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The State of Athleticism in Youth Hockey

By Aaron Paitich, Minnesota Hockey, 04/11/19, 12:00PM CDT

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It’s not just happening in hockey. It’s happening in all youth sports. It’s happening at home, too – screen time is through the roof with iPads, phones, computers, Fortnite and so on.

Can your kid do a right-handed cartwheel?

A somersault?

Can they throw a baseball or a football?

Do they know how to skip?

That’s right … skip. Remember that?

Emily West travels around the country – and the world – as one of USA Hockey’s managers of the American Development Model. And she’s seeing some alarming trends, especially here at home.

A lot of our “athletes” do not know how to perform these basic skills that we adults all learned in our childhood.

“It’s terrifying,” said West, a two-time Gophers captain and 2012 NCAA national champion. “I’ll ask them to do a right-handed leaning cartwheel. And you can see their brains kick in like, ‘I have no confidence to do this, let alone even try.’

 “It’s pretty scary how unathletic our athletes truly are.”

What Happened?

We are in a period where sport specialization is occurring earlier and earlier. The money, the grueling schedules and demands, the allure of ‘making it,’ and the pressure families feel to focus on one sport has gone too far.

“It’s a pretty eye-opening experience to see our kids like this,” West said. “And a lot of it has to do with playing hockey year-round – playing one sport year-round – and that’s what we think is going to make them elite at those younger ages. But they’re missing that window.”

What Window?

Young kids should be sampling a variety of sports and other activities. This allows them to learn a wide range of motor skills and increase their physical literacy, along with making new friends and preventing burnout/injury by spending all year at the rink.

“This is the time where kids learn flexibility, balance, agility, coordination,” West said. “They’re not doing that by playing hockey year-round.”

This is not the window to go pro.

“Parents need to realize, my kid is not going to be signed to a Division I scholarship at 9 or an NHL rookie contract at 10,” she said. “If that’s their goal, great – but it usually happens at about 22. Females go into college at 18 and 19 years old.

“Do you need to specialize to be elite? To be brutally honest with you, the kids that have specialized early and have ‘made it’ are the survivors. Look at the kids who specialize – they’re not having fun, they’re at lessons all the time. A lot of times, they’re not even in sports anymore past age 13.

“There’s that mental stigma. It’s probably the worst equation we can have for our athletes in all sports right now.”

A Cultural Problem

It’s not just happening in hockey. It’s happening in all youth sports. It’s happening at home, too – screen time is through the roof with iPads, phones, computers, Fortnite and so on.

And even if you look at our schools, physical education requirements and free time are down drastically across the country. West says there are some places where kids get 30 minutes for lunch and recess – combined.

“Naturally, as a kid, I loved recess. I ate like a lawnmower and some kids don’t even eat at all in order to go out and play,” West said. “It’s a cultural thing.”

The Choice Is Yours

Early specialization is a choice. The choice is between short-term benefits versus long-term athleticism, passion and the realization of one’s full potential.

Is a storybook year of 10U or 12U hockey worth sacrificing a child’s love of sports, social interaction and all the benefits that come with an active lifestyle?

“Ask any of the players that are in college or in the NHL or on the U.S. Women’s National Team, they have such a passion and love for the game,” West said. “It’s fun and they enjoy it and it still drives them.

Our role as parents and coaches is to fuel and protect that passion until it’s time for players to take charge of their own athletic interests and development at 14, 15 and 16.

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About Minnesota Hockey

Minnesota Hockey, an affiliate of USA Hockey, is the governing body of youth and amateur hockey in Minnesota and the premier developer of hockey players in the state.

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