Coaching Youth Hockey
Being a youth ice hockey coach can be an immensely rewarding yet challenging experience. There’s a lot more that goes into successfully filling this role than most people would assume, which is why you need to know what you’re getting into before taking up the coach’s whistle.
To coach youth hockey in the USA or Canada, you must first fulfill the necessary regulatory requirements that include registration, certification, and other required qualifications. You will also need a good understanding of the game and the expectations of players and their parents.
All this might seem like a cumbersome undertaking, but it is well within reach if you have the passion and patience to tick the necessary boxes. As you might expect, when dealing with younger players in any sport, there’s a lot more to be prioritized than good hockey play. In this brief but meaty article, we’ll get into just what makes a good hockey coach and how you can perfectly fill that role.
At the core of your role as a hockey coach will be the place you hold as a teacher of the game itself. You cannot teach what you do not know yourself, so you will need a very good knowledge of the game and how it’s played if you wish to succeed in this job.
Let’s take a look at the fundamental technical aspects of the youth ice hockey coach’s responsibilities.
Simply put, the object of every hockey game is to put the puck in the opposing team’s net, which counts as a goal. You need to differentiate these from points, somewhat, as points refer to either goals or assists (where a player helps a teammate score). The six players on each team are separated into three offensive players, two defensive players, and one goalie.
Over the three 20-minute periods that make up a full game, players are required to abide by specific rules of play that ensure a safe and fair outcome. Going against these rules by committing offences such as charging, tripping, and other infractions result in various penalties, which involve sitting out of the game for two (minor penalty) or five (major penalty) minutes or having the other team take a penalty shot.
Besides these broad basics, you will have to note your particular league’s list of rules and regulations, which often vary in specific points. It will be your responsibility as a coach to keep yourself updated on these regulations and ensure that your players are aware of them as well.
You will want to ensure that your players have a good mastery of the little individual skills and techniques that make for good hockey play before sending them out to meet their opponents on the ice. You can group hockey technique into these broad categories; skating, puck controlling, passing and shooting.
- Skating. Skating well will be vital to hockey performance, and this will include learning how to start, stop, adjust your speed, and execute various maneuvers while on the ice. Beginners should start by taking simple laps around the ice, gradually increasing the speed and complexity of their circuits before having them skate with a stick and try making their way through obstacle courses.
- Puck controlling. Puck control is the next stage of proper hockey skating. It can be taught by going through the same gradual process as skating itself. The speed and complexity of the training drills gradually increase as players become more comfortable with skating while controlling the puck with their stick.
- Passing and shooting. As they master their puck control, you should start introducing them to basic passing, stickhandling, and shooting drills. They will need to learn how to send hard or soft passes and receive them without having the puck bounce off their stick. Also, teach them how to execute forehand and backhand passes.
Also, be sure to take a look at our article going over the best hockey drills for youth hockey players.
The three offensive players on any team are the two wingers and the center, and their job description is to shoot the puck into the other team’s net, which means that their training will have to focus on helping them achieve this goal.
The best way to get the puck close enough to score is through effective passing. Since hockey allows for forward passes and has offside rules, they will need to learn how to gauge their own positioning and consider the opposing defensive players’.
Coaches should teach players how best to approach the net, including the use of approach angles and other techniques useful in making it difficult for defensive players to stop their progress. Note that some areas of the goal opening are easier to score into than others. Goalies usually have an easier time stopping pucks that come towards their gloved hand and those that are airborne when they get to them.
This means that you should train your offensive players to shoot their pucks low and preferably on the goalie’s stick-hand side. Of course, every scenario will be different, but getting this training done will make their shots faster, more powerful, and more accurate as a whole, which might make all the difference to the final score once the final whistle blows.
The function of a team’s defensive players goes beyond keeping the opponent’s offence from getting the puck past their goalie. They also play a vital role in getting the puck from their own zone forward to their offence so that they can get the goals that win the game.
These responsibilities call for a great deal of situational awareness and constant motion. They will need to be agile on their skates if they are to keep up with all that’s going on around them, as they will need to be able to change their positions very rapidly and skate forwards with the puck in case the opportunity to make a long pass does not present itself.
Some of the essential training drills will involve teaching them to skate backward since they will often need to do so in order to keep their eyes and sticks facing in the direction of moving opposition coming toward their net.
Defensive players should also be trained in the most effective placement or positioning on the ice. Whenever one of the two defensive players is going in to try and dispossess the opposing players so that they can then pass it up to their forwards, the other should stick close to the goal to support the goalie in case of an attack.
Teach them to keep in constant communication and learn how to work well together and with the goalie so that the team’s defensive situation is never caught off-guard.
The goalies on the ice will rarely move much across the ice, but their position as your team’s last line of defence makes them a critical component. They will still have to be as skilled on their skates as the rest of the players since their position also calls for quick changes of position and rapid movements in the face of fast-moving pucks and opponents.
