ADM: Teaching Competitiveness – The Practice-to-Game Ratio
In my previous article on ADM, I asked the question “what is the objective of ADM?” Is it to improve our top end? (i.e. Better performance on the world stage; more NHL’ers; etc.), or is it to keep more kids in the game for longer. In that article I made the statement that those two objectives have vastly different courses of action.
You can check out the previous article here:
If the ADM is aiming to create a better top-end athlete, which will improve our performance on the world stage, then we need to be teaching competitiveness from a young age. In which case, there are four aspects of ADM that I feel need revamping:
- Practice to Game Ratio & Total Games per Season (addressed in this article)
- Travel Hockey Recommendations & Ages
- Coaching Education: The “Un-coaching” Approach
- Practice Structure
- Improper Use of Small Area Games
- Taking Games Seriously at Young Ages (keeping score, and having referees)
In this article I want to dive deep into the Practice-to-Game Ratio. We’ll hit the other topics, individually, in subsequent articles.
Practice-to-Game Ratio & Total Games per Season
- U8: Maximum 20
- U10: 20-25
- U12: 30-35
- 13-14: 35-45 (or 40 to 50 on the “accelerated track”)
- 15-16: 35-45 (or 40 to 50 on the “accelerated track”)
- U18: 40-50 (or 50 to 60 on the “accelerated track”)
Once again, “What is our objective?” Are we trying to prepare players for the world stage? If so, we need to evaluate what the top teams are doing on the world scene.
So, where do the top players on this year’s Gold Medal Canadian World Junior Team come from? All but two came from the Canadian major junior leagues. The two that didn’t… well, they were already in the NHL.
I think it’s logical to say that if we want to be competitive on the world stage, our development has to be comparable to that of the top nations. So, how does our development stack up here in the States? Let’s take a look:
As I stated in the last article, hockey has a very young life span, and the ADM wastes early years by handcuffing development for the top-level kids, in the name of keeping a “level playing field” to allow late bloomers to stay in the game longer.
It doesn’t really matter that the science says male athletes don’t reach their physical peak until age 23. The NHL draft is age 18. The World Juniors are U20. The Major Junior drafts are 14-15. Which means you have to be functioning at a HIGH level by Bantam… not just getting started on the “accelerated track.”
Your average player begins hockey around age 5. If our goal is excellence on the world stage, or more NHL’ers from the USA, that means we have roughly 10 years to get a kid capable of being drafted major junior. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to play major junior, but they have to be “major junior material” if they expect to compete with teams like Canada. If they’re not major junior material by the time they’re draft eligible, they’re probably not going to be World Junior or NHL material either. So the race is to age 15 in my mind.
I mentioned this in the previous article, but I think it warrants repeating: If a player isn’t major junior material by age 15, does that mean all is lost? Heavens no! There’s still college, Tier II Junior A, etc. And from there, a few of the “late bloomers” still find their way to the show.
“Major Junior Material”
So… what is major junior material? Let’s start from the top and work our way back down. As stated above, most major junior drafts happen at age 14 or 15. At that point a few of the top prospects play for the team they were drafted to, but most play a year or two in Tier II Junior A before making the jump.
Here’s a look at a typical major junior season from the OHL
- 68 regular season games
- Plus preseason
- Plus playoffs (4 best of 7 rounds if they make the finals).
By the time all is said and done, you’re probably looking at somewhere between 80 to 100 games if your team goes deep into playoffs.
How do you prepare a player to function at a high level for 80-100 games per season by the time they’re 15 years old?
BY PLAYING GAMES! Lots of games. From the time the kids are young.
Typical Canadian Upbringing
I grew up in Toronto, which is a good hockey town. I would say my upbringing from age 5-14 (before I moved to the States) was fairly typical of what you’d see among the Canadian World Junior roster. I played house league my first year, then house and select my second year. Then I played two years of underage hockey at “AA” since tiered programs didn’t start until Novice. At age 9, I began playing “AAA” in what was then called the Metro Toronto Hockey League (MTHL). Here’s what a typical season would look like for me:
Our regular season had roughly 30 games. Our team was among the top teams, so we’d usually go pretty deep into playoffs. Let’s say an additional 15 games there. We’d usually hit 4 tournaments or so during the season, so let’s call that another 20 games.
That’s roughly 65 games. On top of that, many of us would hit a tournament or two during the summer to stay sharp, and to have some fun with other guys we didn’t play with during the regular season. So it’s very realistic to assume most of these players are getting 70-80 games per season, from the time they’re 9 years old. And that number generally increases as players get older. This usually ended up as a 1:1 or 2:3 practice-to-game ratio.
Under our ADM recommendations we don’t even come close until the U18 accelerated track, which recommends 50-60 games. Look at what that does for total games from ages 9 to 15:
- Elite USA Hockey player who follows a TEXTBOOK implementation of ADM: 290 games (max) from ages 9-15
- Elite Canadian player following a typical schedule as described above, not adjusting for more games as players get older: 560 games (or more) from ages 9-15
So by the time our American kids are 15, their Canadian counterparts have played nearly double the number of games over their lifetime! Furthermore, the QUALITY of the Canadian players’ games will have been higher, because USA Hockey has begun to discourage travel hockey until Bantam.
There is something to be said for game maturity. Game maturity can only be acquired through real games. I coached an ACHA college team for a few years. Skill for skill, we were competitive with most teams. We had speed, decent hands, competitive passing abilities, etc. We’d look great in practice, but we lost a lot of games. A LOT of games! As smooth as we’d look in practice, our systems would fall apart in games. We’d make stupid mistakes at critical times. We’d take costly penalties. Our transitions were slow, and we were slow to anticipate. We were immature compared to the teams we were playing against.
