WHAT ARE SMALL-AREA GAMES?
Before examining the reasons for using small-area games in practices and the benefits these games provide, we must first define what a small area game is.
Small-area games are game-like competitive drills that utilize a playing surface that has been reduced in size. A typical small-area game will be played in one end of the ice and can be played cross-ice, between face-off dots, in one corner, below the face-off dots or in any other number of areas, including the neutral zone.
The area of the rink being used is dependant upon the skills being taught. Most games are designed to teach a combination of individual skills and are most easily played in a cross-ice format. However, some games will be moved into a much smaller section of the rink to create a smaller playing surface while other games will take advantage of a much larger area to teach team skills such as breakouts or power plays.
The number of participants is lowered in small-area games. Any combination of players can be used. Again, it depends upon the situation, the level of play and the skills being taught. Teams can have anywhere from one to four (or more) players and will compete against other teams that may or may not have the same number of players. Coaches can choose to add support players or station themselves in a position to become part of the game to receive and give passes or create any number of potential odd-man situations within a game.
Special rules and conditions are applied to small-area games. Even though I am dedicating a section to this topic later in this guide, it is important to mention here that small-area games are created to mimic different situations that are seen in a regular game. While games can be played without any special rules or conditions, it is usually these small modifications that keep the games fresh and allow players to see many different offensive and defensive situations.
Small-area games are designed to focus on multiple skills and situations, increasing puck touches and situational repetition. During a small-area game, players will have more puck touches because of the reduced size of the playing area, the reduced number of players and the special conditions placed on each game. At any level of play, an average player may only have control of the puck for a few seconds during the course of a game. Depending on the game being played, that same player may have over a minute of competitive puck-possession time while taking six or seven shifts in just one ten-minute game. Within every small-area game, players are also placed in more tight situations and have more attempts on net than in any traditional drill I’ve seen – all while competing and having fun.
An often overlooked benefit of small-area games is the positive effect they have on goaltenders. Goaltenders, arguably the most important part of any team, are often the most neglected players in practice. Most drills provide shots that either don’t challenge the goaltenders, come so quickly that the goaltender does not have time to recover properly, or come at a pace that does not adequately duplicate conditions seen in a real game. Goaltenders thrive in small-area games because they are seeing live competition and – much like a skater getting quality puck touches – can face as many shots in one ten minute small-area game as they will see in an entire regulation game.
So who uses small-area games, anyway? Small-area games are nothing new to the Europeans. They’ve been successfully using competitive games in their practices for years. Recently, small-area games have become more commonplace in North America as well. They are used extensively in many professional organizations, colleges, junior programs and USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. Many successful high school and youth programs have implemented small-area games as a major means of teaching skills and team concepts as well.
WHY USE SMALL-AREA GAMES?
The reasons for using small-area games as the main teaching tool in youth hockey practices are numerous. We’ll spend some time in the following pages looking at a number of great reasons to use small-area games.
Before looking at those reasons, though, we must take note of the fact that while using small-area games in practices is a relatively new concept, small-area games are not a new concept. Kids have been creating small-area games forever. Pick-up or shinny games on outdoor rinks or ponds have rarely featured the nets set nearly 200 feet apart. Street hockey games rarely cover half of a city block. These games, whether on ice or land, have traditionally taken place in a small area.
Not coincidentally, when long-time hockey coaches or enthusiasts discuss what is missing from today’s game, the discussion often centers around the lack of shinny or street hockey that exists in today’s society. Kids have interests and options outside of hockey and the world is a much different place than it was even twenty years ago.
With that in mind, coaches must find a way to bring the fun and skill development from the outdoor rink indoors. Small-area games are the most effective way to accomplish this important goal. Here’s why:
Small-area games promote creativity and experimentation. Too may of the drills we use today are scripted and include a pre-determined outcome. Nothing in the game of hockey is predetermined. Full-ice 1 on 1 drills, 2 on 0 or 3 on 0 drills done at half speed and any number of other drills that are commonplace in our practices do not replicate actual game conditions. Through the continued use of these drills, we eliminate the thought process and decision making skills of our players. Small-area games produce situations that our players will see time and again in competition. Through trial and error, they will develop many different options to create plays and experience success.
Small-area games create a more competitive practice environment. Competition is fun. More than that, small-area games push players to work harder, compete at game speed and learn to succeed against competition.
Small-area games eliminate the need for traditional conditioning drills. Hockey is a game comprised of short, explosive bursts of power. Shifts are short – typically anywhere from 30 to 50 seconds – and are followed by periods of rest two to three times that long. Logic should tell us that we should train our players in the manner in which they will play. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case.
