Q: Will my kid fall behind without playing spring and summer hockey?
A: Likely not, and more importantly, your child will enjoy greater success in the long run if they avoid playing year-round hockey now.
Even NHL players and Olympians take extended time away from the ice in the summer. It’s an essential component of their recovery, development and maintenance of high-level play. For children, that time away from hockey is even more important. Year-round hockey programming harms young skaters emotionally, physically and athletically, yet, many parents and coaches claim that early specialization is necessary to become an elite hockey player. It’s simply not true. USA Hockey, the United States Olympic Committee, countless high-level coaches and numerous physiologists will tell you that early specialization actually limits and damages prospective hockey players, reducing their chances of becoming the cream of the crop.
So what exactly is early specialization? It’s when a player, prior to puberty, focuses all of his or her time on one sport in hopes of increasing or accelerating skill development. It may sound like a logical route to more skill development, but research and anecdotal evidence indicates the contrary.
Young kids have short attention spans that limit the amount of time they can focus and perform repetitions correctly. Participating in multiple sports allows these young athletes to learn a variety of motor skills, hone them efficiently and increase their physical literacy. It teaches them diverse movement patterns, varied skill sets and cognitive understanding of game sense. Taking a long-term holistic view, it also puts them on a path toward a lifetime of real-world physical fitness, because they’ve developed the ability, confidence and habits to be competent in multiple physical activities. For the 99 percent of youth athletes that don’t become professional athletes, this varied fitness foundation helps them enjoy the camaraderie and health benefits of an active lifestyle in adulthood.
Another benefit of playing multiple sports is a reduction in overuse injury risk. Sports medicine doctors are seeing a substantial increase in overuse injuries among children and early specialization is a major contributor. These players are getting injured before they even have a chance to develop physically. Calls for change are coming from the hockey world and all over the sporting community, including from Major League Baseball and USA Baseball, which recently launched a Pitch Smart initiative aimed at reducing these kinds of injuries brought on by early specialization and overuse.
Early specialization is also increasing the psychological burnout rate among children, eliminating many from the game before they even hit their athletic prime. Among those who hang on despite the burnout, there’s an indifference to their game that caps potential.
Adults get caught up in allowing or pushing their little ones to play one sport for a number of reasons. They might be scared that their child will fall behind. They might push them simply because the kids are good at it and see immediate skill improvements and love the results. However, athletic development is a long process, and sport-specific skill development is only one piece. In order to be a great player, one must be an athlete first. And it’s important to remember that, especially in hockey, the “great” 10U player won’t automatically be the “great” player in years to come, when it actually matters and the stakes are higher. Skills and sense transfer from sport to sport. Overall athleticism matters. Hunger matters. Energy matters. Recovery matters. Early specialization impairs all of this, limiting athletes’ potential for long-term success. The goal should not be to produce the best 10-year-old, but to cultivate healthy children instead, and give them an opportunity to thrive in high school athletics, college athletics and beyond. It’s hard to trust it as a parent, when those around you seem to be submitting to early specialization, but take heart in the following:
The U.S. Olympic Committee recently published a report based on a survey distributed to nearly 2,000 Olympic athletes. The results indicated that the vast majority of Olympians did not specialize in their sport until very late in their development, and even then, some continued to participate in other sports.
|Age||Average Number of Sports Played|
These findings indicate that Olympians were involved in an average of three sports per year until age 14, which contradicts the notion that early specialization is critical to long-term athletic success. Multi-sport play appeared to be beneficial to these Olympians.
Similar findings come from the NHL. When asked, “How old were you when you started to specialize (only play and train) in hockey?” here is what some of our American NHL players reported:
|Player||NHL Team||Age of Specialization|
|Craig Anderson||Ottawa Senators||High School|
|David Backes||St. Louis Blues||18|
|Beau Bennett||Pittsburgh Penguins||
|Dustin Brown||Los Angeles Kings||16|
|John Gibson||Anaheim Ducks||15|
|Jimmy Howard||Detroit Red Wings||15|
|Trevor Lewis||Los Angeles Kings||15|
|Jonathan Quick||Los Angeles Kings||17|
|Brandon Saad||Chicago Blackhawks||15|
The football world also weighed in with evidence contradicting the perceived benefits of early specialization. ESPN surveyed 128 NFL quarterbacks – 73 active, 55 retired – and 95 percent of them played multiple sports in high school. Nearly 70 percent of them played three sports or more. There were only five active NFL quarterbacks who reported that they were single-sport specialists, and each of them was a backup quarterback.
Bottom line, mounting evidence shows no benefit to young athletes specializing in a single sport. Even more alarming, they have a greater risk of repetitive-use injury, they experience more burnout and they miss out on the advantages that playing multiple sports can give them.
So, encourage your kids to try different sports and to have fun while they are doing it.
The author, Michele Amidon, was a four-year letter-winner at St. Lawrence University and an ECAC MVP. Later, as a coach, she guided Bowdoin to a pair of national tournaments en route to being named NCAA Division III Women’s Hockey Coach of the Year.