With the nonstop, heart-pounding action of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s easy to be excited about hockey in the spring and early summer months, but when it comes to our own young hockey players, it is important to be cautious about too much ice time during the offseason.
All athletes (including NHL players) need time away from the rink for a number of reasons, but children especially so. While they are taking a break from the ice, the best way to promote their hockey skills is by playing other sports and activities. Participating in a variety of sports enhances kids’ overall athletic ability, which will make them better hockey players.
“Athletic development at any age is important,” said Christian Koelling, USA Hockey’s Coach-in-Chief for the Minnesota District. “Specifically, if you look at the long-term athletic development phases.”
Many parents feel their children will be left behind if they don’t specialize early and play hockey year-round, but here are some eye-opening statistics. The NHL and NHLPA conducted a player survey in 2018 that shed some light on their long-term development:
Parents and coaches should not be in a rush to specialize youngsters into hockey. They need a good base of athleticism above all else.
“What you’re trying to do as a hockey coach in developing your athletes at the youngest of ages, 6-9 years old, are basically agility, balance and coordination,” Koelling said. “And those things crossover to all sports, so they are the same thing you’re trying to develop whether it be baseball, tennis, lacrosse or hockey.”
These principles support physical literacy, a key component to developing healthy, resilient, active children who can reach their full potential.
USA Hockey’s ADM Technical Director Ken Martel discusses the crossover benefits of multiple sports. He calls them “donor sports.”
As the Director of Hockey Operations with the University of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team, who’ve won three NCAA national championships in the last decade (2011, 2018, 2019), Koelling sees the overall athletic ability in the recruits coming to campus and the importance of a well-rounded athlete.
“Most players that we see that are in the mix for college hockey were multi-sport athletes,” Koelling said. “There comes a time in development when they get to be really serious at 15 or 16 and they start to focus on hockey. That becomes more of an issue with time and training being more intense. As a preteen and young teenager, it’s important to participate in other sports and that leads to the overall development path, where you may be in that position to focus on a specific sport once you’re in that recruiting age.”
Even when targeting sport-specific skills as kids get older, it’s still important to take a break from hockey.
Even those NHLers in the playoffs will take time off after the postseason to enjoy different flavors. Year-round hockey for our young athletes is a recipe for disaster. Every summer, Koelling runs into a parent or two who have a similar conversation.
“Youth go through the season and you talk to a parent and they say, ‘We’re going to this tournament and playing on that summer team,’” Koelling continued. “And the parent says, ‘Well, my kid wants to do it. I left it up to them and they want to play.’”
“Well, yeah, they’d have M&Ms for dinner every night if they wanted.”
Coaches should encourage players to take time off after the season, but they should also embolden parents to do the same.
“It’s important for parents to be guardians. To protect that time away,” Koelling said. “And even if kids say they want [to play year-round], they don’t need to be playing 12 months out of the year.”
Two critical factors for ensuring our youth play different sports: overuse and burnout.
“We see a lot of overuse injuries in sports,” Koelling said. “For an athlete to only be focusing on one sport, and especially in hockey when you have the skating motion, there certainly is a risk of overuse.
“Taking that break is good for players physically.”
Dr. Charles Popkin, a team physician for USA Hockey who specializes in pediatric, adolescent and collegiate sports medicine, warns parents and coaches of three dangers associated with early specialization: physical injury, burnout and mental health.
“It’s also important mentally to take a break and get away from hockey and keep that hunger and love for the game,” Koelling said.
Players who participate in other sports and enjoy activities in the summer months get a chance to be social in other circles. They can also find themselves in situations outside of their comfort zone.
“It’s also important socially for kids to meet other people and be in other groups of friends,” Koelling said. “Oftentimes they can fit into different roles in teams in different sports. For example, they could play hockey and be the best player around. They go and play baseball and they are an average player, but I think that can help them. The more sports you play, the more opportunities you’ll have to be in different roles and that gives you a perspective that will make you a better teammate, a better leader, along with becoming a better athlete.”
Hockey 24/7 will, more often than not, lead players away from the game, not steer them towards a love for it.
“Burnout will come,” Koelling said. “They don’t realize it. There’s the rare kid where it doesn’t, but it usually happens.”
This doesn’t mean players can’t touch the ice at all.
“When we say play multiple sports, it doesn’t mean take off your skates in March and don’t touch them again until October,” Koelling said. “There’s nothing wrong with going to a camp or taking a skating class. It’s not all or nothing.”
Becoming a well-rounded young person is part of being an all-around athlete. Scheduling non-hockey activities for family time and other sports, and then sticking to it, is healthy for parents and players alike.
“It is being deliberate about it and putting a plan together. We’re going to take some time off after the season and do these other activities,” Koelling said. “So, if someone comes to you during that six weeks off and asks you to play in this tournament, remember the big picture. The best way to help our players reach their potential is by developing the whole athlete, which means they need time off and exposure to other sports and activities.”
When it is time to go back to the rink, coaches can enhance the ABCs at any age by supplementing practices with off-ice activities. Before and after practices and games, coaches can plan time to do age-appropriate activities and training.
“It’s just a good utilization of resources, as a coach. Ice is scarce and more scarce in some parts of the country than others. And being able to work on mobility and development off the ice is a good way to supplement training,” Koelling said.
This goes back to the importance of developing physical literacy in our young athletes to aid their long-term athlete development.
“Using the time prior to practice to warm up and time after to cool down is great for development all around as far as flexibility, dexterity and other things we’re trying to develop as athletes,” Koelling said.