How were our Olympians developing their abilities when they were 10 and 12 years old? It’s not a secret, yet some parents and coaches have increasingly strayed from it in recent years. It’s actually a very simple path to success; a proven cross-training method.
What is it? Playing multiple sports. Yep – it’s that simple. Somewhere along the line, it became misconstrued as an unnecessary part of development, but in fact, it’s one of the most important elements in crafting a complete athlete.
Chris Snyder is the director of coaching and coaching education for the United States Olympic Committee. He says playing multiple sports is essentially cross-training for each sport. Just using the words “cross-training” helps get that point across to skeptical parents and coaches.
“Use multiple sports as ‘cross-training,’ and that sounds all professional and adult,” Snyder said. “And then to the kids, multi-sport means, ‘Oh, I get to do something different? Cool. That’s fun.’”
So the parent hears multiple sports as “cross-training” and the kid hears it as something new and exciting. In the end, you’re giving your child the opportunity to maximize skill development and enjoyment.
“Developing the whole athlete in the offseason is the key,” Snyder said. “That’s what many of our Olympians are doing. They’re developing themselves mentally and physically in the offseason. You can’t do that when you’re on the ice five times a week during the summer time and everybody else is outside.”
In two “Path to Excellence” studies conducted by the United States Olympic Committee from 1984-1998 and again from 2000-2012, U.S. Olympians were asked how many sports they played growing up.
The answers provided a clear narrative in favor of playing multiple sports.
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Simply put, our country’s top athletes played three or more sports until they reached high school. Even then, they continued to play multiple sports until they were 18.
Face the Facts
The best athletes are the best hockey players.
“The reality is, you need to be a well-rounded athlete, and you need to develop skills that other kids don’t have,” Snyder said. “That’s how you excel.”
“You can’t do that by doing nothing but skating every day. You’re going to be an awesome skater, but you’re not going to be creative. You’re not going to score goals like Kane or Malkin or some of these guys.”
When did NHL players specialize? Later than you think. St. Louis Blues captain David Backes didn’t focus solely on hockey until he was 18. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Dustin Brown played multiple sports until he was 16. Goaltender Jonathan Quick didn’t specialize until he was 17.
And it’s not just hockey players that benefit from multiple sports. NBA star Steve Nash was a professional-level soccer player. Donovan McNabb was a quarterback and point guard for the Syracuse football and basketball teams, respectively, before starting his NFL career. Joe Mauer had his choice at college football, basketball and baseball scholarships before being selected No. 1 overall in the MLB Draft.
“Won’t My Kid Fall Behind?”
Many parents believe the kids next door, who devote 100 percent of their time to hockey year-round, will surpass Little Johnny or Jenny if they play multiple sports.
In reality, the family next door may see short-term gains, but at the increased risk of long-term troubles.
“By the end of that hockey season, it’s the kids who weren’t playing year-round that normally are the healthiest and the best,” Snyder said. “It’s those other kids that have been doing nothing but hockey that get burnt out. Those are the ones that will start having an injury here and an injury there or they just start mentally checking out.”
Let’s Get Technical, Not Tactical
The crossover benefits of playing multiple sports are critical if we focus more on skills and less on winning and tactics. Winning and wanting to win is good, but not at the cost of development and fun.
Under the ages of 10 and 12, we should be teaching the ABCs of sport: agility, balance and coordination. The goal should be to help kids develop a strong basis of overall athleticism. This is the Golden Age of Skill Development, a precious window of trainability during which young athletes can make the most dramatic gains in skill, suppleness and speed. Failure to take full advantage of these comparatively brief windows will limit athletes’ ultimate potential.
“When kids get to 10 and 12, that’s when they start to mentally be able to connect the dots between what they’re doing and how to apply it on the sheet of ice or apply it in dryland training and just apply it in life overall,” Snyder said. “That’s when mentally they catch up and start putting two and two together.”
But it shouldn’t stop here. Keep going.
“The cool thing is, that’s not when to shift away from those ABCs,” Snyder said. “This is time to really hone in and gain proficiency in agility, balance and coordination, and the overall physicality of sport.”
That’s what our Olympians did, and it turned out pretty well for them.