At one point I compared our roster to the roster of one of our competitors. Because of a few factors beyond our control, our roster mostly consisted of players from Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and other Western States. Our competition’s roster was mostly filled with aged-out Canadian Junior players who hadn’t gone NCAA. I talked to a few of our top players, ran the numbers, and determined that our top players had probably played about 1/3 the lifetime games as our competitor’s top players. It’s no wonder we had a hard time competing!
Too Many Games?
Even as I write this, I can already hear many folks exclaiming “65 games is too many for a 9 year old!”
My response: “Is it?”
I loved playing hockey. So did most of my teammates. Practices were ok, but GAMES WERE FUN. Competing was fun. Winning was fun! The kids who loved hockey and played for their own enjoyment had no problem playing lots of hockey without burning out. In fact, most of us loved it so much we played street hockey and roller hockey when we weren’t on the ice! And when we couldn’t play on the ice or in the street, we were playing mini sticks in the house, or in the hotel hallways, or hockey on our Segas (NHL ’95 – for those old enough to remember!). The players who didn’t love it as much, or played because their parents made them, did burn out.
This is a concept that holds true on ANY pastime. If you haven’t read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, I suggest you check it out. Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule. In a nutshell, the idea is that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to become “world class” at anything. Whether it be a classical music composer, computer programmer, painter, dancer, musician, or athlete, the great ones don’t burn out. They love what they do. Hard work is fun for them. And they spend time at it whether or not there’s someone there to make them do it.
If our kids are enjoying themselves, why not let them “log more hours,” so to speak? I still believe in multiple sports to develop athleticism, but I don’t agree with a blanket capping of hockey participation for a kid who isn’t burned out. Let the parents and players decide for themselves how seriously they want to take the game, and then select a program that fits their objectives.
Practices and Puck Touches
Another concern many people have stems from the Kingston Study in 1971 where Former Canadian National Team and NHL coach George Kingston stated that the average North American youth hockey player handled the puck less than one minute per game.
According to Kingston, in Europe there are typically two to five practices for each game played. Kingston goes on to say that in order to get one hour of quality work in the practicing of basic skills of puck control, approximately 180 games would have to played, compared to a quality one hour practice.
(Quoted from USA Hockey Small Area Games Book)
The stats are interesting. But what’s the real question? What are we trying to accomplish?
The real question is “what can we do to improve our stickhandling, while teaching proper positioning, competitive drive, and the other aspects of the game, so that we are more competitive in games?”
Once you understand the objective, you can formulate the game plan. The objective isn’t more puck touches. The objective is better puck control in games!
The answer isn’t to adjust the practice to game ratio. The answer is to improve our practices, and encourage at-home training. And we do this by improving the quality of our coaches.
Furthermore, why do we care what the European practice to game ratio is? The reason Europe’s practice-to-game ratio is so high is because their top-level hockey isn’t consolidated enough to play a large number of high-level games without having to travel, so they focus their efforts on practices. Meaning, in a place like Toronto, it’s was easy to play 65 games per season, all at a “AAA” caliber, without having to drive more than 45 minutes from home. In Europe, it’s not as easy or cost effective, so they don’t.
In his study, Kingston looked at skill development in Sweden, Finland, the former Czechoslovakia, and the former Soviet Union. In my mind, only one of these programs (Russia/USSR) is worth considering modeling, based on performance on the world stage.
Canada and Russia/USSR each have more than 4 times the gold medals of the next closest European team (Finland) at the World Junior Championships.
Is it great to learn from other nations? YES! Are Europeans known for their smooth skills? YES! Do they win on the world scene? NO. Why not? Because there is more to winning championships than silky hands.
Small Area Games & IntelliGym
In a roundabout way, USA Hockey seems to recognize the value that playing games brings to development, because in the same breath that they’re promoting a 3:1 practice to game ratio, they’re also heavily promoting Small Area Games and IntelliGym. So, the message becomes “practice more, play less, and supplement your lack of games with small area games and a subscription to our IntelliGym software for $39/mo”
We’ll cover small area games in more depth another day, but let me just say this: There’s nothing wrong with small area games, and there’s nothing wrong with the IntelliGym. I think both can be effective tools in their own right. But they can’t teach the grit that comes with real game maturity. They can’t teach you to “will” a goal when you’re down 3-2 with 1:15 left in the game. They can’t teach you to overcome a bad ref. They can’t teach you to rise above a volatile crowd when you’re the visiting team against your biggest rival. And they, most definitely, are not a substitute for good coaching. You get the point.
Lastly, you will never play with the same intensity against your own team as you do against another team, no matter how hard you’re working. The difference isn’t physical, it’s psychological. It has to to with developing the “controlled crazy” mindset that makes top athletes so effective. You’d be considered a bad teammate if you were to really get yourself into that mode during a small area game drill.
Under a textbook implementation of ADM, we put a ceiling on our kids’ development by limiting the number of games. We set our kids up so that by the time they’re 15 years old, they’ve only played roughly half as many games as their Canadian counterparts. If we expect to be competitive on the world stage, we need to develop at the same pace as the best teams.
In watching the World Junior Hockey Championships the past few years, I’m convinced that skills aren’t what’s keeping Team USA out of the medal rounds. The grit that comes with real game maturity is lacking. I’ve quietly watched the conversations on social media, interested to see what people were saying. A comment that came up a few times was “just wait until ADM sets in… then, watch out!”
I hate to break it to these folks, but we are beginning to see the results of ADM right now. And USA’s results on the world stage will continue to get worse until we correct our course. The practice to game ratio is only one piece of the deficiency. Combine this with some of the other areas I’ll point out over the next few articles, and you’ll see that if we have ANY success in hockey as a nation, it will be IN SPITE of ADM, not because of it.