We might like to think of progress in life as linear, but often it’s not. It comes in a series of bursts and slowdowns, gains and setbacks.
This is true at any age, but it’s particularly true for kids – especially those nearing their teen years. Physical growth, cognitive growth and social growth can be a difficult, even painful progression.
“There’s what parents think and what actually happens – a straight line vs. a squiggly line,” said Ken Martel, technical director for USA Hockey’s American Development Model. “Sometimes it’s forward, up, down, backwards. What we’re looking for is that, over time, there’s an upward trajectory. But if you look at things in any short run, you’re going to see wide disparities.”
That’s largely due to the fact that kids grow and mature at different rates. Growth spurts, early or late bloomers and a range of other factors can have a major impact on development, particularly between the ages of 12 to 16 in boys and 11 to 15 in girls.
When a youth player goes through a growth spurt, the tendency might be to think they will suddenly become bigger, stronger and more forceful. That might be true, but their coordination often doesn’t keep pace in the short-term.
“Typically in our sport, when they hit that growth acceleration, the extremities grow first, then limbs and then torso,” Martel said. “In a sport like hockey, you’ll see kids that are pretty good skaters and then, seemingly overnight, their skating mechanics go haywire. They look clumsy and can’t quite get things right. Or they might keep their mechanics, but slow way down. They just haven’t caught up with their bodies yet.”
If that happens in between seasons, a player might show up at a tryout and wind up getting cut because he or she looks uncoordinated, when in reality, that’s just a short-term consequence of a growth spurt.
“We’ve had elite players cut from teams at these ages because they show up for tryouts and there is no institutional knowledge of how good they really are,” Martel said. “There are tons of examples of that happening out there. It’s really about having patience and understanding that sometimes adolescent players might go backward in the short-term.”
Along the same lines, kids who go through growth spurts and mature earlier “tend to get rewarded” because they are bigger and stronger than the kids who don’t, Martel said. But he cautions that coaches – and by extension the players themselves – need to understand it will even out in the long-term.
“In three or four years, they might just be an average-size kid and not have the size advantage,” Martel added. “And if they haven’t learned to solve problems with their head, they’ll be in trouble.”
How can parents monitor development?
In some ways, recognizing a growth spurt might be pretty obvious.
“Parents intuitively see it,” Martel said. “In a month, a kid has grown four inches and the grocery bill is through the roof.”
But there are also a few things to measure, particularly for parents of 12U players looking for signs of a growth spurt. Martel recommends checking height, of course, but also arm span and seated torso height.
“Take that every couple months so you can get a sense for when kids are growing,” Martel said. “If you have a club or local association that’s doing this for the kids, it’s pretty good feedback.”
That information can be beneficial for the player’s hockey development as well as their overall development. If they’re going through a growing period, they might need more work on skating technique and flexibility to help them adapt to their changing bodies.
“It’s really important to be cognizant of where your kids are at, to be mindful and take that into consideration,” Martel said. “The kid who is used to being a good skater but is now an ugly skater, you might have to go back and work on some flexibility to work through that. They’ll come out on the other side of the change a very good player.”
Patience is key
As is the case with so many facets of parenting, patience is key when dealing with growth-related changes. It happens to everyone, at different rates and different points. It’s usually earlier for girls; for boys, a growth spurt might not happen until they are in 14U or even 16U.
Regardless of when it happens, parents need to recognize that not only is it normal, it’s normal for an athlete to struggle through it.
“Too often, people in youth sports get wrapped up in the outcomes,” said Martel. “If a kid is more awkward, has difficult skating, and endures a performance drop-off, we just need a little more patience with kids at these ages. It’s OK. It’s part of the normal growth and development process for kids.”
And proving once again that kids can teach us about life, Martel adds: “Just when you think you have it figured out, they change again.”