Many coaches insist on their players skating a variety of lengthy endurance drills – we know them by many names – such as Herbies and sideboards that force players to attempt to skate at top speed for up to two full minutes. Of course, we know it is physiologically impossible to skate at top speed for this long. Without going into a detailed discussion, what actually happens during these drills is that players will gradually lose knee bend in the skating stride, bend their backs and lose the ability to fully extend the stride leg at a proper angle. Thus, through the continued use of these endurance drills, coaches are actually creating slower skaters by systematically destroying skating mechanics.
Small-area games provide an intense environment in which to train while maintaining a proper work-to-rest ratio for players. Coaches using small-area games in place of traditional conditioning drills will find that their players are more willing to “work” in practice because they are having fun and competing. Players will almost always ask for one more shift in a small-area game. How many players are begging their coaches for a chance to skate six sideboards one more time?
Small-area games keep more players moving. Have you ever witnessed a hockey practice during which a drill is run with one player at a time skating through the drill while fifteen other players stand in the corner and watch? What are these drills accomplishing? The game of hockey is not played one player at a time. More than that, hockey is a sport in which skills can only be gained through continuous proper repetition. How many quality repetitions can a player gain in a twelve minute drill when only one player at a time takes part in the drill? As we’ve already discussed, there was a time when players could overcome this type of practice structure by going to the outdoor rink to sharpen their skills. Players rarely visit the outdoor rink anymore. Therefore, practices must be designed to allow players the quality repetitions they need to improve. A twelve minute 3 on 3 game played with eighteen players can give each player upwards of six competitive shifts in which they could have more than fifty puck touches and perform every skating maneuver imaginable. This is all done within a system that develops teamwork, camaraderie and hockey sense.
Small-area games develop and improve individual and team skills. Players can develop and improve every skill related to the game of hockey through the use of small-area games. The next chapter of this manual is dedicated to taking a look at a number of the skills that small-area games can be use to teach.
Players learn to excel in tight situations. The modern game of hockey is played in small areas and in tight situations. As players continue to get bigger, stronger and faster, the rink continues to shrink and there is less room to execute. Training to play in these situations through the use of small-area games will strengthen players and teams by practicing for these tight playing conditions on a daily basis. As players get more comfortable playing and practicing in small areas, they are better able to execute skills and systems in competition.
Your players will develop game strategies, make better decisions and have greater enthusiasm for practice. The bottom line is, when players see a situation develop in a game that they have seen hundreds of times before, they’ll know how to handle it.
Players can’t be expected to make proper decisions and go to the right place on the ice during a game if they have never been trained to do it. Where does hockey sense come from? For some players it may be an inborn trait, but for most players hockey sense comes through experience. If they’re not on the outdoor rinks playing pick-up hockey, where is that experience going to come from? It has to be built into practices.
Another common complaint from coaches is that kids don’t want to practice; they just want to play games. “Practice is boring and the kids just want to have fun. The kids won’t work hard at practice, so nothing gets accomplished.” This may very well be true for a number of coaches and teams. It’s true; if the kids aren’t having fun they won’t work as hard. If your players want competition, give it to them. Give it to them on a daily basis in the form of small-area games and watch as the attitude and the level of play consistently improves.
Players of all ability levels improve. I hear from many coaches, mainly at the youth level, that they feel they can’t run effective practices because of the diverse talent levels within their team. Combined practices are another concern. How can coaches challenge all players and keep practices flowing? By using small-area games and pairing players of like abilities together, all players will be challenged, but not overwhelmed.
Small-area games are an outstanding option for both highly talented teams and in-house youth teams. Why? Better players are able to flourish and improve more rapidly when placed in competitive situations against other highly skilled players. They’re constantly challenged to do more because of the small space in which the games are played. In small-area games, weaker players are going to be involved in the play more often and have an opportunity to develop their skills in a competitive situation. They’ll improve over time while having fun and feeling more like a part of the team. Players of all skills levels will be challenged, competing and having fun.
Small-area games foster a love and enjoyment of the game because players and coaches have fun! Hockey is the greatest game in the world and it should be an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. Implementing small-area games in your practices will raise the enthusiasm level of your players and give them something to look forward to in each practice. Happy players fall in love with the game and will want to continue coming back to the rink. It’s no different for coaches. You’re a better coach if you’re having fun and enjoying yourself. Teams model themselves after their coaches. A happy, hard-working coach with a great attitude will produce a team with similar traits.
Read Part III of Small Area Games