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12U Q-and-A: Avoiding the early-specialization trap

02/15/2018, 2:30pm MST
By Guy "Goose" Gosselin

Q: Some of my son’s 12U teammates are supposedly thinking of giving up their other sports and just playing hockey. At least that’s what their parents are saying. Is that a good idea?

A: Although hockey is a great sport and may be a child’s favorite, it's not a great idea to specialize early. Studies show that multi-sport athletes have a better chance to excel in the long run. First of all, they benefit from building a better base of all-around athleticism, but beyond that, there are advantages in staying mentally fresh from the variety and learning how to adapt to different coaches, teammates and roles within a team.

Even more importantly, numerous studies have shown that early single-sport specialists suffer more injuries than their multi-sport peers (especially overuse injuries), and more burnout. Neither of those outcomes are what you’re looking for when you sign your kids up for youth sports, where hopefully they are strengthening their bodies and setting the foundation for a lifelong love of being physically active and fit.

Here’s some food for thought: A recent tweet from the Aspen Institute said that 71 percent of Olympians from 2000-2012 were multi-sport athletes. Separately, in Super Bowl LII, 102 of the 106 rostered players were multi-sport athletes during high school. So there’s really no evidence that early specialization helps anyone reach an elite level in most sports, including hockey.

Despite all of that, we live in a culture that sometimes seems to drive early specialization and the possibility that you may be getting an edge on your neighbor. Don’t fall into that trap. Do yourself a favor and read some of the studies that real child development and medical experts are publishing on the topic of youth sports participation. You won’t find any that support the idea of children becoming early hockey specialists. Instead, they’ll recommend that you slow player development down to the age-appropriate pace and remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

The author, Guy "Goose" Gosselin, made his NHL debut with Winnipeg in 1988. He is a two-time United States Olympian and was inducted into the University of Minnesota Duluth Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013.

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