Developing young athletes is an art and it’s not given to just anyone. How many times have we witnessed parents at hockey rinks behaving like total idiots? If you’ve spent any time at the rink watching minor hockey, you know what I’m talking about. Minor Hockey Associations are often struggling to get youngsters to join as referees because of the abuse those young officials are receiving from parents and coaches alike.
So that’s why it’s important to leave the development to those who know better, who perhaps have been trained to do so. For example, did you know that Hockey Canada recommends a practice to game ratio of three or four to one? That’s right. For every game played in minor hockey, the kids should have three or four practices. Why? Because it is proven that kids touch the puck more, and develop better in practices than in games. If not influenced by parents, and with coaches who can bring fun into their practices, kids like touching the puck and doing fun games and drills too.
But parents want to see games. They think it’s the end of end all. Parents’ attitude (and lack of knowledge) is one of the most detrimental factors to youth when it comes to sports.
Over and over again, professional and top-end athletes are saying the same thing: get the kids into multiple sports. If they specialize or love one more than the others, they need a break from it. Wayne Gretzky himself has said that in the past and I can attest to it personally when I spoke one on one with the Great One’s own father, Walter Gretzky, whom I’ve met at a BC Hockey Hall of Fame dinner where he was the guest speaker.
I was also fortunate to get to know three-times Gold medalist Gina Kingsbury who, when speaking to teams at one of our local Fire On Ice Female Hockey Tournaments in Penticton, BC several years ago, gave the players the same advice. By all means train, but do something else during the off-season, play different sports. Don’t play hockey.
So parents who put their kids into Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter hockey, are only trying to feed their own dream of seeing their son in the NHL, or their daughters get a scholarship and perhaps play for Team Canada. It’s self-serving as it’s not serving the kids themselves. They need the mental break, and other sports will help develop other motor skills that will be helpful down the line.
The following is from Eric Cressey of Cressey Sports Performance in Palm Beach Garden, Florida. I thought I’d share with you, readers, as it speaks of the infatuation that we have with comparing athletes to others, or younger players to established ones. We don’t have to look far to know that it’s true as the first thing we do as fans when we don’t know a prospects, is to ask whom he reminds us off with his style. I’m just as guilty of it as anyone since on this very site, I’ve compared Kaiden Guhle to Shea Weber. So here’s what Eric has to say…
We don’t predict athletic success well at all. We don’t even predict what sports kids will enjoy well. You’d be amazed at how many professional athletes weren’t child prodigies or even standout middle school athletes. Let’s face it: puberty makes a lot of coaches look much smarter than they are!
In other words, the ONLY thing we can control as parents and coaches is enriching their experiences in these sports while they’re participating – and comparisons don’t do that. What does work?
First, praise effort over outcomes. The reps – and the fun that comes with executing them with teammates/friends – are what matter. I can’t tell you a single score from one of my little league games, but I could write a book about an a**hole coach I had who took things way too seriously. In hindsight, he really didn’t know much about baseball, either.
Second, celebrate novelty. It gets kids excited, and participating in a variety of sports at a young age provides a rich proprioceptive environment that cultivates an invaluable athletic foundation upon which specific skills can later be built. This broad athletic foundation includes variability in planes of motion, speed of movement and the forces involved. Collectively, these exposures teach athletes to distribute stress over multiple joints and avoid overuse injuries at specific segments.
Third, appreciate that random practice outperforms blocked practice over the long-term when it comes to skill acquisition. Mix in a variety of drills and fluctuate the order and duration of them, then integrate fun competitions with them.
Fourth, recognize the importance of in-season and off-season periods. This fluctuation of the seasons helps keep kids from getting bored with certain sports, but also facilitates graduated exposures to stressors. A 10-year-old throwing a baseball 12 months out of the year is a terrible idea; playing some soccer and hoops is a great way to stay active while developing in different ways.
Fifth, as soon as a kid is mature enough for it, get them involved in a foundational strength training program. It’ll have a “trickle-down” effect to a variety of athletic qualities while reducing their risk of injury. Again, it has to be fun, just like everything else!
Summarily, don’t compare kids; instead, appreciate that they’re all unique and develop at different rates and in different ways. Youth sports is all about instilling a passion for the game, enjoying a sense of community, and fostering a positive lifelong relationship with exercise.
Now allow me to share more of my personal experience. Back in 2008, I’ve started a Female Hockey program in the Okanagan Valley (Penticton) and helped BC Hockey (OMAHA specifically) establish a Female League for the BC Interior. I have coached at every level from Atom to Midget, both House and Rep. My focus as a coach was on keeping it light, preach skills development and creativity, not systems. Oh there was structure, but no strict system to follow. Does that reminds you of someone, Habs’ fans? More than success like wins or who scored the goals, the focus was on effort and feeling good about our games and practices.
Why am I saying that? Here’s what I preached to our girls and young women… perhaps the biggest lesson. I asked them, at the end of each practice and each game, to do a soul searching exercise. “Pretend like you have a mirror in front of you. Look yourself in the eyes and ask yourself: ‘Did I do my best out there? Did I leave it all on the ice for myself and my teammates?’ Don’t give me the answer out loud. If you lie, you’re only lying to yourself. If your answer is no, then your coaches can expect more out of you. If the answer is yes, no one can ask you for more. Not your coaches, not your parents, not your teammates.” And at the year-end gathering, I would mention to them that this can be applied to all facets of their lives. If you give your all, your best, no teacher or employer can expect more from you.
As a hockey fan, or as a parent, relative or sibling, it is important for us to remind ourselves daily that those are kids we are looking at. Yes, even an 18 year-old boy drafted to the NHL, has a brain that’s not fully developed, and his body has yet to be where it will be in a few years.
There are many factors that these kids don’t control but what we, as individuals, do control is how we perceive them. How we support them and how we manage the expectations that we put on them. Remember that hockey is and will always be a game. And games are meant to be fun. The more you develop skills in any sport, the more the kids will have fun. But even skills’ development cannot become a chore so it’s important for us to make it fun for them.
Injuries, life trauma (loss of a loved one for example), school, coaches, teammates, friends, all can have a positive or negative effect in a child’s life and on his/her development. That’s why the NHL Draft is not a pure science. They’re trying to not only compare young players amongst their peers, but to predict what will happen in the future, when these young men will stop developing. While it’s their job to do so, it’s also a reminder to all of us to remember that most won’t make it. So let’s focus on their quality of life. Mostly, let’s be good role models for these kids.