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Podcast | Finding a balance in sport specialization

By Ontario Minor Hockey Association, 02/18/16, 1:30PM EST


Activities outside of hockey can help build a complete athlete

For as much as we love the game of hockey, it is important to remember how necessary it is to have a balance.

With hockey occupying the majority of our calendars during the year, ensuring that kids are able to participate in other physical activities is another crucial step in their development and creating a more complete athlete.

David Kittner (@YouthFitnessGuy) is the co-founder of Prowess Strength and Conditioning in Peterborough. He creates strength and conditioning development programs for athletes, teams, parents and coaches and has worked with the New York Rangers and USA Hockey.

He understands the worry of parents who think that if their child does not specialize in one sport that they won’t be skilled or well-equipped enough to make the top teams. However, Kittner urges them to remember that kids still need to enjoy themselves while simultaneously becoming physically literate.

“Just because a child does play at a high level travel team at any centre, doesn’t mean they have a lot of athletic skills, doesn’t mean they have a lot of social skills,” said Kittner. “I’m not saying they don’t, but they’re not going to be as well-rounded as kids that are involved in a lot of different activities, whether that be organized or free play.”

Setting up a simple, rotating parental supervision schedule in the neighborhood or throughout the team can ensure that kids have enough time to play outside or at the park in a safe, monitored environment.

“There’s a lot of young kids with some great sport-specific skills, and rightfully so because that’s all they’re doing. But take a hockey stick out of their hand and ask them to doing something athletic or skip or hop and do some very basic movement and they can’t. They struggle because they haven’t had the experience. When you don’t have that experience of developing systemic strength over the years, your risk of injury is very high and being over-specialized from such a young age, the burnout is quite high as well.”

Specializing in a single sport can hinder long-term athletic development and drain a player emotionally if they only participate in one activity. Kittner describes it as feeling ‘robotic’, the sense of going through the motions simply because it’s all they have ever known.

Exposing children to new experiences can help build a social skillset and build interactions outside of the rink. Kids can be competitive on their own, often creating rules independently with limited organization.

“Social skills, emotional skills, all that interaction. Learning to negotiate, learning to get along with others, that all comes out of free play. When everything is done for the kids, they don’t have a chance to experience that or sort out their own battles or learn to discover.”

Learning these abilities helps to build well-rounded characters off the ice when the competitive hockey playing days are over. It’s easy to forget that these kids will grow up to be adults, and limiting them to the short-sighted picture does nobody any favours. Experiences during someone’s youth can have an effect on their future.

The ‘10,000 Hour Rule’ is often touted as a practice guideline for creating success in the assigned task. Kittner says that all physical literacy and fundamental movement skill activity counts towards this goal.

“I’m not just talking other organized sports but just all kinds of other physical activities at school and at home and whatnot. That gives them exposure to all kinds of problem solving activities and they actually have to think. We all want kids to grow up and think for themselves but if we don’t give them the opportunities to learn and think for themselves, how are they going to develop those skill sets as they grow older?”

Kittner also cites the increased risk of injury as one of the dangers of sport specialization. Overuse ailments as well as muscle imbalances can build up over time.

Practices are a great opportunity to incorporate non-hockey activities on or off the ice. Team building exercises and community outreach can help build character and camaraderie. A simple game of circle tag to wrap up practice can teach acceleration and deceleration on skates and social skills, all in the name of fun.

“Even if every coach took 10, 15 minutes as part of the practice, either on ice or off ice, and did some non–hockey activities, and that kid was exposed to that year after year from the time they first started playing hockey, I think that will go a long way in having kids being more well-rounded in the long run instead of just focusing on hockey 12 months of the year.”

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