There’s a global divide in the hockey universe about what age to switch the focus of hockey player development from mostly individual skills based to more systems and team based. As a minor hockey development coordinator it’s almost disheartening to think about planning the development of 6-8 year olds around what we think might be best for their future career. What I believe is no matter the amount of hockey experience a coach has and no matter what the level they coach, the number one goal of a program should be to make the players feel included and make them feel good about themselves when they leave, which makes them want to come back. Ultimately I do feel winning is more fun but the problem then lies in what it takes to win.
Hockey is obviously a team sport and to win as a team all the players on the ice need to have some idea of where they should be and where everyone else is. Players need a basic structure to fall back on and regroup. Bottom line: all teams need systems. But systems breed predictability and dependence. Plus you can teach a player to go to particular places on the ice in specific situations, but that’s only helpful if the player has the individual skill set needed to do whatever the task is once they get there. Also, if teams spend the whole game focused on transitioning from system to system there’s not a lot of actual hockey being played.
When you think about it, the purpose of a system is essentially to work together and keep possession long enough to lure the other team out of its own system. The individual talents required to do this are good puck handling skills with quick hands in tight spaces, strong skating balance and agility, communication, puck protection, passing, and finding the open ice, to name just a few. These are also the same talents needed to exploit a team when their systems break down. In fact, these skills are needed all over the ice in all situations. If a coach spends practice teaching individuals how to use the net for protection, how to angle, how to stick handle around a maze of objects, how to get more power and balance out of a stride, how to pass to a moving target, and then play 3 on 3 in a small area, it’s making every individual player better. At the same time it works on tools needed for the breakout, neutral zone transitioning, power play, cycling, and defensive zone coverage all at the same time. The only difference between “individual skill development only” practices and “systems” is making players understand how the individual skills they are learning will help them within the context of the game. Then we can spend less costly ice time working on systems in the traditional sense and spend more time developing the individual to use the systems with more success and come up with their own creative ways to break other teams down. Win Win.