KEEP YOUR HEAD UP: Tips to Coach This Important Hockey Habit

KEEP YOUR HEAD UP: Tips to Coach This Important Hockey Habit

HEAD UP, HEAD UP, HEAD UP! We hear it all of the time at the arena. We hear it at practices, we hear it at games. But how often do coaches ACTUALLY make players practice this hockey skill so it can become a habit?

WHAT IS A HABIT? Habits are rituals, behaviors or skills that we perform automatically without thinking about them. The goal of this article is to help coaches learn how to develop a player's ability to keep their head up, and reinforce this behavior until it becomes a habit. This habit will improve their awareness and overall hockey sense.

Even though playing with your head up is one of hockey's most important habits, we don't practice it enough because it is often messy, and there are no immediate results. In a world of Instagram skills, who wants to see someone scan the ice, practice shoulder checking, or fumble the puck as the practice stickhandling with their head up? Unfortunately not many people.

The game of hockey continues to evolve. Each year, it gets faster and more skilled. As a result of this evolution, time and space on the ice is shrinking. Therefore, it is critical for players of all ages and levels to learn how to play the game of hockey with their head up; with and without the puck.

The article below is an overview with concepts, drills, small area games, and videos to spark ideas and help coaches teach one of hockey's most important habits. It will be messy at first, but once the skill of playing with your head up is learned, and reinforced until it becomes a habit, the whole game changes... 

Article Outline

  • Intro: Why You Should Keep Your Head Up
  • 6 Drills & Games That Reinforce Keeping Your Head Up
  • On-Ice Fundamental Stickhandling Exercises
  • The Importance of Coaches Guidance & Encouragement
  • At Home Stickhandling Exercises
  • Conclusion: What Years Of Practice Did for Cale Makar [VIDEO]

Introduction: Why You Should Keep Your Head Up

Keeping your head up will help you make better decisions, allow you to see the play develop, know where the open ice is, deceive your opponents, and even make the game safer. Below we dig into some of the major benefits of keeping your head up while you play hockey.

Benefit # 1: You Make Better Decisions

  • Keeping your head up will dramatically improve your Hockey IQ. When your head is up you can easily identify where your teammates are, where the opposing team is, and where the puck is. This information will allow you to make better decisions on the ice, which will make you a better player and teammate.

Benefit # 2: You See The Play Develop

  • When your head is up and you are scanning the ice, you can see what direction players are skating, how fast they are moving, where the puck is, and where the play is developing. This will allow you to plan ahead and put yourself in a better position to help out your team and make a play. Wayne Gretzky commonly said, "skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been." 

Benefit # 3: You Know Where There Is Open Ice

  • With your head up, you can skate to open ice when you have the puck, or pass to a teammate who is open. When you do not have the puck, you can jump to open ice to be an outlet pass to support your teammate.
  • In the video below, we highlight how keeping your head up and scanning the ice for open space can help generate scoring opportunities when you do not have the puck.

Benefit # 4: You Can Deceive Your Opponents By Looking One Way And Going The Other Way

  • In the video below, USA hockey shows examples of how you can deceive the opponent by looking one way and skating or passing another way.

Benefit # 5: It Is Much Safer To Play Hockey With Your Head Up

  • Especially when body checking is allowed, playing with your head up makes the game much safer than skating full speed with your head down. If you play with your head up you will be able to know where the opponents are so you can skate around them, or brace for contact. 

6 Drills & Games That Reinforce Keeping Your Head Up

As a coach, it is important to implement drills that truly encourage players to keep their head up and scan the ice.

Below are 6 drills and small game examples that reinforce the need for players to keep their head up. We included 2 warm-up exercises, 2 examples of how to modify normal drills to make players keep their head up, and two small area games that will encourage players to keep their heads up, plus a link to 100+ small area games.

Example # 1: Head-Up Scan The Ice Warm-Up

Below is an excellent warm-up activity that is great for any age level from professional skills coach Dwayne Blais. Watch the video to learn the drill and coaching points that players should keep in mind as they perform this drill. Coaches can also modify this warm-up to be in smaller areas with quicker whistles for more skilled age groups.

View the full drill description here: Head-Up Scan The Ice Warm-Up.

Example # 2: Finnish 5 Puck Warm-Up

The Finnish 5 Puck Warm-Up is a great warm-up activity that can be modified to be performed at U8 all the way to the professional levels. Coach Ben Eaves explains the benefits of the activity and the video goes through different movements that players can do to warm up at the beginning of practice. The dynamic nature of the Finnish 5 Puck requires kids to keep their head up at all times.

View the full drill description here: Finnish 5 Puck Warm-Up

Example # 3: Drill Modifications That Require Players To Pick Their Head Up

Below are two examples of how drills can be modified to help encourage players to pick their head up.

  • The first drill shows that adding a coach (or a player) that can move slightly to a location that normally has a cone, will help players pick their head up to make a decision.
  • The second drill we modified to make players look up and call out numbers to make sure they were looking up ice and not just staring at their pass. Watch and listen to the video below to learn more.

 A list of ways that "normal drills" can be modified to require players to pick their head up:

  • Add a coach or player that can swing their stick and move instead of just using a cone (example in video above).
  • Require players to call out a number that is being held up (example in video above).
  • Require a player to call out if a glove or a stick is being held up - example tweeted from Brant Berglund).
  • Make players pass to different players or locations instead of just skating back or passing to the beginning of the line.
  • Add light pressure - allow a coach or player to apply pressure so that a player needs to pick their head up and determine which area to skate.

