Being heavily involved in sport I have the opportunity to talk with a variety of people about the game on a daily basis. One of the groups of people I talk with most is parents. For some reason since I started coaching parents have become increasingly obsessed with their son or daughter becoming the next great athlete. Almost like they lived vicariously through the child, they expect so much from the children. I often hear parents complain that they spend all their time in a hockey rink as they have their child in the regular league, spring league (or selects league), hockey camps, powerskating camps, private lessons, and stick time. Their child needs hockey specialization “so they can focus on one sport and be the very best”. Apparently the more hockey you can cram down the throat of your child is directly proportional to the salary they will earn in the pros later on in life. If only it was that simple.
There are many problems I feel are associated with sport specialization, especially at an early age. Here is just a few of the issues:
- how many kids like to do one thing (or sport) for years on end, mulitple hours per day? Even Wayne Gretzky (who was a freak of nature with the amount of hockey he played as a kid) didn’t specialize in hockey until he was in his mid teens. Gretzky played a lot of Lacrosse in the summer…never spending time in a rink for 4 to 5 months of the year. Only when he played at the major junior and pro level did this change. These days however, we feel that our children need to spend every week of the year in the rink to be the best. This is a recipe for sport burnout.
- the beauty of playing multiple sports is you develop into a well rounded athlete. As hockey is such a complex game requiring many different skills it stands to reason that playing another sport is a great avenue to develop hockey related skills. I have my goaltenders for instance play racquet sports in the summer. Why? Because it’s kind of important to develop hand eye coordination and multi-directional mobility for a goalie…which is exactly what happens in racquetball or tennis. A hockey forward would certainly benefit from playing Lacrosse, soccer, ball hockey or even roller hockey in the summer as these are different sports that build an overall skill set.
- let’s say you develop a child into a hockey player, but for whatever reason they fail to make those last levels in the sport. If they are good enough to play junior, but never get a college offer or chance to play pro, their hockey career is over. In a matter of months, everything they know (like practicing 4 to 5 days a week, bus trips with the team, dryland training, etc.) is over. I know many, many junior players who are a mess that last year of hockey because they know their hockey career is ending. Their identity is lost. Playing rec league hockey after you have played Junior A is a very different experience for most players. Instead, why not expose your child to multiple sports and emphasis that sport is for life! They can learn how to play a variety of sports and when hockey is done they can continue playing tennis or baseball for the rest of their life without their identity and ego taking a huge hit.
These are just some of the ways that sport specialization is not a good idea. I talk about this subject extensively in my book, DRYLAND (the Long Term Athlete Development chapter). I would highly recommend that parents and children get in a lot of sport experiences and always make it fun so that they learn how to carry the idea of playing sports through their entire lives, and not just until they are no longer able to play one sport at the elite level.