What’s the Best Way to Teach Youth Ice Hockey Players to Safely Check Opponents?

Ice hockey is a fast-paced, high-intensity sport that demands a unique blend of speed, strength, agility, and tactical awareness. A crucial aspect of this sport that adds to its excitement is the physicality involved, particularly the art of checking. However, for younger players learning the game, it’s crucial to teach them how to check safely to prevent injuries. This article will provide an in-depth look at the best ways to teach youth ice hockey players to safely check opponents, ensuring a great game experience while keeping the players’ wellbeing at the forefront.

The Importance of Teaching Safe Checking Techniques

The act of checking in hockey can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s an effective tool for gaining puck possession and disrupting the opponent’s game plan. On the other, if done improperly, it can lead to serious injuries, including concussions and bone fractures. Therefore, teaching youth hockey players safe checking techniques is not merely a coaching strategy, but also a proactive step towards injury prevention.

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Every coach should prioritize instilling the correct and safe body checking skills in the players. The initial focus should be on body position and balance. Players must learn to keep their heads up and bodies low while delivering a check. It’s also crucial to educate them on avoiding dangerous checks, specifically those aimed at the opponent’s head or from behind.

The Steps to Proper Checking

Before you jump into the practical part of teaching checking, it’s vital to ensure your players have a solid understanding of the process. This involves breaking down the check into several key steps:

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  1. Positioning: The player delivering the check should aim to keep their body between the opponent and the puck. This positioning gives the player a better chance at gaining possession of the puck after the check.

  2. Approach: The player should approach the opponent at an angle, not straight on. This enables the player to use their shoulder and hip to deliver the check effectively, instead of relying solely on upper body strength.

  3. Contact: The player should aim to make contact with the center of the opponent’s body, using the shoulder and hip. The head should never be the target.

  4. Follow-through: After making contact, the player should continue to drive their legs and body through the opponent, pushing them off the puck.

By breaking down the process into these steps, you will make it easier for your players to understand and execute a safe and effective check.

Incorporating Checking Drills into Practice

Introducing checking drills into your team’s practice sessions is an excellent way to teach players to check safely. Start with low-impact, slow-speed drills that allow players to focus on proper technique. As they gain confidence and skill, gradually increase the intensity and speed of the drills.

Remember, the goal is not to encourage overly aggressive play, but to equip your team with the skills needed to play the game effectively and safely. Some excellent drills to consider include:

  • Angling Drills: These drills help players learn to steer their opponents away from the puck and toward the boards with minimal contact.

  • Body Contact Drills: These drills emphasize proper body positioning and balance when delivering a check.

  • Open Ice Drills: These drills focus on executing checks safely in the open ice, where the risk of injury can be higher.

Reinforcing Good Habits and Penalizing Dangerous Play

Finally, it’s critical to continuously reinforce good habits and penalize dangerous play during both practice and games. Players should understand that unsafe checks will not be tolerated and will result in penalties.

This approach will not only keep players safe but also make them better hockey players. Checking is not just about physicality—it’s also a tactical tool that, when used correctly, can give a team a significant advantage. By teaching your players to check safely and effectively, you’re helping them become smarter, more skilled players.

When executed properly, checking can be a game-changing strategy. However, it’s paramount that players are taught to do it safely. Through a combination of effective coaching, comprehensive drills, and strict enforcement of rules, players can learn to deliver effective checks while keeping the risk of injury to a minimum.

Develop Hockey Sense and Spatial Awareness

Helping young players develop their hockey sense, or their ability to understand and react to the ongoing game, is integral to safe checking. Mastering this aspect of the sport helps players anticipate checks, position themselves effectively, and avoid potentially harmful situations.

A significant part of hockey sense is spatial awareness. Players must be acutely aware of their surroundings, including the location of the puck, their teammates, opponents, and the boards. In the context of checking, this awareness can help players know when to deliver a check or when to avoid one for safety reasons.

To improve hockey sense and spatial awareness, consider introducing small area games into your training sessions. These games, played within a confined space, force players to make quicker decisions, navigate tight spaces, and keep their heads up.

Include drills that focus on both the strong side (the side where the puck is) and the weak side of the play. This will help players develop a 360-degree awareness, which is critical for safe checking. Also, emphasize the importance of communication on the ice. A player who can alert a teammate of an impending check can prevent injuries.

Teach players to check safely in both the open ice and the defensive zone. While open ice checks are more visible and often more spectacular, most checks actually happen along the boards in the defensive zone. Thus, players must learn how to safely pin an opponent on the boards and avoid dangerous situations such as hitting from behind.

Conclusion: Creating a Culture of Safety in Youth Hockey

In conclusion, the responsibility of teaching young ice hockey players to safely check opponents is manifold. It involves imparting technical skills, nurturing hockey sense, inculcating respect for opponents, and fostering a culture of safety.

Coaches play a pivotal role in this process. However, it’s also important for parents, leagues, and hockey organizations to support this endeavor. They can do so by providing educational resources, organizing safety-focused hockey training, and enforcing rules that discourage dangerous play.

The ultimate goal is to ensure that every hockey player can enjoy the thrill and challenge of the sport while minimizing the risk of injury. It’s about striking a balance between the competitive spirit of ice hockey and the inherent commitment to player safety.

Remember, a well-executed and safe body check not only improves a team’s chance of winning but also contributes to the overall health and longevity of a player’s hockey career. By prioritizing safety in body checking, we are safeguarding the future of the sport and those who love to play it.