Skills coaches talk a lot about “skill progressions,” but what does this phrase actually mean? On its most basic level, “skill progression” is advancing players through a series of simple and then progressively more advanced (but still related) movements in order to develop proficiency in a complex skill pattern. However, that’s like saying a pilot’s job is to fly a plane from point A to point B. The real world application is much more complex than the simple definition. In order to answer the titular question, we must ask another: “What are the best practices for implementing skill progressions in a way that actually helps players to perform better in games?”
The goal of any skills coach is to develop skills that transfer to games. It is not enough to coach a player to be good at a drill. The goal is to coach that player in a way that improves in-game performance. So, the final step of any “skill progression” is not making the practice environment arbitrarily harder, the final step is game-transfer or actually applying that skill in a real game. We have to go beyond simply saying, “now we’ll do it with a puck” or “now we’ll do it backwards” or “now we’ll do it on our backhand.” These, at times, may be relevant considerations to advance a drill, but, as coaches, we have to think bigger. This, “what’s the next step to make the drill harder” kind of thinking does not allow us to see the big picture of how our work in a skills session actually translates to that player performing better in a game. This short-sighted thinking doesn’t allow us to “see the forest” because we’re just focused on “getting from this tree to the next tree.”
I believe the framework presented below is better constructed to deliver on the promise of helping our players improve their performance in games.
Step 1: Isolation or Skills “Chunking”
Any skill, such as the crossover in this image, can be broken down into its component parts. Notice how the player is pushing into the ice with his outside edge? Notice his weight shift? Notice his knee drive? These “chunks” can be worked on as individual skills themselves.
This is the process of breaking a complex skill into its absolute smallest components or “chunks.” Think, “if performance is a house, and the skill in question is one wall, what is the tiniest brick that forms a part of that wall? How can I develop the best possible brick?” A skills coach starts the process by identifying what skill is to be worked on and then analyzes the skill to determine the smallest single piece of this skill that can actually be worked on in practice. Drills that emphasize knee drive or blade/edge engagement are examples of isolated skill practice which work on a single motor pattern that is part of a more complex skill (IE, crossovers).
Obviously, this form of skills training is not very much like a game environment. The trade-off is acceptable at this point because of the high number of repetitions that the player is getting. Coaches are constantly pushing and pulling between the ends of two continuums: (Continuum 1) game realistic vs game unrealistic environments and (Continuum 2) high repetition vs low repetition environments. Without a doubt, the ideal scenario would be a game realistic environment with high repetitions, but this is not always possible.
The two problems that many coaches and players run into with isolation/chunking training is (1) thinking that working on this isolated motor pattern (IE, knee drive or blade engagement drills in our example) will translate by itself to in-game performance or (2) not knowing how to properly progress it and simply throwing a puck into the drill under the mistaken impression that this “progression” will help the player to take the next step and apply the skill proficiently in a game.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Isolated skill work is extremely important, but all it produces is a lot of really nice bricks. It doesn’t build the house. The true way to progress skills isolation or skills chunking practice is with…
Spending all of your time practicing “skill chunks” or “isolated skills” will produce a lot of nice bricks, but it won’t build a house.
The end goal of skill development is to put all of the pieces (bricks) together into a meaningful whole (a building in this metaphor and game performance in the real world).
Step 2: Skills Sequences
Notice the sequence of skills McDavid uses here: linear crossovers followed by puck-spotting/puck-placement followed by a net drive. One skill logically follows the previous one. In order to perform like this in a game, the skills need to be practiced in the right sequence.
In this clip, Vrana goes from a gliding V-start (very different from the V-start drill often taught to players in practice) to a forward sprint then uses a great puck-spot/puck-placement (something players I coach should be very familiar with), cuts in front his opponent’s hips and finishes with a quick snap shot. Once again, the sequence in which the skills are performed matters. If they are not practiced in proper sequence, they will not readily transfer to game situations.
