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Beyond athleticism: The hidden benefits of multiple sports and free play

06/26/2017, 10:15am MDT
By Mike Doyle

To unlock a child’s full athletic potential, USA Hockey recommends following the principles of long-term athlete development and using the offseason as a time to participate in other sports and activities.

However, beyond the scope of developing a youngster’s physical attributes, participation in other sports and activities, and even free play with neighborhood friends, can have a positive impact that goes well beyond athleticism.

Learning ‘invasion’ tactics

USA Hockey defines "invasion sports" as “team games in which the purpose is to invade the opponent’s territory while scoring points and keeping the opposing team's points to a minimum, and all within a defined time period.”

Ken Martel, technical director of USA Hockey’s American Development Model, said that players can learn and use things that relate to hockey by playing these types of games.  

“Those sports, the tactics are all very similar,” Martel said. “If you watch a lot of soccer, it’s sort of how the Russians used to play ice hockey, that puck-possession regrouping. A lot of the tactics are the same, creating 2-on-1s within the play. Things like this carry over.”

Players can pick up offensive and defensive concepts in other sports and apply them to hockey. Think about defense in basketball – not watching the ball, looking at the opponent’s chest and moving laterally to stay in front of him or her.

Martel’s greatest example comes from a legend’s most famous tactic.

“Look at Wayne Gretzky, who was famous in our sport for setting up behind the net,” Martel said. “Well, it’s a common tactic in lacrosse, and he played a lot of lacrosse growing up. There are certain [athletic] traits that transfer and you can learn different things from different sports.”

No ‘I’ in team

Hockey is a team game. Listen to a postgame interview of any NHL player, whether it’s a superstar or fourth-liner, and he will always put his team ahead of himself.

However, Martel advises youngsters to also participate in an individual sport, such as tennis, golf or swimming. Individual sports put an onus on, well, the individual. 

“If I could recommend something, it’s that kids play an individual sport, as well as the team sports when they’re young,” Martel said. “[Individual sports] have different psychological aspects. Team sports is about supporting others and being a good teammate. Individual sports, there’s a certain amount of responsibility that needs to be undertaken. ‘If it’s going to happen, it’s up to me.’ You can’t blame somebody else if something doesn’t go right.”

The social side

Learning to play with others will help develop social skills that will last long after your child’s playing days are done.

Your son or daughter may be the best player on their hockey team. They might be the ninth batter on their little league team. Learning to be in a different role within a team dynamic can be beneficial for social development. 

But free play is also important. If your son or daughter isn’t enrolled in another team sport, encourage them to go out with friends and shoot some hoops, kick around a soccer ball or even play tag in the backyard.

“We say play other sports because that’s going to be a controlled activity, but don’t count out all of the free play that can happen with kids and their friends,” Martel said. “You learn a lot of really good things when you just play with other kids – you problem-solve.”

“As adults, we do a good job of organizing things. We’re on the clock, especially with hockey, because ice time is so valuable. Let kids have free-play opportunities. Let them get together with their friends. There will be arguments; they’ll have to solve problems. If one team is winning, they’ll reshuffle the deck and pick new teams. Call fouls and penalties. Sort things out. It’s really good for them to be in those environments to develop social skills.”

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