With the growth of system play and strategy, comes a significant decline in the most important of mental skills an athlete can possess; instinctive read and react skills. In hockey, like all sports, the athlete relies heavily upon his or her ability to read the flow of action and react accordingly. It is similar to a quarterback in football. The quarterback has a plan of attack, but must read the defensive coverage and react quickly to what he sees in front of him, often having to create something from nothing.
One of the major differences we see in hockey today compared to 20 years ago, is the emergence and evolution of system play. In some ways, this has helped the game of hockey and in a lot of ways this has made the game robotic and boring. The issue with the growth in system play, is that it has hindered individual creativity and development, especially in youth hockey. Kids in atom and peewee are now getting systems like “The Trap” and the “Left Wing Lock” hammered into them. They are taught plays and systems for every situation of the game.
The problem is that these young players aren’t developing the natural, instinctive skills of being able to freelance and read and react to what is happening on the ice. They are now being taught that they have to follow a roadmap and they begin to freeze up when the system breaks down and chaos sets in. They spend too much time in practice working on where they have to be and where they have to go that they lose out on being able to grow and enhance their mental reactionary skills.
One of the elements that scouts really key in on is “Hockey Sense”. Hockey sense is a player’s ability to read and anticipate plays effectively during the flow of the game. Hockey sense, in reality, is a player’s read and react ability. How can the player adjust when the system breaks down? What will the player do when someone else makes a mistake? And more importantly, how quickly can this player make these adjustments? This is what sets great players apart from the rest of the pack.
In my opinion, hockey has become far too robotic at the minor hockey level. Far too often, minor hockey tries to emulate the higher levels and the NHL. The New Jersey Devils employ the trap in a game against the Rangers and all the minor hockey coaches jot it down so they can use it with their minor atom team the next weekend in the big tournament in Mississauga. Then they add in three set face-off plays and four breakouts and next thing you know, that’s all the players know how to do. They grow up following lines on a rink board and lose all the creativity and spontaneity that all great players possess.
While teaching skill development, I often design drills that combine structure and read and react components. I feel that it is important to develop instincts and awareness along with skill and strategy. Too often, while working with AAA and even Junior level players today, I find that they need to be told exactly where to go and what to do when they get there. They aren’t used to having to read a situation and use your smarts, creativity and skills to create a positive result.
My advice to minor hockey coaches is to hold off on systems until you reach at least major peewee or minor bantam. By this time, the kids have had a lot of time to enhance their read and react skills and have more mental capacity to add system play to their game. For the earlier years (Novice, atom and peewee), simply teach positional play as opposed to systems. This gives the players a sense of structure but allows for flexibility and freedom to try and develop without constraints.
As kids grow older and their brains begin to develop, you can introduce system play. System play isn’t something that takes years to learn and master. Take the early, formative years for young hockey players to develop their physical tools and their instinctual hockey sense. Allow these kids to develop those invaluable read and react skills.