There are really two steps that a skills coach must plan for when sequencing skills.
- Combining Chunks into Skills: How do the skills chunks practiced above combine with other chunks to form a meaningful whole that looks like a skill that is actually used in a game? In our example, how can we combine knee drive and blade engagement and now put them together while working on a linear crossover.
- Combining Skills into Sequences: Once you have developed a technically proficient crossover, you have to ask yourself, “what skills usually precede or follow a crossover in a game?” This is something that can be answered by watching hockey games critically and determining which sequences work and which do not. In our example, a linear crossover used in the neutral zone may be preceded by either a tight turn or a shuffle stride and can be followed by either a “reverse mohawk” on the half-wall or a “jab step” to pull up just inside the blue line and wait for support. All of these are skills that can (and should) be broken down into chunks, but at this step the player should actually be practicing them in sequence. First do a tight turn or shuffle stride THEN do a linear crossover THEN do a reverse mohawk or jab step. At this point, the player should be building a mental road map of what skills naturally follow other skills.
To summarize, the steps of proper skill progression that we have identified so far are: Build the Pieces of the Skill > Work On the Skill By Putting Those Pieces Together > Put These Various Skills Into Sequences.
Step 3: Skill Mapping and “Ice Geography”
This is not a hockey rink; this is a map of a territory. Specific skills should be executed in specific areas of this map. This is a key component of skill progression and a major contributing factor to what is often termed “hockey IQ.”
The primary assumption of this article (and my entire raison d’etre as a skills coach) is that the end goal of skills training is improving a player’s performance in games. In order to take the next step in the progression toward this goal, we must now understand the phrase “ice geography.” If we view the ice surface from above and imagine the entire thing as a map while watching a game, we should start to see that certain things happen in certain areas. Certain skills make sense to use below the goal line in the offensive zone, but make absolutely no sense to use at your own defensive blue line. Understanding the playing surface in this way is what I mean when I say “ice geography.”
The problem with many skills programs is that coaches teach players how to do a skill but (1) never tell the player where on the ice and in what game situation this skill should be used and (2) never actually practice this skill in those areas. While shared-ice practices and limited space can make this a challenge, using the right skill in the right area of the ice is a key component of performance and what we call “hockey IQ” and it is something that is thoroughly trainable by the coach who is willing to invest time and thought into how to do so.
Thus, once we have worked on the most fundamental chunks of the skill, once we have worked on the skill itself as a whole and once we have put the skill into a sequence with other skills, we must now ask the player to perform the skill in the area of the ice where it will actually be used in a game. Derek Miller of Next Gen HKY and the Ottawa 67’s refers to this as “skill patterning,” but I prefer the term “skill mapping” as I feel that this is more descriptive of what is actually being done (IE, applying different skills at different points on the map). When describing this concept, Corey McNabb of Hockey Canada uses the apt term “responsible skill” to emphasize the importance of not just teaching the “how” of a skill, but also the “when, where & why.” If you do not want your players to attempt a toe drag at the defensive blue line when they are the last defender back, don’t practice it in this area of the ice!
Step 4: Various Kinds of Stress
Proper skill progression involves adding increasing levels of stress to the point that players can perform the skill even under the stresses of competition.
The final step of progression in this framework is adding stress, but there are a variety of ways to do this and a professional skills coach must consider how to progress a player through each of them. (Note that the words “pressure” and “stress” are used interchangeably below.)
When implementing stress in practice environments, it is vital to analyze the type of stress experienced when a particular skill is used in a game. As an example, a “jab step” is often used against stress from a backchecker who is skating forward toward his own defensive zone and trying to angle the puck-carrier into the boards while a “spin move” or “spin-o-rama” is often used against stress from a defender who was skating backwards but is now lunging forward in an attempt to poke check the puck or apply a front check. If we want the skill we are working on in practice to transfer to games, we have got to practice it against the right kind of stress. When watching a skill in a game, ask yourself: Where is the stress? In what direction is the stressor skating (forward/backward, toward-net/away-from-net, etc.)? What kind of contact is being applied? Then, we must try to recreate this exact kind of stress in a practice environment.
