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The Specialization Discussion

05/10/2012, 8:36am CDT
By Hal Tearse, Coach in Chief, Minnesota Hockey

Should your kid continue to play other sports or focus only on hockey? It depends ...

From the April 2012 Minnesota Youth Hockey Coaches e-newsletter:

With the trend in recent years for younger players to focus on one sport to the exclusion of all others a wider discussion has ensued that argues for and against early specialization.

The opponents typically come from the child development camp and hockey “experts” who point out that some of the top NHL players were multi-sport athletes all the way through high school and that early specialization is harmful to long-term development of young people. The proponents are also often times hockey “experts” with something to sell to kids and parents. They claim to have “developed” elite level players and promise to do the same for your son or daughter.

Which side is right?

I believe both sides are right (or maybe both wrong) but not for the reasons they state. The discussion needs to shift towards one that is centered on providing the right kinds of activities that will encourage and foster athleticism and love for sport. We need to specialize in athleticism and sport.

Hockey requires many years to master the skills needed to play at a high level. The game demands that players possess a wide array of skills on the ice and a chassis that can allow the skills to develop and become integrated in each player. We currently do not provide the necessary options for young players to develop these broad range athletic skills within our programs and thus parents are on their own to determine which programs are best suited for their own kids.

How to know which is best at any given time?

The development side of programming requires highly trained coaches/instructors and a philosophy on part of each association that age appropriate training is desirable as part of the regular schedule during the season. This means less ice time and more athletic development time. It means fewer games, less travel, and perhaps less expense. Done properly it also means better prepared players to compete and enjoy the game at a higher level.

I would agree that within the context of our current system of youth and high school hockey in Minnesota that the younger players should indeed play a couple sports even through high school. My support for this approach is centered on the fact that we essentially have a game-based youth program of “more is better” and “winning is the primary objective”.

This has proven time and time again not to be an effective method of developing players and yet youth game counts continue to rise due to longer seasons, along with the expense, travel and the eventual increased attrition of players.

The high school system is also out of touch as it limits participation, competition and development. Some schools have to cut four players for each one they roster and some schools can barely field a team. At the high school level, an age where game counts should go up into the 50s, we are facing cuts in games from 25 to 23 by the Minnesota State High School League and have already been limited to three scrimmage dates per season.

Unlike most other team sports, there are alternatives to our high school programs out of state and many players are moving in that direction. The Elite fall leagues sponsored by Minnesota Hockey have helped to alleviate some of this discrepancy however they are also focused on games instead of development.

I would also agree that players can “specialize” at an early age by choosing the correct age-based activities that will enhance their athleticism and physical development. This approach would include off-ice activities that are suited to development of skills like eye-hand coordination, read-and-react skills, general core body strength development and customized training programs that are hockey specific and age appropriate. These types of activities will support an improving level of athleticism in each player which is needed for hockey, other sports and the general well being of young people.

Parents should never feel pressured into having to put their kids into off-season programs for fear of falling behind. Coaches need to be careful in regards to offering off-season programs. The best data and research indicates that off-season activities be limited to activities that are skill development in nature. These would include skating improvement, off-ice agility activities, and strength development. These activities may easily coincide with other sports or can be done a few times a week while not interfering with other sports or activities.

There is no “right way” to the top. For every player that specialized at an early age there is another who did not. For every “AAA to the max” player there are players who shunned these programs and still made it all the way to college or even the NHL.

One addition to the NHL rosters in recent years is JT Wyman from Minnetonka. JT found his route by attending college right out of Blake School and signed with Montreal in the spring of 2007. He has played in the AHL until a couple weeks ago when he was brought up to play with the top club. He did not play AAA as a youngster nor did he play juniors before heading off to Dartmouth College. Congrats to JT for finding his way to the top. Each family needs to decide for themselves what development options are right for their kids all the while remembering that the odds of making to the top are pretty slim even for most of our top level players from Minnesota.

Minnesota Hockey has the best youth model in the country and we are the envy of all the other states. There are many aspects of our programs that we know are not quite right and could be improved. We are looking at those issues and exploring many ideas to develop good opportunities for our players.

Hal Tearse
Coach in Chief, Minnesota Hockey

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