a mountain slope risking life and limb, I feel sometimes approaches madness but at the end of the journey you realize that win or lose, you have realized somewhat the totality of what we as human beings can accomplish and it is there that many people fail. You realize that even by attempting to be the best that you can be - That in itself is reward enough."

One last piece on development.....

Let us assume that at the end of a players developmental journey lies several basic fundamentals that identify personal excellence.  I other words, in order for a player to perform one of these fundamentals, everything about their body alignment, hand position, foot position, etc must be exactly perfect. With any weakness or deficiency in any minor fundamental would make it impossible to perform this "elite" skill.  Lets say that there is one for skating, one for stick handling, one for shooting, and so on. If we could look ahead and see the end result, would it then be possible to identify a developmental path that leads one to the "end" result. Over the many years of study and training, I feel that this is possible and exists. Unfortunately, we look upon Sakic, Modano, Forsberg, Kozlov, etc as, while being elite players,  the only ones capable of their level of skill. Another way of putting this would be to identify their skills as their sole property which could not be duplicated by anyone else. I hear this all the time, "he was born with that talent"......"you can't teach that...". I call BS. Each of these players did not wake up one morning with a particular skill. They had to develop it over the years with intelligence and dedicated practice.  

There is only one correct way to shoot specific to a certain situation. Unfortunately, most players use a habitual shooting style that in effect is applicable perhaps 30% of the time, but not 100% of the time. Or, because of a particular shooting habit, a shooter cannot take advantage of tactical situations that arise during the game.  There is only one way to perform a crossover in a short game environment, there is only one way to correctly toe the puck at high speed and snap release a shot. What I continually preach to players that is all skills are directly or indirectly connected. It make take several years to connect the dots but they do connect none-the-less. A solid foundation base is absolutely critical to moving forward so as to achieve the maximum skill perfection possible. 


Another developmental neglect for players in the area of "game intelligence".  Again, many different philosophies arise when asking players and even coaches about what this comment would mean to them personally. I like to think that there are several basic "game intelligences" or "game IQs".  For example:


1 - Positional intelligence  (defensive)  knowing responsibilities within a specific zone and responsibilities of a specific position. Mostly descriptive of defensive one on one play and/ or tactical systems both near and away from the puck.

2 - Positional intelligence (offensive) knowing how to support the play and / or puck carrier either proximal or distal. 

3 - Anticipation  - reading off of the play and reacting correctly to possible options either defensively or offensively.

4 - Skill intelligence - playing to within one's level or competence. Using one's skill to maximum potential.

5 - Creative intelligence - Able to produce options aside from the norm extending one's  specific skill abilities and producing a new twist reactively in a new situation.

6 - Intrinsic intelligence - extending one's level of play to maximize the intrinsic components that exist within the game itself such as - maxing zones, pushing game guidelines (pushing player offside for example to get call), taking advantage of referee or linesmen weakness either positionally or interpretationally. Using the game environment to one's advantage (boards, lighting, nets, etc)

7 - Game intelligence - understanding options strategically either from a one on one, two on one, or one on two tactical environment (odd or even strength situations either defensively or offensively).

8 - Emotional intelligence - Knowing one's emotional strengths and weaknesses that may effect game performance positively or negatively

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Copyright 1996 Ron Johnson All Rights Reserved