When my daughter was around three years old and my son 18 months old, we got them each balance bikes. Balance bikes don’t have any peddles and are low to the ground so that toddlers can sit on them and use their legs to generate speed. As kids play with the balance bikes, they build coordination, balance, strength, and confidence. Over time, they begin to balance on the bike for longer periods of time without using their feet on the ground. Then as their confidence on the bike rises, they’ll experiment with turns, making them sharper and faster. When my daughter had been on her balance bike for over a year, she asked to try the big kid bike with the peddles.
The experience was completely opposite to the one I had envisioned. I didn’t have to teach my daughter anything. I didn’t do much besides give her a push on the first couple starts on the bike. She had built all of the skills and learned them implicitly on the balance bike. Then, those skills transferred seamlessly over to the real bike. I never deliberated tried to explain how to bike or attempted to teach her how in any way.
Traditionally, teaching your kid to bike was stressful. Accidents from a bike with peddles hurt a lot more as you are falling from a pretty high point. With balance bikes, that fear is low or nonexistent. My kids fell all the time but injuries were pretty minor and resolved quickly. The balance bike method teaches implicitly and the role of the parent is to facilitate a good learning environment – bring the kids to a skate park, go on a family bike through the park, encourage them to try a steeper hill, etc. The traditional bike method requires explicit teaching and the parent is the conveyor of knowledge.
In hockey, we often teach kids to play the sport as if no balance bikes exist. We are trying to explain things deliberately and methodically. These methods cause a lot of frustration, just like learning to ride a big kid bike. Concepts can easily be misunderstood and inevitably the game throws a curveball. The player gets past the red with an odd man rush, but dumps it instead in a panic – which started in a few shifts prior when the player lost the puck in the neutral zone on a turnover.
Whenever someone from an older generation sees kids on balance bikes zipping around at 2 or 3 or 4 years old, they smile and almost always say, “I wish we had those when our kids were growing up!”. What a beautifully simple yet effective concept to teach biking! In hockey, we also have balance bikes. They aren’t secrets or insanely complicated drills. Small area games, pond hockey, roller hockey in the neighborhood, and other evasion-based sports (like soccer, lacrosse, basketball) all teach players implicitly. The skills learned in these contexts transfer.
For many, the idea of small area games as a way to teach is too abstract. Let me be clear. This isn’t a full hands-off approach – just as the balance bikes are not. As parents, we have to provide the right settings, handle the injuries, suggest fun things to do on the bikes (like going to some skate parks to work on biking on different inclines), etc. There is the same level of purpose of a balance bike in small area games. Consider the gate game, displayed below, and the role it plays in teaching spacing, support, and puck movement. Players score by passing the puck through a gate to a teammate. There are three gates. Every novice team that plays this game will gravitate toward one gate, stare at it, try to force pucks through it, etc. A coach can simply make suggestions here to encourage the athletes to spread out, move the puck quickly, and support whoever has the puck by skating to open areas on the ice. Open ended suggestions and cues will go a lot farther than constraint-based rules. As players develop, they move the puck better, spread out, and start to learn how to manipulate the game. Coaches can then provide more advanced suggestions. The game itself, like the balance bike, also teaches. The athletes that learn to move the puck the best score the most and so just by playing the game, skaters begin improving!
Regardless of the quality of coaching, kids will make mistakes. It won’t always be aesthetically pleasing to watch. But that’s the simple price we pay to let the kids learn. They have to make mistakes. My son fell more times than I can count on the balance bike. Each fall was a lesson on how fast he could push a turn or stop without falling. I didn’t throw the bike away just because it got dirt on it. I didn’t shy away from letting him go down a steeper hill because he could fail.
We shouldn’t discard small games or pond hockey out of the training program because it isn’t perfect hockey. It’ll be marked with imperfections, but those minor failures will help players learn what works and what doesn’t. The coach becomes more of a support person than a quarterback of each player’s movements. In this way, more sustainable learning occurs that creates an adaptable and more creative athlete. Ultimately, as coaches we should be working to find more games and drills that act like balance bikes!