The Importance of Imperfect Practice
The more we study youth athletic development, the more we realize how few absolutes there truly are. Take, for example, the assertion that practice makes permanent. In many cases, it is true and I’ve written the phrase in this paper. If you practice skating standing up, you’ll learn to skate standing up. Of course, we wouldn’t argue that when a four-year-old hits the ice and begins to learn to skate that their incorrect stride mechanics are damaging to their stride. Rather, we know that it is through those imperfect stride pushes, the falling down, and the getting back up that young skaters develop the strength, coordination, and balance necessary to learn to skate properly.
Equally absurd would be our attempt to make skaters play the game “perfectly”, whatever that means. In many situations, there are multiple correct decisions. A forward might be able to cycle the puck down low, hit his defenseman at the point, or drive across an open seam and put the puck on net. Hockey is a game of chess where the pieces change relative strength every shift as new players and combinations hit the ice and as players go from energetic to tired. If there were a hockey god that could detail the most perfect decision at any given moment, surely it would not repeatedly be the same decision every time a similar situation occurred.
Being able to read and react to the game takes time and lots of imperfect practice. Players need time in unstructured pond-like settings where they can simply play the game. They need to feel free enough to try new moves and slow the play down. Too often, even at the youngest ages, players seem to be pressured to perform and play a certain way. The result is more robotic hockey players, less creativity, and ultimately worse athletes.
The problem with trying to perfect play at the youngest ages is that the long-term consequence is an inability to process plays at the higher levels – it is too fast and thinking is a sign of a weak player. As David Epstein in The Sports Gene writes, “’thinking’ about an action is the sign of a novice in sports”. To become elite, athletes need to practice skills so they become automated, rather than processes that require conscious thought. These skills include the ability to “calculate” the movements of your teammates and those of your opponents and make an instantaneous decision about what you should do next.
Whether the skill is the ability to recognize an opening in an opponent’s defense or to learn how to skate, imperfect practice is necessary. No one starts out perfectly executing either of these skills. This isn’t to say that we don’t provide correction and feedback to players. Rather, the goal of all coaches should be to understand when correction is helpful and when it could be detrimental. Especially at the youngest ages, players need time to learn through play and error. With that in mind, let’s hope for a cold winter where our players can go play for hours on the pond without any coaching or correction. It might just be what they’ll need to make it to the next level.
 David Epstein (Author). “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance Paperback – April 29, 2014.” Pages 13-14.