Play, love and then excel: Looking at game based practices from USA Hockey

“To excel, you need to love the game first”. This was one of the message conveyed by Ken Martel, technical director of USA Hockey’s American Development Model which works on coaching education and player development projects in the organisation’s youth hockey department, whom I was fortunate to spend time as part of a coaching group at University of QLD earlier this week. Martel is spending time in AUS, offering insight and outlining his ADM program and how his game based practices have increased and retained age grade hockey players to assist the NRL’s introduction of Player Development Framework.

Why did USA Hockey’s American Development Model come about? Around 2009, USA Hockey acknowledged the reducing numbers and especially retention rate of youth players (prior to 2009, USA Hockey was losing 60% of players whom started hockey before 11 years old), even if their overall membership was climbing slightly. They acknowledged issues for youth player involvement was determined by negative practice factors such as adult competition being superimposed on young athletes, training in early years focused on outcomes (winning) rather than processes (optimal training), training being dominated by chronological age rather than biological age and limited coaching education was provided to those working at the youngest age groups.


One of the points made by Martel was “competition structure always dictates the development structure”; therefore, following his research, USA Hockey incorporated age-appropriate principles within the adopted ADM. Some of these included:

“Equipment that is correctly sized to fit the child and a playing surface that is sized age appropriately to fit the child”: These ideas are supported in other sports such as football where Belgium FA Coaching Education Director Kris Van Der Haegen made changes, to age grade football which they call “Dribbling Soccer” for 5-7-year-olds. They play short games and constantly changing opponents, fitting the needs of young children learning to dribble, not wanting or needing to pass, and scoring lots of goals. They play small-sided games until U14, similar to Spain and many other countries.

“Practice and competition environments that are fun and engaging while within the physical and mental reach of the players yet challenge through a focus on foundational skills”: This message of encouraging our young athletes to love the game has been supported frequently by people such as John O’Sullivan whom states “our best contribution is to help them fall in love with a sport so that they actually want to play and practice enough to get good at it. The greatest athletics-related gift you can give your child is love of sport”. According to researchers such as Jean Côté, some athletes go down a sports participant pathway, and others a sports performance pathway but ultimately, children play sports because it brings them enjoyment; adults continue to play sports because it brings them enjoyment. We all seek out things that we enjoy doing, and avoid things we do not. Why would kids be any different?

To enhance player’s love and development within sport, Martel and many before him promoted sampling of sports at a young age. Côté and colleagues’ developmental model of sport participation (DMSP) proposes that athletes pass through three stages of sport development; sampling, specialising and investment stages. The model is built upon a foundation of athletes participating in a variety of sports during the sampling years and a decreasing number of sports during the specialising and investment years. Deliberate play environments in young years when sampling prior to specialising “is closely linked to mastery or task focused climates that will ultimately foster motivation for sport” (Côté, 2009).  This model also suggests “athletes engage in large quantities of deliberate play activities during the sampling years (activities that are less structured, designed to maximize inherent enjoyment, and regulated by flexible age-adapted rules) and do not focus on deliberate practice activities until the specializing and investment years”.

Holland and Woodcock’s research (2010) recognised that having persistent determination to improve while still enjoying sport participation is crucial for sporting success at specialisation stage. The qualities perceived crucial for elite youth participation include confidence, appropriate attentional focus, game sense and mental toughness (Holland, Woodcock, Cumming, & Duda, 2010). Developing expert status requires interest and motivation within sport to increase along with proficiency of skills, which is inline with USA Hockey’s mantra of “play, love and excel” meaning you must love the sport prior to mastering.

“Games as a significant portion of the practice environment which include activity-based games, Skill-based games and Game situational role-based games which encourage peer teaching opportunities and autonomy in playing practices”: Like I have recently suggested, I believe (and current research supports) that game based training offers young athletes challenges and fun on the training grounds via ‘real-time’ scenarios rather than increasingly less effective linear exercises. For our dynamic team sports especially, organised chaos yields the greatest dividends while honing skills. Like mentioned previously, deliberate play and game based environments in young years will enhance mastery or task focused climates that will ultimately foster motivation for sport. Dr Ed Coughlan from Cork Institute of Technology recently quoted:

Coaching through games provides context and enables the emergence of realistic, unpredictable situations to unfold in front of the players, to be figured out on-the-fly....for the many acceptable ways to coach a skill-based, team sport, one thing is for sure, drills are not the answer.

Drills deceive us into thinking we are in control. Yet for the coach prepared to move away from a place of control and move into a space of variability, unpredictability, discovery, decision-making, problem-solving – all things that drills do not give us – the rewards are there for all to be experienced.

Martel and members from NRL discussed these ideas of game based activities and reducing volume of coach interjections; ideas of “observe first, then decide whether to step in or step back”. This is similar to PDS Coaching Mark Bennett’s Rule of 3; a three-step process to solving problems where (1) the player works it out (2) the player with another player works it out, and finally (3) coach and players work it out. Our job as a coach, as AIK Sweden’s coach educator Mark O’Sullivan says, “is not to correct everything, it is to observe them solving the problems themselves” while Ric Shuttleworth says that “coaches should allow players to become problem-solvers as opposed to coaches giving them solutions to every problem”. Ultimately, age grade coaching environments need to adopt and offer players ingredients for genuine motivation; mastery, autonomy and purpose. Amorose supported that “the more athletes felt autonomous, competent and have sense of relatedness, the more reasons for participating were self-determined in future” (Amorose, 2007).

In review, USA Hockey has ultimately seen success through ADM program with an increase of 33% of players aged 8 and under sampling and staying with ice hockey in USA, while other sports such as soccer and basketball seen declines up to 22%. Their targets of growing and retaining youth players has also seen an increase at high performance level with a steady increase of US players being involved in NHL through these game based practices and age appropriate environments, which allow players to build competence, confidence, connection and character/caring and become better people and players. The message to the NRL prior to Player Development Framework roll out….embrace the complexity and chaos of free play to allow creative culture to grow!!