Q-and-A with former high school and college coach Roger Grillo
Don't rush player development.
Offseason training, practice-to-game ratios, common misconceptions – there are plenty of questions about player development when it comes to youth hockey. Roger Grillo has the answers.
Grillo coached high school and college hockey for more than 20 years before joining USA Hockey as an ADM regional manager, where he serves the Massachusetts and New England districts.
Mass Hockey: Considering your exposure to so many ages, what do you see as some keys to creating an environment for player development?
Roger Grillo: I’ve often felt that, as a coach, you almost have to be an entertainer. You have to make the environment fun and entertaining so they want to come back the next day. You have to bring some energy and let the people around you know you’re part of something special.
Mass Hockey: What question are you asked about most when it comes to player development?
RG: It all depends on the individual situation. The biggest thing I try to explain to people is that there aren’t any shortcuts. There are a lot of people who want to be good, or say they want to be good, or pretend they want to be good, but are they really putting in the extra time and making the sacrifices? And I’m really speaking about the older kids here.
Mass Hockey: At the younger ages, is player development less deliberate?
RG: Absolutely. The biggest thing, what I tell people all the time, is at the younger ages, it’s having patience and almost pulling back and making sure you’re not doing too much.
Mass Hockey: When you refer to the younger ages and the older ages, is there a fine line there?
RG: The magic age, in my mind, is 13 or 14.
Mass Hockey: What are some misconceptions about player development?
RG: Well, I think the biggest one I see is that everybody is so focused on what team they’re on, what league they’re in, who they’re playing with, who they’re playing against. So the focus has really become the competitive model, when, in reality, you develop through the practice model. And the training model. Everybody’s so focused on the game model that they’ve really lost sight of where you really do get better.
Mass Hockey: If someone asks why their child shouldn’t play more games, what do you tell them?
RG: To me, and it depends on the age of the kid, but, especially at the younger ages, the sports science tells us you don’t get better playing games. What ends up happening a lot of times is that we rob the training model to feed the competitive model. And that’s where we’ve gotten in a very unhealthy scenario.
Mass Hockey: And how does cross-ice hockey relate to player development?
RG: At the younger ages, we’re trying to force the number of repetitions and touches. We were getting to the point where we had kids playing with three lines in a full-ice scenario – and some kids might be going the entire season without scoring a goal. And, so, it’s not productive for that kid. Then you have a kid who has some natural ability, and you give him or her a false environment by giving them time and space instead of forcing them to create it. The cross-ice model is there to protect both ends of the spectrum.
Mass Hockey: What is the best kind of offseason training?
RG: Well, at the younger ages, it’s playing other sports, just being active, developing your athleticism and being competitive. That’s priority No. 1. Then, as you get older, you have to have the passion to, you know, shoot a bucket of pucks a day, or get in the weight room.
Mass Hockey: When you meet a player at 13 or 14, what is it that you’re looking for in him or her?
RG: He or she has to have had the environment at a younger age where all the basic skills are in a good spot. Then, probably most important, it’s to have kind of that flicker of fire in their eyes to want to get better. Then you start talking about sacrifices being made as far as eating properly, sleeping properly and training properly away from rink.
Mass Hockey: Are we talking to some degree about personal development, too?
RG: Absolutely. No question. And that’s the mistake that people make. That by being in the same room with gifted players that it’s automatically going to happen. You have to put the effort in. You have to take the time to work at your game as you get older, and it’s not just going to happen accidentally.
There's one common thread to everything that happens in hockey. Every shot, every pass, every face-off, every save: it all happens on skates. Skating, in other words, is where hockey starts.
At the beginning of each season, young hockey players often look at different parts of the sport and focus on certain areas they want to improve upon. But when it comes to taking your game to the next level, consistently becoming a better skater is perhaps the most important part of any development path.
Chris Nagy, assistant coach at St. Mary's High School in Lynn, Mass., understands this well. Nagy believes skating to be among the most important skills for a successful hockey player. In his more than 10 years coaching, Nagy says he has seen players of all ages become better overall because they dedicated themselves to becoming better skaters.
"I've seen it a lot. Plenty of kids come along who have a great hockey head or great hands, but they struggle with their skating," Nagy says. "Improving their skating is like improving any other skill, running drills and working on muscle memory so they're not wasting motion and move well without hesitating."
Like passing or shooting, improving skating from year to year takes the same type and level of commitment—focusing on specific parts of moving up and down the ice and repeating the movements. Not everyone is going to fly around the ice like the fastest NHL players. But it's not about being the fastest skater, it’s about becoming the best skater a young man or woman can be.
According to Nagy, he's seen many instances where skating, as important as it is, is overlooked by parents.
"Sometimes they get a little too focused on stickhandling or shooting," Nagy says. “Sending kids to different camps is great, but working on each part of the game, especially skating, helps kids out the most."
Steve McKenna of South Boston agrees. His son, also named Stephen, recently made his NCAA debut at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and he believes a commitment to skating landed his son the opportunity to play college hockey.
"We were always at the rink, working on skating," McKenna recalls. "Our practices, especially when he was younger, were mostly about learning to skate and to move with the puck on your stick. It's the basis of the sport. That repetition, stopping and starting, crossing over and moving with the puck is where it all starts."
A longtime coach in South Boston, McKenna has seen several young players advance through to higher levels of the game due to a focus on skating. Conversely, he's seen just as many fail to reach their full potential because they neglected their skating skills.
"When kids are just starting out, they need to start building those skating skills," McKenna explains. "It's great to develop a great shot or pass well, but it's hard to become the player a kid can truly become if [he or she] isn't a good skater."
For any player, it's important to see improvement in every part of the game each season. But maximizing a young player's potential starts with one critical foundation: becoming a truly great skater.
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