Coach Nielsen's Ice Hockey Drills

Small Area Games Part III


As coaches, we all have our tried-and-true methods of teaching specific individual skills. In no way am I advocating that we dismiss traditional individual skill training and the drills that are used to teach those skills. Rather, I would make the argument that it’s what we do in addition to our traditional drills and teachings that will have the most profound impact on our players. That’s where small-area games come into play.

Virtually any individual or team skill can be taught through the use of small-area games. Of course, just as in a real game, virtually every skill imaginable is needed and will be practiced in a small-area game. This is accomplished in a learning-friendly environment in which the players are having fun. As a coach, have the courage to allow players to figure things out for themselves and let the game teach the game. Here’s a very brief look at some of the skills commonly taught through the use of small-area games:

Skating. Every skating maneuver is needed in small-area games. Lateral movement, stops and starts, tight turns, transitions, crossovers and the forward and backward stride will all be practiced in virtually every game.

Passing. Nearly every game incorporates passing as an integral part of the game. Rules can be applied to games requiring a number of passes prior to a shot on net or require players to give and receive passes from support players.

Shooting. No traditional drill will allow players to attempt as many shots under competitive playing conditions as a typical small-area game. Players are encouraged and required to use a variety of different shots, including the nearly-ignored backhand, and attack the net to capitalize on rebounds.

Stickhandling. Every player has the opportunity to handle the puck a great deal in small-area games. More than simply handling the puck, they’re required to do it in tight areas and under pressure. In my experience, this is the optimal way to become a better puckhandler.

Cycling. Many small-area games can be designed to give players the opportunity to work the puck low in the offensive zone. Competitive games allow players to develop the ability to work together to control the puck deep in the offensive zone while under the same type of defensive pressure they would typically face in a real game.

Transitioning. One of the trademarks of small-area games are the continual transitions players must make from offense to defense. Forwards and defensemen alike are put into situations that they would rarely, if ever, see in a traditional drill; yet routinely have to face during actual competition.

Angling. Because defenders are placed into a variety of real-game situations in small areas, they learn to close gaps and cut angles with a great deal of skill.

Breakouts. Games can be designed to incorporate breakouts and forechecks. This creates an excellent opportunity for teams to practice specific plays during a live, competitive situation.

Power plays. Many small-area games provide odd-man situations that closely replicate typical power play alignments such as the overload and the umbrella. Conditions and rules regarding the number of players on each team and their positioning can be implemented to meet specific needs.

Puck support. To achieve success in most any small-area game, players must learn to properly support the puck carrier and position themselves to receive passes, anticipate turnovers and run interference for teammates.

Hockey sense. Hockey sense is a skill that a coach cannot teach. Players only gain hockey sense through experience and repetition. Over the course of a season, small-area games can give players hundreds of quality repetitions in various situations that are commonly seen in real games. Traditional drills are all too often scripted, eliminating the thought process and decision making skills. Outcomes of small-area games, while containing specific guidelines and rules, are never predetermined.

Remember, these are just a few of the numerous individual and team skills that may be learned and practiced through the use of small-area games in your practices.


Simply using small-area games in practice is not enough. The coach must take steps to make sure that games are properly organized to ensure maximum player development and learning through maximum effort. Some of the important considerations in organizing small-area games include:

Be creative. Creativity is a key to keep small-area games and practices fresh and exciting. The types of games that can be played and the rules they are played by are limited only to the imagination of the coach.

Length of games and shifts. Coaches need to take the length of games and shifts into consideration when drawing up their daily practice plans. How long should a game be played? While two minutes is probably too short a time period, twenty minutes is probably way too long. Typically, durations of between eight and twelve minutes will provide satisfactory time for several quality repetitions while holding the interest and attention of the players.

The length of each shift is equally, if not more, important than the length of the game. Since we are trying to duplicate game conditions during practice, a good rule of thumb is to keep shifts relatively short – no longer than a typical game shift. In fact, given that most small-area games require even more effort and involvement than a typical game shift, small-area game shifts should be kept shorter to prevent a breakdown of technique. Thirty to forty second shifts are usually sufficient.

Teaching points. Every small-area game has a focus and points of emphasis relative to skill training and development. While many different skills and techniques can be taught within any small-area game, the coach must choose a small number of teaching points for each game and stick to those points. While it is natural for a coach to want to critique any and all areas where he or she sees a deficiency, it is important to keep players focused and the lessons each small-area game is designed to teach and not burden players with extra thoughts that will restrict creativity.

Enforcing rules, technique and discipline. The key to enforcing small-area game rules, as well as monitoring technique and discipline, is having a minimum of one coach assigned to each game. It is the responsibility of the head coach to make sure that each member of his or her staff completely understands each game and is on the same page.

Know your players. In creating any practice plan and considering which drills are appropriate for a team, the most important factor for any coach is an absolute knowledge of his or her players. Small-area games that are too easy for players will get boring and games that are too hard and require players to perform tasks that are too advanced will lead to frustration and decreased effort.

Know yourself and your coaching style. To be an effective leader, a coach must have a true understanding of himself or herself. You can’t improve on something you don’t understand. As coaches, we are (hopefully) always seeking to improve. Many times improvement comes through mistakes that are made and recognized. Hockey players are no different. Players make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.

Small-area games are designed to allow players to make – and learn from – mistakes. Coaches can certainly coach and point things out during small-area games, but should be careful not to overdo it. This is why coaches need to know themselves and have an understanding of their coaching styles. A coach that tends to over-coach or has a tendency to be very vocal will need to scale back on that behavior. Constantly barking orders during the games will only serve to distract players and reduce creativity and the learning process. Let the game teach the game!

Read Part IV of Small Area Games

Filed under: General, Small Area Games, Systems, , , , ,

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