The Pros and Cons of Early Specialization

pros_cons_specialization_postWith the trend in recent years for younger players to focus on one sport to the exclusion of all others, a wider discussion has ensued that argues for and against early specialization. The opponents typically come from the child development and hockey “experts” camp, which points out that some of the top NHL players were multi-sport athletes all the way through high school and that early specialization is harmful to long term development of young players. The proponents are also often hockey “experts” with something to sell to kids and parents. They claim to have “developed” elite level players and promise to do the same for your player. Which side is right?

In a way, both sides are right (or maybe both are wrong) but not for the reasons they state. The discussion needs to shift towards one that is centered on providing the right kind of activities to encourage and foster athleticism and a love for sports of all kinds.

Hockey requires many years to master the skills needed to play at a high level. The game demands players to possess a wide array of skills on the ice and a chassis that can allow the skills to develop and become ingrained in a player. We currently do not provide the necessary options for young players to develop these broad range athletic skills within our programs and thus parents are on their own to determine which are best suited for their players. How can they know which is best at any given time? The development side of programming requires highly trained coaches/instructors and a philosophy on the part of each association that age appropriate training is desirable as part of the regular schedule during the season. This means less ice time and more athletic development time. It means fewer games, less travel and perhaps less expense.  If done properly, it also means players better prepared to compete and enjoy the game at a higher level.

Within the context of our current system of youth and high school hockey in Minnesota, younger players should play a couple sports even through high school. The support for our approach is centered on the fact that most other youth programs are essentially based on “more is better” and “winning is the primary objective.” Time and time again, this has proven to be an ineffective method of developing players. Yet youth game counts continue to rise due to longer seasons, along with the expense, travel and eventual increased attrition of players.

The high school system is also out of touch  because it limits participation, competition and development. Some schools cut four players for each one they roster and some schools can barely field a team. At the high school level, an age where game counts should go up into the 50’s, we are facing cuts from 25 to 23 by the  High School League, and have already been limited to three scrimmage dates per season. Unlike most other team sports, there are out of state alternatives to our high school programs. Many players are moving in that direction. The Elite fall leagues sponsored by Minnesota Hockey have helped to alleviate some of this discrepancy, however, they are also focused on games instead of development.

Players can “specialize” at an early age by choosing the correct age based activities that will enhance their athleticism and physical development. This approach should include off-ice activities that are suited to development of skills such as eye hand coordination, read and react, general core body strength and customized training programs that are hockey specific and age appropriate. These types of activities will support an improved level of athleticism in each player, which is needed for hockey, other sports and the general well-being of young people.

Parents should never feel pressured to put their kids into off-season programs for fear of falling behind. And, coaches need to be careful when offering off-season options. The best data and research indicates that off-season programs should be limited to activities that are skill development in nature. These would include skating improvement, off-ice agility activities and strength development. These activities may easily coincide with other sports or can be done a few times a week so as not to interfere with other activities.

There is no “right way” to the top. For every player that specialized at an early age there is another who did not. For every “AAA to the max” player there are players who shunned these programs and still made it all the way to college or even the NHL. Each family needs to decide for themselves what development options are right for them while remembering that the odds of making to the top are pretty slim even for most of our top level players from Minnesota.

Editor’s Note:
Thank you to Hal Tearse, Coach in Chief, Minnesota Hockey, for this informative article.

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