One aspect to focus on when training your goalies is focus. Because the game often takes place on the other side of the rink for long stretches, it is very easy for goalies’ minds to wander. Have them understand the importance of keeping their minds on the game because, in the blink of an eye, the puck might be sent or driven into their zone, where they will suddenly be called into quick action.
Even though goalies need to be aware of their position in front of their own net, they should not have all their concentration on this instead of watching the puck’s movements. There’s little point in keeping an eye on your net if you miss the oncoming puck.
An excellent way to get around this potential pitfall is to teach them how to use visual markers on the ice or elsewhere to give them a good sense of bearing with regard to their position in front of the net without having to turn around and check to see where they are. It only takes a second of inattention to let a quick puck slip past.
While winning games might be at the very top of a professional hockey coach’s brief, youth ice hockey requires you to take a more holistic view of things, meaning that you will want to see your players grow into healthy, happy, and well-adjusted human beings even while you teach them good hockey.
These are the elements that separate the good coaches from the great ones – the ones that players remember for the rest of their lives – years after they hung up their skates for the last time. Also, be sure to take a read through our article covering how to be a good coach.
Learning the game of hockey and how to play it well enough to win in competition is all well and good, but when handling youth players, you have to make special considerations. Younger players, especially those new to the game, might not have the capacity to keep things in high gear in training sessions. They tend to get bored or distracted quickly.
By including some light or fun drill and training exercises in your practice sessions, you will have a better chance of keeping your practice relevant and effective while still being useful in building skills. Games such as Finders Keepers, dodgeball, races, shootouts, and skill competitions are great tools in a coach’s arsenal that are used by professional-level coaches as well. We also have an article covering fun drills for teams and players worth taking a look at.
You can’t expect to get your players in gear if you yourself aren’t feeling it. By displaying enthusiasm for the game and keeping things upbeat, even on days where you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, you will be able to transmit this energy to your charges.
Children and young adults are highly impressionable and will take the cue from you in terms of the attitude and approach you to display towards hockey. You will find that it becomes easier to keep your players focused, minimize injuries and accidents, and increase information retention rates of the squad, thereby minimizing the number of times you will have to explain drills and concepts to them.
As a hockey coach, you might think that your loyalties will lie with the game of hockey and hockey alone, but this is not the case when it comes to dealing with younger players. Specialization might be the way to mastery in sports, but for minors under the age of 16, this may be detrimental to their development in a number of areas.
Exclusive focus on one sport might interfere with their social skills and neuromuscular functions while potentially causing them considerable stress. By encouraging them to participate in various activities, you promote and develop their basic motor, proprioception, and social skills and help provide them with avenues to relieve the strain of gruelling hockey seasons.
Young players might not have the mental resilience and emotional toughness to handle a coach screaming in their face for 5 minutes straight when they let a puck slip past them or fail to complete a pass. Even the pros don’t handle it too well at times.
Correcting errors and mistakes that your players will inevitably make in the course of your work together might be an unpleasant task, but it is a crucial part of being responsible for their welfare. Hockey imitates life in that a lack of rules and structure does more harm than good. Don’t hesitate to call attention to bad behaviour, laziness, inattention, and bad attitudes whenever you spot them; otherwise, they will fester and become rooted in your players.
As a youth coach, you play the role of an educator as well, and part of this will entail taking care not to damage your players’ sense of self. Positive reinforcement is about letting them know whenever they accomplish something positive, whether in training or during a game, on or off the ice. Be measured with your admonishments and disciplinary measures.
For consistent and sustained improvement in performance, you will need to set clear and achievable short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. Once you understand the skill levels of your individual players and the potential of your team as a whole, let them know what you expect to achieve with them and push them towards these goals.
Teaching young players to appreciate the importance of setting goals and giving them the opportunity to experience the satisfaction that comes with achieving them can be one of the most valuable life lessons you can impart to them. This will be useful to them in their social, educational, and professional lives.
You may find that your team is not making progress as quickly as you would like, but you should take this in stride, as it’s all a part of the game. Whether on the individual level or the team level, slow progress might require you to focus on specific training schemes or drills. Don’t be afraid to be persistent – it pays in the end, and your players will thank you in the future once they see the results.
Moving towards your goals will call for plenty of preparation on your part before each season, each practice session, and each game. This is how you will know what to focus on at each step of your team’s journey, both in terms of the team in its entirety and with regard to individual player development.
A significant part of this will involve doing a performance analysis after games and practice sessions, where you write down what goes well and what doesn’t to know what to focus on going forward. You’ll be making the journey to being the hockey team you all wish yourselves to be, and the journey will likely be a long one.
By setting goals and targets, you’ll be drawing up a map that will ensure you get there while minimizing and avoiding the distractions, hazards, and time-wasting detours that might make it longer than it has to be.
This might be easier said than done, but you should always be conscious that a player who feels a connection with you will listen, respond, and benefit more from your instruction. In many cases, especially with youngsters, an opinion might be formed within the first couple of minutes of meeting you.