Example # 4: Keep Away

Keep away is one of the most basic games out there, but it is EXTREMELY beneficial because it is easy to set up, it reinforces so many great skills and players naturally have to keep their head up and move to open space to be successful. PLUS it can be modified in a variety of ways to practice different situations on the ice.

The video below shows a 3 vs. 1 at the Battery Hockey Academy, but coaches can make the keep away game be 5 vs. 2, 4 vs. 2, 3 vs. 2, 2 vs. 2, 2 vs. 1, etc. Coaches can set up keep away to be in a corner to help players practice bank passes off of the boards and you can add goals for the players to make game goals like, "4 passes in a row gets a point." View some of our keep away games by clicking on the links below:

Example # 5: Gretzky 2 vs. 2 Small Area Game

The Gretzky 2 vs. 2 Small Area Game from Topher Scott is a fun game where each team has 2 "Gretzky's" behind the net that they can use during the course of the game. Offensively, this setup encourages players to keep their head up to find their Gretzky's and jump to open space to get a pass to score a goal. Defensively, this setup encourages the defending team to keep their head up and scan the ice so they are aware of where the opposing team and their Gretzky's are located. 

View the full drill description here: Gretzky 2 vs. 2 Small Area Game

Looking for additional games and activities that encourage players to keep their head up? Check out the two links below:

Fundamental Stickhandling Exercises

Dedicating 5 - 10 minutes to practicing stickhandling fundamentals at practice will go a long way in a players development throughout the year.

Below is the first 26 exercises of the Finnish Skill Series. Coaches can select 5 exercises to work on at the beginning of each practice based on the team's skill level. After players are able to execute the skills, coaches should encourage the players to practice doing the skills with their head up. Players can start slow, while they use their peripheral vision to see the puck. As time goes on, players will be able to utilize their peripheral vision to see the puck while their head is up, and they will also be able to feel when the puck is on their stick.

 Watch the Finnish Skill Series below and view links to this series below.

The Importance of Coaches Guidance & Encouragement

There are 3 main reasons kids are programmed to stare down at the puck from an early age.

  1. Most coaches do not encourage and reinforce the importance of playing with your head up.
  2. Many coaches use drills where a kid can be successful without looking up (just look at most drills that ONLY use cones)
  3. Coaches (and parents) put too much pressure on kids to practice perfectly.

For players to learn how to play hockey with their head up a coach needs to guide the players by letting them know why they should keep their head up, while also implementing drills and small area games that reinforce the need for kids to play with their head up. It is also helpful for coaches to be able to describe 4 main terms that can help players understand what movements they can do while keeping their head up.

  1. Scan The Ice: Exactly as it sounds. Scanning the ice reminds players to scan from side to side to try to take in as much information as possible. The video below of Cale Makar is a great example of this.
  2. Head On A Swivel: This is another term to encourage players to look around and not just look straight ahead.
  3. Shoulder Check: This is the act of looking back over your shoulder to see what is behind you. This is extremely useful when you are picking the puck up off of the boards.
  4. Head Up: Simply looking up.

Lastly, coaches need to allow and even encourage players to make mistakes in practice. If a kid loses a puck while they are trying to stickhandle with their head up....Good! They are pushing outside of their normal comfort level and are working to get better. Kids (and adults) will not improve if they stay in their comfort zone and do not make mistakes. If a player isn't working at picking their head up in practice, there is no way they will magically learn in a game when a coach or parent screams Head Up, Head Up, Head Up!

For example - take a look at current NHL'er Cale Makar practicing power-play breakouts during a Colorado Avalanche practice. EVERY REP he is stickhandling with his head up while he scans the ice. Even he isn't perfect. He loses the puck on the second rep, but because of his years of practice, he is able to quickly identify that he lost the puck and he kicks it back up to his stick.

If Cale Makar can look a little messy in practice as he works to get better, youth players should be allowed to as well. 

At Home Stickhandling Work

It is important for coaches, players, and parents to understand that learning how to play with your head up will not happen overnight. It takes years of practice to be able to do it well and even striving to get 1% better each day will take you very far. Playing with your head up at practice helps, but one way to really go the extra mile is to develop a fun at home stickhandling routine. 5 - 15 minutes a day will go such a long way towards development. The key is to make a routine that is fun so you want to keep with it! Blast some tunes, find a fun location and be creative with it so you like to practice consistently! If you fall in love with practice, great things will happen.  

Below are a few off-ice stickhandling ideas that players can work on. Start slowly to dial in the movements and then work on keeping your head up as you improve. 

If you are looking for more off-ice stickhandling ideas check out: Off-Ice Stickhandling Exercises

Conclusion: What Years Of Practice Did for Cale Makar [VIDEO]

When a player habitually keeps their head up, the whole game changes for them. Just watch the highlight video below of Cale Makar's first 3 years in the NHL. He is one of NHL's most dynamic defencemen and he does it with his head up all of the time. Because his head is up constantly, he is aware of where his teammates are, he sees the play develop, knows where there is open ice, and he can deceive the opponents. This did not come easy for him, it took years of hard work and he still works at it all of the time at practice (just watch the video at the top of this article as a reminder).

Watch the video below and notice how often his head is up. 

Learning how to play hockey with your head up takes time. As a coach, next time you are on the ice, let practice get a little messy. If coaches commit to helping players learn the benefits of keeping their head up, while reinforcing the skill with drills and small area games, it can eventually become a habit for a player. Most of all, make the practice and process of learning fun for the players. 

If you continue with these concepts throughout the season, you will be amazed at how your team develops and what the players will see on the ice!

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