Q: At what age should the responsibility begin shifting from the parent to the player?
A: The 14U/16U level is often where a hockey player is either made or unmade. Why? Because this is the age when a player will start to focus on hockey and decide for themselves whether to become a hockey player or just play hockey.
When hockey is ramped up at too early of an age, it can become a burden. When that happens, by the time players reach the 14U/16U age, when they should be excited about taking that next step, there is not enough emotional energy left in the tank. It’s called burnout, and sadly, it’s becoming more common, particularly among players who have gone 24/7, 365 days a year and did not slow down enough to enjoy the game for what it is.
When a child is brought along properly, they reach this 14U/16U Train-to-Train stage excited to make hockey their main athletic focus, anticipating what they will be able to do with their game in the future. It creates a desire in the athlete to do more in order to see how it can advance their game. In this age period, the motivated players will start to include extra activities such as specific fitness training and off-ice work that will include free weights, explosive arm and leg power, and introduction to physical testing and functional assessments. This also may include the athlete doing more exercises on their own to advance their game, whether it’s shooting pucks, stickhandling or adjusting their nutritional habits for optimal performance.
But even at 14U/16U, we still encourage players to participate in at least one other complimentary sport. During this Train-to-Train phase, players will be starting to specialize in hockey. The average age of an NHL rookie is 22.8 years old and the average age of a U.S. Women’s National Team player is 24 years old. We cannot lose sight that there is still a huge period of time during which the 14U/16U athlete will continue to develop before they reach their full long-term potential. This includes their time in youth associations all the way through collegiate hockey, if that is the path they choose.
Nobody is going pro at 10, 12 or even 16 years of age – but a young athlete with potential can certainly be broken at that age if the focus shifts too early away from age-appropriate fun. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
So, does the development responsibility begin shifting to the athlete at 14U/16U? Yes. That’s when it begins. But remember, they’re still a long way from the finish line.
The author, Emily West, joined USA Hockey in 2017 as its American Development Model manager for female hockey.
Prior to joining USA Hockey, West worked at a multi-sport training facility and also coached hockey at various levels from youth and girls through high school. In 2017, she completed hockey director training at the North American Rink Conference and Expo in Columbus, Ohio.
West played collegiately at the University of Minnesota, where she was a two-time captain of the Golden Gophers women’s hockey team and a Patty Kazmaier Award nominee in 2010. She helped the Gophers win two conference titles and an NCAA Division I national championship in 2012, finishing her playing career with 158 points.
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