Even if this first impression isn’t a positive one, don’t give up on reaching the player. These things can be gradually improved upon and, with time, a healthy and respectful connection may be established, but this cannot happen if you’ve given up.
How you interact with the parents of the players in your charge can be a minefield if not handled with care. Some parents may be unreasonably demanding, and hard to interact with. However, the best bet is to keep your relationship respectful and professional while still trying to remain approachable and understanding.
An excellent way to establish such a relationship is by keeping communication channels open, whereby you give the parents updates on their youngster’s progress, triumphs, and difficulties, if any. Be honest in your communications and be sure not to show any favouritism when dealing with players.
A good idea might be to hold seasonal or even monthly parent meetings where possible, during which you can go over all that pertains to the welfare of your players, the team, and how parents can help them achieve their objectives. You will also have the opportunity to get feedback from them so learn how you can be a better custodian for their children in the future.
One of the most essential qualities a youth ice hockey coach should have is the drive to continue learning and improving their coaching knowledge, skills, and techniques. Just as you want to see your students become better at each training session, the same standard should be applied in your case. Or your players will quickly grow beyond you.
Thankfully for the coaches of today, there are a plethora of outlets and sources for coaching information all around. The internet, online forums, books, podcasts, and seminars can all be used by youth ice hockey coaches looking to build up their hockey coaching knowledge in real-time. Also, be sure to look through our article describing how to develop the ideal coaching philosophy.
However, you will have to be somewhat discerning when it comes to the information you choose to take in. You should understand the information in terms of why and how it might be useful to you because there are plenty of training regimens, drills, routines, and coaching philosophies out there that might be particularly suited to you, your team, or your league situation. You may end up doing more harm than good by jumping on every suggestion you come across.
Gaining proficiency in any aspect of life, be it sports, work, or social life, calls for adopting and cultivating good habits. A student who makes a habit of getting up at the crack of dawn each day to get some studying in before the school day begins can usually be expected to pass their classes. Creating good habits in young players calls for a combination of repetition and healthy positive reinforcement when good results start to appear.
If you’d like to know what bad habits hockey players can pick up and how to avoid them, take a look at our article going over the worst bad habits in hockey.
Youth ice hockey coaching is a position of considerable responsibility, much more so because you will be handling pre-teens and teenagers, demographics that are at a very sensitive stage of their development. For this, among other reasons, becoming a youth ice hockey coach isn’t merely a matter of brushing up on your hockey rules and picking up a whistle.
The organization that is tasked with overseeing the running of youth ice hockey leagues and organizations in the United States is known as USA Hockey. It is the nationally recognized body in charge of all hockey-related official events and activities across all age groups and categories up to the Olympic level.
One will need to receive their certification from USA Hockey after duly registering with them. This comes at a $46 fee but may be higher if any affiliate costs will be called for. You can access more information on this right here.
Your next step will be going through with a required background screening, which is called for to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all the players who will be placed under the care and responsibility of hockey coaches all across the country. The screening process can be started here.
USA Hockey Safe Sport Training is a yearly qualification that works to keep all USA Hockey coaches informed and up-to-date on all the latest conventions, discoveries, and systems that the organization puts in place or advocates in order to make the game of hockey as safe for its players as possible. More information on this is available here.
Now, you will need to register for the particular module with regard to the age of players you intend to coach. There are various age-specific modules available here for you to choose from, and you may register for more than one module should you intend to teach across multiple age groups.
This registration will allow you to act in the capacity of a coach in the United States. However, you will still need to participate in relevant coaching clinics before getting the official go-ahead to begin coaching a team and participating in team activities. Information on the coaching clinics, which are conducted at locations spread out all across the United States, can be found here.
The requirements needed to enable one to become a youth ice hockey coach might seem daunting at first glance, but they are very straightforward and reasonable once you take a closer look at them, so don’t get scared. USA Hockey makes all these steps easily digested and centralized on their official website that can be accessed right here.
It should be noted that the formal coaching education routes mentioned on the site are not the only relevant factor taken into consideration when the qualification and certification of coaches are being considered. Other contributing factors such as playing experience and consultations and discussions carried out with other coaches will also have a role to play in these matters.
Playing the role of a youth ice hockey coach can be a highly fulfilling and rewarding challenge to take up. Remember that it won’t be solely about teaching good hockey – you will also be taking up a role in shaping your team for the challenges of life outside the rink.
If you choose to take this responsibility seriously and put in the time and effort required to connect with your players, you can look forward to making a positive impact on their lives. It will be time well spent, by any measure you might care to use.
- Wikipedia: Hockey Coaching
- USA Hockey: Coaching Certification
- Dummies: Basic Beginner Hockey Coaching Strategies
- Ice Hockey Systems: 12 Fun Hockey Drills & Games to Shake Up Practice (And Bring Out Smiles)
- Minnesota Hockey: Top 5 Qualities of Excellent Hockey Coaches