July 31, 2014

The Hockey Mom: Specialization can wait, kids’ fun cannot

By April Bowling

I got an intriguing email message from my friend Martha late one night in May, as I sat puzzling through a brutal biostatistics homework set (yes … I’m still in graduate school).

“I’m running an event you will want to be part of … call me in the morning.”  The last thing I wanted to do was take on any additional event or obligation at that point, so I knew she’d have a tough sell, but I also knew she wasn’t one to overstate things. And sure enough, when I called her the next day, she had me at, “My company is holding a panel debate for our clients on whether children should specialize in one sport at an early age.”

Yup. Sign me up.

So I found myself sitting at the front of a fancy conference room with Bobby Carpenter (Peabody, Mass.), an NHLer from 1981 to 1999 and father of Olympic silver medalist Alex Carpenter; Charlie Clapp, Olympic silver medalist in rowing and father to a Division 1 rower; and Chris Spahr, a professional squash player and father to two nationally ranked teens. The Sesame Street song “One of These Things is Not Like the Others” could have been my anthem for the evening, given that I was the only non-elite athlete, with non-elite children. But I knew that my role was as an academic researcher, longtime coach and public-health professional, so I had diligently prepared myself by reading about 20 years of studies on early specialization in sports, including position papers by most of the recognized world and national sporting organizations, such as USA Hockey.

Early specialization is defined as a pre-pubescent child limiting participation to a single or highly dominant competitive sport on a year-round basis, with deliberate focus on training and development in that sport (Weirsma, 2000). I was ready to debate, and my position was clear — except for the acrobatic sports (gymnastics, figure skating and diving) — there is no evidence that early specialization in one sport aids achievement of elite status in that sport, and lots of evidence that, depending on the intensity of training, it often results in higher rates of burnout, injury and damaged social development and familial relationships. 

I knew I wouldn’t be alone in my position, since I had invited Matt Deschamps — a former NHL defenseman, current coach and the man who largely taught Sam to be able to stop and turn as a Mite — to come with me. Matt works with hundreds of young hockey players a week, and he has labored to help parents understand the importance of allowing their children to have time off from the ice and play other sports to round out their athletic development and keep their enthusiasm for hockey going strong.

While Matt added greatly to the conversation, I needn’t have been so primed for debate that I brought backup. In fact, everyone on the panel largely shared the same view, and their kids were all well-rounded athletes who played multiple sports and didn’t specialize in their primary sport until high school or college. Although many of the parents in the audience seemed to struggle with the idea that they couldn’t “make” their children into elite athletes, those of us on the panel were united in our belief that children — their genes, their work ethic, their inherent passion of the sport — had to be the driving force behind reaching elite status, and parents’ roles were to expose them to different sports, help them learn basic athletic skills they could use their whole lives (like running, survival swimming and biking), and support them as people, not just as athletes. 

One of the more interesting conversational themes that emerged was the question of why we were having this conversation at all. Why would parents of 7- to 15-year-olds be so invested in how much their children achieved athletically? Responses ranged from “because it is a great way to boost their chance of getting into a good college,” to “we want to make sure he stays active his whole life.” The reality is that early specialization helps very little with lifelong athleticism and might actually hinder it. And getting into a great college depends more on a child’s academic abilities than their athletic ones.

When honesty prevailed in private discussions afterward, many of these driven and high-achieving parents admitted they simply wanted their kids to have all the athletic advantages possible to be the best. They hadn’t considered many of the potential drawbacks, even when their children seemed less than enthusiastic for the sport in question, whether it was squash, tennis, swimming, lacrosse or something else.

It reminded me of the USA Hockey Code of Conduct I had just read again while registering Sam for the 2014-15 playing season, particularly:

  • No. 1: I will not force my child to participate in hockey. I will try to make it fun.
  • No. 16: I will remember that my child plays hockey for his or her enjoyment and not mine.

We all sign similar agreements when we register our kids for their sports. But I’m not sure they always sink in. In fact, I felt like a bit of a hypocrite when on the day following the panel, I brought Sam to his goalie skills session. In June. Forty-five minutes from our house. 

However, he was chomping on the bit to go, it was bookended by baseball practices and came after an afternoon of bike riding with his friends. But with the panel discussion still on my mind, I asked Sam’s goalie coach, Steve Silverthorn, what he thought about goalies specializing as youngsters. He smiled and shook his head.

“It’s my job to teach them a few basics about their equipment and positioning. After that I have to try hard not to overcoach them … to let them just be athletic and stop pucks.” He’s said repeatedly that Sam shouldn’t feel pressure to decide about playing goalie full time at this age, or push his developing body to learn techniques it isn’t ready for.

All of which is good news to Sam, who isn’t ready to specialize in anything more than being a happy little boy. It’s also great news to me, because I know Sam is in good hands getting a good workout and having fun. And that, really, is all that matters.

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.

This article originally appeared in the July edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to read the digital edition for free.

Email: feedback@hockeyjournal.com