In order to understand the “kind of stress” that a particular skill works against, it is important to understand stress as a vector (in the Euclidean sense used in mathematics, physics and engineering). Stress has a direction, a magnitude (in hockey terms that would refer to how fast it’s coming at you), and a position in space relative to something else. This direction, magnitude and relative position needs to be replicated in the practice environment for the practice-stress to actually help improve real in-game performance.
Skills do not exist in a vacuum. It is not enough to be good at a toe drag or a crossover. What matters to game performance is using the right skill at the right time. This means that players should not only be taught where on the ice to use the skill they are working on (the skill mapping referred to above) but also how to read the play, analyze what kind of pressure they are encountering and apply the right skill to counter that pressure. A player who attempts a “jab step,” toe drag or “spin-o-rama” in a game and is unsuccessful may not need more technical work. The issue may simply be that the player is using the move against the wrong kind of stress. Responsible skills coaches must analyze games to understand which skills work against which kinds of stress (using the questions in the above paragraph), teach this to their players and then allow the players to get repetitions of the skill against this exact kind of stress.
“Inanimate Stress” (ie, PVC hurdles)
Our progression up until this point has been as follows: (1) Practice and improve the smallest and most fundamental aspects of the skill (; (2) Practice and improve the skill as a whole (IE, crossovers); (3) Practice and improve the skill in a logical sequence with other skills that have been developed using the same progression (IE, shuffle stride THEN linear crossover THEN reverse mohawk); (4) Practice and improve this sequence in the areas of the ice where it is best used in a game. Our next step is to add stress. And one of the first ways to do this is with the use of inanimate objects.
PVC pipe hurdles, attack triangles, foam barriers, tires, etc. are all forms of external stimuli that increase the stress on a player when performing a skill. Because they are inanimate and don’t move or react, they are a great way to begin to practice the skill under stress without overloading the player’s current abilities. Remember, we are trying to progress the player to a point where he or she can perform the skill in a game (a very stressful environment). Too much stress too soon can hinder performance because it will limit a player’s ability to achieve quality repetitions.
The next logical form of stress is adding a coach to chase the player, add gentle contact and attempt to steal the puck. Assuming that the coach understands the type of stress that the player will face in a game, this is the logical next step to increase the stress the player is dealing with because the coach is actually moving and reacting in a manner similar to what the player will face when dealing with hostile opponents in a game. However, the coach is also able to limit the amount of stress applied so that the player is challenged but not overwhelmed.
Once a player can perform the skill under pressure from a coach, the player should next face teammates or other lesson-participants who will add the same kinds of stress as the coach. Because other players are not concerned with specific learning outcomes (the way a coach is) this stress will be more random, potentially more aggressive and closer still to the stress a player will experience in a game. Derek Miller refers to stress progressions as “adding noise” back into the skill, equating stress to the static of a TV or radio station.
“Game Stress – Practice Games & Competition”
Many USA Hockey coaching education programs stress the importance of small area games. And while small area games are important for developing skills & tactics that have game-transfer because they are more game-like than other kinds of skills training, this is an oversimplified view.
In the framework presented here, “game stress” is the last in a long list of progressions. If a player is expected to execute a skill proficiently in a “game-like environment” too soon, this player will be overwhelmed, will not get enough repetitions to build proficiency and performance will suffer in the end. It would be like expecting a first grader to complete a calculus problem before he or she has been given the opportunity to practice basic addition & subtraction.
Another caveat about small area games for coaches who are interested in practice to game transfer: many small area games manipulate the net placement and the playing surface in a way that does not authentically reflect the “ice geography” that players will experience in a game. This does not mean they are without value – they can have a great, great deal of value and a great deal of practice-to-game transfer – but it is certainly a drawback that needs to be kept in mind. In short: they’re a valuable tool, but they don’t solve everything and mindlessly throwing players into them will not produce the same results as a mindful and progression-based approach.
