As the start of the next exciting season looms closer, hockey players around the state are gearing up – literally and figuratively.
While some say skating is like riding a bike, it’s often an area that gives kids, especially those newer to the sport, a challenge early in the season. After a few months away from the rink, it’s important to make sure young skaters are given the opportunity and environment to focus on fundamentals and get back up to speed.
Minnesota Wild head skating and skills coach Andy Ness has developed players at all levels and offers some tips for youngsters looking to start the new season strong.
- Set them up for success – “Give them a chance from the start by making sure their skates fit. Sometimes they are way too big or not tied properly so their ankles sink in. And make sure they’re properly sharpened.”
- Consistent practice – “It’s especially important for younger skaters, like 8U/Mites and 10U/Squirts, to spend 5-15 minutes on skating each time on the ice. Start with working on balancing edges and then add to that. If they balance on one foot and wobble back and forth or their stick is in a bad position and they turn their whole body or they’re hunched over, those are things to work on. Once we have a good foundation, we can start to teach harder skills.”
- Start at square one and build from there – “Parents all want their kids to run before they can crawl, but it’s important to start from square one. The big thing is balance and edge control and then upper body control and push direction. We can do a two-foot dip, which is two feet on the ice and dipping at 90 degrees. Kids will struggle to get into that position. Do it on one foot and then do the other foot. Then do some jumps. It doesn’t have to be crazy, just simple things to work on that balance.”
- Creative ways to foster good habits – “After working on balance, you can weave in ‘swizzles,’ when kids make a football shape, heel to toe. Then a ‘flip-flop,’ moving like a downhill skier side to side. Then, you can do a one-legged flip-flop, on one leg, go from inside edge to outside edge, staying on one leg the whole time. From there we’ll get into power turns, getting on both inside and outside edges and being able to glide into a turn (younger players will drag the inside foot). And that leads into crossovers, which is the next progression.”
- Go forward, then go back – “We start getting into backwards skating at the younger ages as well. It depends on how good they are, but they can get into it at 5 or 6. Back knee touch is good, because they all lean forward or on their stick, so we make sure they lose the stick or use one hand so they aren’t leaning on the stick. They should provide their own balance.”
- Don’t just focus on fast – “We always talk about the fundamentals first. The big three are edge strength, knee bends and core control. When you look at a good skater you see a skater that is smooth, under control, making it look effortless. If we can make it look easy and also provide power and explosiveness, that’s a good skater. People think it’s about just being fast, but it’s so much more than north and south. Lateral movement, agility, forward to back, back to forward, good footwork, good posture, etc. All of that plays into being a good skater.”
- Do focus on fun – “We’ll do a lot of variations of games like tag, where the person who is ‘it’ skates forward, and the others must skate backwards. Or, you can put lines on the ice with a marker and have them go around and scrape the ice, to work on their stopping motion. You can also set up ‘garages’ made up of three sticks, like an open-ended box. Have a coach behind the box and the player skate straight ahead. Just before they get to the box, the coach goes to either side. Whichever side the coach turns to, the player has to turn. So, they don’t know if they’re going to stop on their right or left foot. Games are really up to the coaches, and should tie into what you’re trying to teach while using some creativity. It’s a great way to learn with a lot of smiles.”
- It’s never too late to learn how to skate – “Parents shouldn’t be worried if their child falls behind or starts skating late. My daughter just started last October and she’s 9. She’s behind a lot of the 10U girls who have been playing since they were 5 or 6. I keep reminding her, ‘you worry about you.’ Look at their own progression, not compared to what other kids are doing. She couldn’t do a back crossover and now she can. It’s exciting for her to get better. Remember, if they like it, they’ll pursue it on their own and that’s the key.”