As we approach the new season, it’s not uncommon for parents of top youth hockey players to wonder if they should move up an age group.
It makes sense. The player may stand out among teammates and score lots of goals. There’s a concern they are not being challenged enough; not developing to their full potential. Or maybe it would give them a chance to play with an older sibling.
But Roger Grillo, an Apple Valley native and coach with more than 20 years of experience at the high school and collegiate levels, urges caution.
“There’s this misconception in my opinion that at younger ages, competition drives development, and I think that’s a huge mistake a lot of parents make,” said Grillo, an ADM Regional Manager for USA Hockey. “If my kid is struggling and everybody else is a little bit older, a little bit faster, a little bit stronger, that’s going to force them to reach back and become better.
“But at the younger ages, you have to be really careful with that.”
Confidence Is King
What’s wrong with being a top player?
“You want your child to be in the top-third of the team if they can,” Grillo said. “Confidence is king. Just having that positive, creative and productive environment culture on a daily basis is critical.
“I see so many people that are trying to rush development. You can’t! As a buddy of mine says, you can’t speed farm. If you speed farm, you’re going to have a bad crop. You can’t speed development. There is a process to this, and that process is age-specific. There are age-appropriate steps in development.”
At the younger ages — 8U, 10U, 12U — it’s up to the adults to make these decisions.
“When they’re younger, it’s really moms, dads and coaches that are in charge of the development process,” Grillo said. “So we have to be really cognizant of putting a kid in the deep end when they’re not ready for the deep end just because we think it’s going to make them a better swimmer. A lot of the kids end up drowning — and then they don’t want to go back to the pool.”
The Ripest Environment
What does the ripest environment for development look like?
“They’re touching the puck more, they’re scoring more, they’re having more success and feeling good about themselves,” Grillo said. “They’re having fun with their friends and classmates. They can’t wait to come back to the rink. That just accentuates everything in development. It really sets the stage for a love of the game and all the other benefits that come from that.”
“I tell people all the time, there’s a reason why there are no honors classes in elementary schools. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to build the base for our young athletes. There’s going to come a time when there are honors classes. There’s going to come a time when playing against and with better players is important. But it’s not at the younger stages of the youth development model. To me, that isn’t until around 14-15 years old, where a kid really has passion and really understands what their responsibility is in the development process.”
A Social Leap
As a longtime coaching instructor, talent evaluator and development guru, Grillo points out that in much of the country, age groups are restricted to a single birth year. In Minnesota, we have age levels spanning two birth years (6U, 10U, 12U and 14U).
The two-year gap makes the decision to play up an even more drastic one.
“So now you’re sticking a kid up a two-year window. That’s a whole different discussion. Now, you’re really ramping up all that other stuff in a possible negative way,” Grillo said. “There’s even more to consider in that two-year window model. They’re not with their friends. They’re not with the same age group. They’re not with their classmates and teammates from other sports.
“The social aspect of sport is so critical, and we’re seeing that now with COVID. What kids are really missing is the interaction with their friends. Sometimes, we as the adults get over our skis a little bit, and we focus on what we think’s going to make a kid better. And then we miss the ultimate goal: to have your kid play the sport for the rest of their life and feel good about themselves.”