Early Specialization: How it affects Young Hockey Players

by Matt B.

The topic I chose research is: does early specialization in hockey affect young athletes negatively? The focus will be to see if early specialization in hockey affects young athletes health and well-being. Sport specialization is found to be a reflection of our highly developed society, as some think that children need to develop skill acquisition and enhancement at a young age to be successful. Over the past few decades there has been huge shifts from unstructured, spontaneous, fun oriented youth activities to highly structured programs and competition organized by adults. This fundamental shift has increased sport specialization in our youth sports as parents feel the need to do everything possible for their child to succeed, which leads to single sport focus at a young age. Sport specialization in youth is an issue that needs to be understood by all involved in sport including participants, teammates, coaches and parents. The potential health, psychological and sociological risks must be weighed against the benefits of sharpening of skills and the opportunity to improve level of play from amateur to professional. The purpose of my research is to find and discuss the barriers that come with youth hockey players using early specialization training and the benefits of diversifying young athletes’ sport experience.

Sport participation provides our youth with psychological and social benefits such as fair play, healthy competitiveness and achievements. Sports protects our youth, as physical activity can be used as a coping mechanism with stress and anxiety; it also can influence the way one sees him/herself, as well as improve social relationships especially in children that are competing in team sports. Children playing team sports are more likely to adapt to health-enhancing behaviours like proper nutrition and sleeping habits, as they are apart of a positive social environment. Participating in sport may also protect children from negative influences such as the abuse of drugs and delinquency.

Specialization in a single sport is a growing issue that has become increasingly popular, as there have been major shifts from unstructured, spontaneous, fun-oriented youth activities to highly structured programs and competition organized by adults. Parents believe that having their child specialize in one sport at a young age will improve skill development and their chances of making the next level; when really they should be trying to diversify their child’s sport experience. Parents and coaching must be educated of the risks that come with specializing their child in one sport. They also need to see how beneficial it is for children at a young age to participate in multiple sports as they are exposed to different movements and a variety of game situations that can improve their skill set. Sport administrators and coaches must stop modelling their programs after professional organizations; young athletes should not be training and practicing like professional athletes as holding them to these standards is damaging to their physical and mental health. Specializing young athletes in hockey can cause increased injury risk, psychological burnout and hinder the athlete’s development.

Reference

A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents (2013). Rochelle M Eime. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3751802/

Early Specialization and year-round training is destroying youth hockey (2013). Josh Devine. Retrieved from: http://www.getsportiq.com/2013/11/early-specialization-and-year-round-training-is-destroying-youth-hockey/

What About the Single Sport Athlete (2014). John O’Sullivan. Retrieved from: http://changingthegameproject.com/what-about-the-single-sport-athlete-specialization-part-ii/

The National Post (2015). ‘One of the worst things to happen to the game’ Retrieved from: http://news.nationalpost.com/sports/nhl/one-of-the-worst-things-to-happen-to-the-game-the-toll-year-round-hockey-takes-on-young-athletes

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4 Responses to Early Specialization: How it affects Young Hockey Players

  1. Hannah Kennedy says:

    Matt,

    Great job! I completely agree that early specialization is a growing issue in sport today. We see this especially with hockey in Canada. I had many friends growing up who went far and were successful in their hockey careers who were also involved in dance, figure skating, soccer and other sports at the same time. When a child (or rather the child’s parents) decides to commit them fully to only one sport, not only are they seeing the negative effects of early specialization, but they are also missing out on all the positive aspects that multi-sport brings. Early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills other sports, increased motivation, increased ownership of the sports experience and increased confidence. In fact, there was a study done on professional ice hockey players and most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20 and only 3,000 of those were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice and only 450 of those were prior to age 12. This clearly shows that it’s possible to have a successful hockey career without early specialization. Something youth and parents alike should think about when considering early specialization.

    Hannah K.

    References: McCallum, C. Increasing Sport Participation [PowerPoint Slides] Retrieved from Lecture Notes Online Web Site:
    https://lms.unb.ca/d2l/le/content/131155/viewContent/1329281/View?ou=131155

  2. Hannah Kennedy says:

    Matt,

    Great job! I completely agree that early specialization is a growing issue in sport today. We see this especially with hockey in Canada. I had plenty of friends growing up that went far and were successful in their hockey careers while also being involved in dance, figure skating, soccer and other sports at the same time. When a child (or rather the child’s parents) decides to commit them fully to only one sport, not only are they seeing the negative effects of early specialization, but they are also missing out on all the positive aspects that multi-sport brings. Early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills other sports, increased motivation, increased ownership of the sports experience and increased confidence. In fact, there was a study done on professional ice hockey players and most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20 and only 3,000 of those were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice and only 450 of those were prior to age 12. This clearly shows that it’s possible to have a successful hockey career without early specialization. Something youth and parents alike should think about when considering early specialization.

    Hannah K.

    References: McCallum, C. Increasing Sport Participation [PowerPoint Slides] Retrieved from Lecture Notes Online Web Site:
    https://lms.unb.ca/d2l/le/content/131155/viewContent/1329281/View?ou=131155

  3. emmastone18 says:

    Great post Matt,
    I think you raised a really important concept that parents and youth need to be more aware of. Kids are heavily involved in many organized sports but usually the goal of a sport program is to cater to the athlete in the child. We want to develop the youth as an athlete and that may lead to youth specializing in a specific sport that they enjoy. What parents may not be aware of are the negative consequences of specializing too early.

    Specializing in one sport may decrease the opportunities for the development of skills that are unrelated to the sport youth are focusing on. The skills learned from participating in multiple sports can be transferred to other sports making the child well rounded. This is important if something happens, and a child is no longer able to participate in the sport they were specializing in. Something that I don’t think many kids realize is the sense of identity that forms from specializing in a particular sport. Depending on the length of time a child participates in a sport, when they potentially have to walk away from that sport, they can experience a loss of identity and this has the potential to be hard to cope with. I think we need to educate youth and adults on the potential implications of specialization and enforce multisport participation.

    Emma S.

  4. marcusmcivor says:

    Well said Matt,
    I think the amount of parents that believe their children should just focus on one sport all the time has grown significantly over the last few years. I understand the reasoning for it, they just want their children to have all the opportunities in the world to master their craft, which ultimately means they’re missing out of the benefits of playing all sorts of sports.
    Myself, personally growing up playing hockey, i saw this trend a lot. Lots of families and children would be participating in hockey all year round, which is great for skill development but easier for children to become less interested in hockey. When children spend their whole youth invested in one activity, they run the risk of being completely lost if that activity is every taken away from them.

    Marcus M.

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