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12U: Resisting Early Sport Specialization

06/09/2021, 1:00pm MDT
By Steve Mann

When it comes to hockey, more isn’t always better. In fact, in some cases, over-doing it on hockey, or any other single sport for that matter, can have significant negative side effects that may harm long-term development or lead to serious injuries down the road.

The practice of “early sport specialization” – kids focusing on one sport exclusively, and often year-round – has gained steam over the past several years and is something most sports health professionals agree should be resisted.

Dr. Charles Popkin, who currently specializes in pediatric, adolescent and collegiate sports medicine in New York, understands the challenges young hockey players and their parents face.

“There are unique pressures for these kids to be skating year-round,” said Popkin, who has served as a team physician for USA Hockey and on the USA Hockey National Safety and Protective Equipment Committee. “At a certain point, if you do more of something you will likely get better at it, but there’s also a point of diminishing returns. You can’t be on the ice 24-7.”

Phenomenon such as “FOMO” (the fear of missing out) and “Keeping up with the Joneses,” plus the simple desire to open up opportunities for their children has made the decision to specialize – or not to specialize – in one sport a difficult one for youth sports parents. No parent wants their kid to fall behind his or her peers and, in some cases, it’s the passion-filled child doing the pushing. All that said, parents and players alike should be aware of the potential risks.

Popkin identified three main dangers to focusing on just hockey at such a young age, particularly prior to the 14U level:

1. Physical injuries:

“Articles have shown that the earlier you specialize in a sport, doing the same movements over and over, it increases injury risk, particularly overuse injuries like the ‘Bauer Bump’ (inflamed area where the Achilles meets the heel bone) and ‘Lace Bites’ (irritation of the muscle in the front of the ankle, under the tongue of the skate) to more debilitating injuries such as hip impingements or Osgood Schlatter’s (an overuse injury of the knee).

2. Burnout:

“The earlier you specialize, the higher chance you have of burning out and less chance of continuing to play that sport as an adult. You want to get the kids away from hockey for a while, so that coming back to the rink is something they look forward to. I’m often amazed at how many hours kids are playing every week. There’s a rule that we use that if you’re doing more hours of sport per week than your age, you’re putting yourself at risk. That’s a good, reasonable rule of thumb. You want kids to cross-train, play baseball or lacrosse or basketball or something different and fun. So, when they get back on the ice, they’re energized and ready to go.”

3. Negative mental health impact:

“If they put all of their eggs in one basket so early, kids may end up having their entire identity wrapped up in that one thing. This can be unhealthy, especially if they don’t make an important team or if they suffer an injury and can’t play. They may consider themselves a big failure. Some kids can’t handle that disappointment. Whereas, if they cross-train or play another sport they have something else they can fall back on.”

On the flip side, there are many positives to trying other sports. According to Popkin, when you cross-train, you develop whole-body skills and athleticism, quickness and core strength. With sports like lacrosse, soccer, tennis or baseball, he says, there’s crossover to hockey. “You’ll learn about using space, agility and improve hand-eye coordination.”

“Even doing something different for a few months a year helps,” said Popkin. “You’ll broaden your skills, get some diversity and build connections with people that are like-minded. Longer term, it will make you a better hockey player. I do believe that.”

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