Youth sports have become a big deal.
As such, national governing bodies across the country are working to develop strategies to keep kids involved in sports, which benefits not only the kids’ health and well being but also helps develop the next generation of star players.
The Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative is seeking the best practices to do just that. And USA Hockey’s American Development Model is taking center stage.
“It’s really cool for USA Hockey to be involved in something like this,” said Ken Martel, USA Hockey’s ADM Technical Director. “We’ve been held up as a model for others to really look at and emulate. Everyone’s looking at our American Development Model, the principles that it’s based upon; other sport bodies are adopting it and everyone’s looking at the research.”
The ADM emphasizes skill development, less focus on games as the major development tool at the younger age groups and promoting the idea of getting kids involved with multiple sports, not specializing, at a young age.
One of the reasons the ADM has been so successful in the four years since it was implemented, particularly in the area of player retention from one year to the next, Martel says, is because it’s based on scientific research about how different-aged children absorb new information most effectively and how they succeed. Early positive experiences bring kids back.
“It’s not just an ice hockey thing,” Martel said of USA Hockey’s involvement with Project Play. “Kids are kids. The technical skills that they learn in different sports may be different but how kids learn is not.”
The wide scope of Project Play’s initiative has solicited the involvement of not only other NGBs but also such disparate parties as Nike, the NCAA, medical professionals, the American Ad Council, scientists who have studied youth sports and many more.
“The Aspen Institute is really bringing together all these stakeholders and looking at how to re-imagine youth sports in America,” Martel explained. “Because the way we are operating right now, across all sports, kids aren’t staying with sports. And we’re looking for avenues for healthy kids and at some level, the youth sport industry plays a part in that, but doesn’t always do what’s in the best interests of the kids.”
Of course, whenever someone suggests restructuring the process of teaching a sport to its kids, especially when “it’s always been done that way,” there is a natural resistance to change. Martel saw some of that attitude with the rollout of the ADM and sees that as the biggest obstacle to enacting changes in the other sports — even if it’s endorsed by Project Play and backed up by scientific data.
“We found that out Year 1 with our staff. It’s not about hockey, it’s about change,” Martel said. “None of what we’ve pitched out is rocket science by any stretch of the imagination, but it really does help. At those youngest ages, what’s good for the next Mike Modano is good for the next recreational player. It’s fun, it’s getting them physically active in our sport, it’s changing a bit of how we deliver ice hockey.
“Other sport bodies, everybody’s questions are directed at me, asking, ‘How did you get this done? How were you able to go and do this stuff?’ A lot of that has to do with USA Hockey’s leadership. The bottom line is [USA Hockey President] Ron DeGregorio and [Executive Director] David Ogrean and our executive board and people at that level never wavered on health and safety and what’s best for our kids, and the ADM is really what’s best for our kids.”
Martel said one of the keys to successfully implementing the ADM has been the participation and endorsement of the National Hockey League, which ultimately benefits from a stronger hockey presence in the U.S.
“The NHL, based on their support, is another reason why we’re allowed to do what we do,” Martel said. “Certainly, if you can say, ‘Look, the NHL is behind everything we’re doing here,’ they get it. The NHL and USA Hockey really have two big long-term goals. Number one is to get more American kids playing the game and the other is to get more American kids playing the game well.
“And we’ve gotten great traction, things are going well in a lot of places. And it’s going well because we do have some phenomenal volunteers and coaches at the grassroots level and they look at this and go, ‘Well, that’s just common sense.’ Just changing the structure is a huge step in the right direction, but better quality coaching, better quality facilities — that’s how you do things well.”
As the process moves along, Martel, who also sits on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Athlete Development Task Force, envisions a day when governing bodies for the other sports follow their own customized versions of the ADM.
“I see all of our other NGBs gravitating towards what we’re doing and saying, ‘We have to do this,’ and creating an ADM for tennis, the ADM for soccer, the ADM for bobsleds or whatever,” Martel said. “It’s all going to look pretty much the same at these younger ages because this really is how our kids develop best. It’s how our Olympians developed, it’s how our very best in the NHL developed.
“USA Hockey’s really pleased to have a seat at the table with this whole thing, but to take a step back, not only to have a seat but to have these other entities looking at us, and we’re being held up as a model for these other sports to follow.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.