April 20, 2010

Many benefits to summer hockey schools

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Attending a hockey school in the summer is a matter of personal choice. Some players do it every summer, some even multiple schools and weeks. Others may do it one summer but not the next. Some never choose to attend at all.

The value or benefit of a summer hockey school can be the subject of great debate. Every school offers something a little unique, and every player and family has a different expectation and viewpoint as to what is important to them. Every experience is different, and the benefit or value of that experience really is only important to that particular player or family. Only they can really determine what was the benefit realized.

So what is it that people expect to get when they attend a hockey school? What are the benefits that players and their families are looking for that the schools can provide? They can really vary.

Probably the most common goal is an improvement in skating or hockey skills. In fairness to coaches, it can be difficult to find the time required in practices during the year to teach and improve fundamental hockey skills. There is so much to teach, and so little time. Although most coaches are able to spend some time each practice, there is definitely way more that can be done. Summer provides the time. Hockey school programs provide the expertise and experience.

Some schools are devoted completely to teaching and developing a player’s skill set. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Every player is a continuous work in progress -- never complete, always in need of more. Every player can always get better, no matter what level they are playing at.

Skating is the most important skill in the game. If you think about it, there is no other sport that requires a player to acquire a completely different skill set to participate. We all walk and run as part of our everyday lives. Skating is a whole different world.

And there are several different elements of skating that are always in need of work: forward and backward striding, stopping and starting, forward crossovers, backward cross-unders, pivoting and transition. All of these can always be done with better balance and control, strength on skates, agility, mobility, quickness and speed.

Proper technique training is crucial to developing all skills, whether they are skating-oriented or puck skills. There is a saying that practice makes perfect. But that is not necessarily the case. Practicing the wrong technique only serves to perfect improper technique. Breaking bad habits is very difficult the longer that they go on.

It takes time to break down the fundamental skating and puck skills into manageable segments that allow the players to focus on a particular area. Doing things fast is not always best, particularly if they are being done incorrectly. We all have to crawl before we can walk before we can run. It takes time for us to learn and perfect the required skill elements along the way. As we acquire and refine our skill set, then we can start to concentrate on doing it faster.

While skating is important, fundamental stick skills are also a huge part of the game. And, unlike many other sports that just require the use of our hands, hockey requires that we are able to manipulate a stick to control a puck at high speeds, passing it to and receiving it from our teammates, all while being pursued by opponents, who in some leagues are even allowed to intentionally make body contact with us. If we are lucky and good enough, we can even get the puck to an area where we then need a completely different skill set to shoot the puck to try to score.

Playing without the puck is also a huge part of the game. If you think about it, there is only one puck on the ice for the 10 skaters, five per team, to work with. Consequently, most of a player’s time is spent without the puck. And there is a whole different skill set required to be able to defend against the attacking team and regain possession of the puck.

Hockey is an extremely complex game. There is a lot to teach and a lot to learn. Even beyond the skills.

Another important factor is hockey sense or game knowledge -- knowing what to do and when to do it. Some players have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Others have all of the tools (physical skills) but no toolbox (hockey intelligence); while they might look great, their ability to produce or get things done might sorely be lacking.

These kinds of things take time to develop. They can be learned in practice during the year and they can certainly be learned more quickly in a hockey school environment, where there is no emphasis on competing or keeping score. That scenario allows players to try things that they might not otherwise attempt because they are afraid that it will cost their team -- or themselves personally, as it relates to playing time in a game.

Which leads me to two of the most obvious and common benefits of hockey instructional programs: No matter what level they’re playing at, when players feel good about what they’re doing, they will play that much better. Confidence is huge. There is an old saying, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you are right.” Confidence is a huge part of the battle and a benefit that every player can derive from a hockey school program.

But maybe the most important thing of all is the experience itself, the interaction with instructors, some of whom may even be idols to the players, and the chance to meet new people and create new friendships. Those experiences last a lifetime.

Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com