The debate

Since its inception in 2009 USA Hockey’s American Development Model (ADM) has been a hot topic in almost every rink throughout the United States. The ADM which was created by USA hockey after years of extensive research that involved world class trainers, doctors, nutritionists and psychologists is continually under public fire. The debate often centers on half ice versus full ice games at the younger birth years. Skeptics to this innovative development model have sought an alternative and have turned to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).

Many AAU team leaders cleverly recruit by defaming the ADM with the promise of full ice games and full ice practices, “real hockey” in their terms. This divide between scientifically based athletic development versus keeping the game the same has created the Civil War of hockey in the U.S“The debate will always be there with the ADM, at every birth year there is someone that has played at a relatively high level during their playing days and does not agree with the science behind what we do. Unfortunately playing at a high level doesn’t always equate to being able to teach an 8 year old how to skate or having the knowledge to put a practice plan together to optimize age appropriate skill development given the short time allotted for on-ice practice.” Scott Paluch USA Hockey Regional Manager Of The American Development Model and Former Bowling Green State University Head Coach

What is the right route for my child’s development? This becomes a complex question when given the two choices and knowing the parity in skill and size that exists at the younger ages. The answer when two great arguments occur about anything usually lies somewhere in the middle.

An athlete’s development is analogous to that of an infant: you crawled before you walked and walked before you ran. One facet of development fed into the next. Now consider this analogy concerning an ice hockey player: you did not zoom around the ice before first learning how to balance on skates or shoot and pass a puck before learning how to hold your hockey stick. Each skill fed into the successful acquisition of the next skill. The American Development Model is a blue print for progressively building age-specific skills in order to have success at all ability levels of the game. USA hockey has given our youth coaches a guideline for age appropriate on-ice development with age-specific drills which ensure that our players learn how to use their edges, stick handle and shoot a puck-the fundamentals for success in the sport – while being in a competitive, fun and nurturing academic environment.

Practice plans at the younger ages are mapped out for the coaches and the rink is divided strategically into sections for various drills. The division of the ice surface serves a multi-purpose role. More stations allow more content covered in a single practice. This structure also allows more participants on the ice at one time, keeping ice costs down while allowing more players into the game through the removal of team rosters and the allocation of ice that once restricted the number of teams an association could host. Lastly, a great coach to player ratio keeps the players moving; serving to keep a younger players attention longer.

Using USA hockey’s half-ice mandate at the 6U & 8U ages allows every player an opportunity to touch the puck more during game play. Major U.S. youth sports like soccer, baseball, football and basketball all have surfaces that have been age appropriately modified creating a better opportunity for younger athletes to learn to play the game properly. In contrast watching a full ice 6U or 8U hockey game can be compared to watching Miguel Cabrera in a homerun derby contest against little leaguers. There are 2 or 3 kids on each of these teams that dominate play; while you might think “at least these kids will be getting better”, you are wrong. In a small area game scenario even the more skilled players are challenged because they must now maneuver through smaller spaces. Their skill set of edge control, puck control and body position improve immensely and is not limited to anticipating a quick break while waiting at the red line.

An additional skill acquired in the small area game concept is body contact which occurs more frequently in the smaller area which helps the player learn how to use his/her body to create advantages during game play. The payoff for this skill will occur as the player graduates to the checking ages given that more players will be accustomed to body contact allowing for a smoother transition. Further, this contact may result in fewer explosion type checks in favor of riding the man off the puck in order to reacquire the puck in transition, the result being fewer injuries. Ultimately, it has been my observation that the ADM has put fun back in the game for the kids, giving more of a “pond hockey feel” where the game itself is the greatest teacher. 

A counter approach to the ADM and what many people may have heard of but might not be totally familiar with is the AAU. The AAU is the fastest growing ice hockey program and currently exists in 21 states around the United States. The philosophy of the AAU is “Sports for All, Forever.” Since the implementation of the ADM model by USA hockey the AAU has been gaining speed as the counterpart to the USA hockey’s plan to implement the ADM in all of our country’s youth hockey organizations. The AAU encourages local organizations to create their own models that cater to the level of play on each team. This lack of leadership reinforces the AAU supporter’s argument that the ADM is forcing mite hockey players into a “one size fits all” program which is detrimental to younger elite hockey players.

The AAU’s approach is in complete contrast to the research surrounding the creation of the ADM program. Given that hockey is a late developing sport and close to 60% of players drop out by the age of 14 in the United States, the supporters of the AAU ignore this research. Having personally spent ten years working with hockey players and going through the system myself I have seen that just because at 6 or even 14 years of age you are not a “great player”, does not mean that by 18 or 23 you will not be a “great hockey player”.

One argument used against the ADM is that the cross ice only approach for ages 6-9 misses an important window for teaching skating skills and ADM’s cross ice only approach limits a player’s ability to develop skating fundamentals such as open ice speed forward and backward. The science behind the ADM states that a player 6-9 has a potential for growth in the areas of quickness, agility and subtleness (1st speed window). At this age the player’s musculature is not developed enough to teach a powerful stride for 200 ft. USA Hockey encourages skating coaches at practices to work with players skating techniques so that when the body reaches that stage of muscle development for a complete stride, the player is competent. Yet, despite the years of research on this topic, parents still come to me and say “well my son or daughter played full ice all year and then participated with players that played half ice and they are way ahead…” 9 out of 10 times that I see this same child out on the ice immediately I can tell that he/she lacks the necessities and foundation that others have gained participating in the ADM. Yes he/she is fast skating down the ice and yes he/she competes well, but put that skater into drills where he/she must maneuver quickly and demonstrate a proper weight shift going in and out of a turn and they are almost always awkward. They lack the technique and the thousands of repetitions the cross ice players have attained. The question to these parents is, “At 16-20 where will your player be without the proper foundation?”

Every situation is different and in my 10+ years working as a hockey instructor I have seen great players get better, but more often I have seen great players fall flat at advanced levels of the game due to lacking skill foundation or failing to have the work ethic needed to distinguish themselves in competitive situations.

I would ask parents to think about these facts when choosing between USA Hockey’s model and that of the AAU. USA Hockey’s decades of dedication to research and development has resulted in a model which allows each athlete the opportunity for getting the proper fundamentals they will need for long term achievement in the sport. Without these fundamentals, as a 16 year old player hoping to take their game to the next level…will they be ready? I believe USA hockey has answered this question.

Nick Parillo (HPD Head Instructor)

Any questions on this subject please feel free to email me at  Playerdevelopmentcamp@yahoo.com

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