Small area game stress should only be added once players have (1) Practiced, improved and demonstrated proficiency in the smallest and most fundamental aspects of the skill; (2) Practiced, improved and demonstrated proficiency in the skill as a whole (IE, crossovers); (3) Practiced, improved and demonstrated proficiency in the skill as part of a logical sequence with other skills (4) Practiced, improved and demonstrated proficiency using this sequence in the areas of the ice where it is best used in a game and (5) practiced, improved and demonstrated proficiency using this skill/sequence under coach and player pressure.
Finally, games must be constructed to encourage players to use the skill that is being developed. One problem with jumping straight into game stress without first completing the other steps in the progression is that players in a game environment are less likely to repeat the skill over and over; the skill will only be used when the game forces the player to use it by chance. Obviously, this is game-realistic, but it does not give players the repetitions necessary to develop a fledgling skill. In order to have relevance to competitive performance, small area games that are implemented as part of a skill progression must be carefully selected and/or manipulated to ensure players are getting realistic repetitions of the desired skill. It is okay at this point for the player to get less reps than were performed during the isolation stage. A simple rule of thumb is that as skill improves, the number of repetitions becomes less important while the realism of the reps and the environment in which they are performed becomes more important.
Finally, we come to using the skill in a competition. Skills coaching (like all forms of teaching) has an inherent contradiction: our goal as coaches and teachers is to make ourselves obsolete. The final step for any player is taking this skill from game stress as applied in a practice setting to true game stress against hostile opponents without any help or instruction from the coach.
“Predictable Stress, Variable Stress & Random Variable Stress”
One additional note that I would like to make concerning stress is the ways in which a coach can manipulate the variables a player must deal with in order to progress or regress the stress.
The first step in this model is predictable stress. The inanimate objects mentioned above are an example of a stressor that players can predict and that will be the same every time they are encountered. Coach stress can also be made predictable. The coach can apply the same kind of pressure/push/stick-check/etc. so that the player practices dealing with a specific kind of stress over and over again.
The next step is variable stress. This occurs when players are stressed by other players and can also be done with coach stress. A coach can choose the number of variables that the player will be presented with and the player must react and apply the right skill based on the kind of pressure. An example of variable stress would be to have the coach step one way or the other to block a lane and force a player to find the open lane. In this example there are 2 variables: one open lane or the other.
The final step in this model is random variable stress. This is exemplified by game environments where players may face any variety of stressors and must be equipped to react to any of them at any given time.
The “Predictable Stress > Variable Stress > Random Variable Stress” model is not opposed to or different from the “Inanimate Stress > Coach Stress > Player Stress > Game Stress” model mentioned above. Rather, the two work together or interchangeably and each is a way of understanding the deeper concept of how to increase the levels of stress placed on players to progress their skills to a point where these skills improve game performance.
This framework for understanding skill progression is applicable to any domain.
I would like to conclude by stating that the framework addressed in this article is relevant to the world outside of hockey.
The framework outlined below…
Isolating Skill Chunks > Sequencing Skills > Patterning Skills Within the Geography of the Playing Surface > Adding Progressive Stress
…could just as easily be adapted to coaching soccer players, basketball players, football players, etc. Frankly, it’s a model that is applicable to skill development in any domain – not just the sporting world. From managing a business to playing hockey to performing a violin solo, skill progression that translates to performance starts with breaking the skill down into its fundamental and discrete actions, combining those actions into a meaningful whole, performing those actions where you will need to perform them in “the real world” or performance environment and finally adding progressive levels of stress until the difference between practicing the skill and performing the skill is indistinguishable.
That last phrase bears repeating: the final goal of skill progressions is to get to a point where the difference between practicing the skill and performing the skill is indistinguishable.
That’s what practice to game transfer looks like.