Sunday, August 24, 2014

Go outside and get a tan! The case against year-round hockey

Hayley Wickenheiser at the 1998 Winter Olympics and 2000 Summer Olympics
Back to school commercials on TV, gleeful parents engaging in back-to-school shopping in anticipation of finally having a quiet household again, and grouchy kids begrudgingly following along, knowing their days of freedom will soon be must be the end of summer. For most, the arrival of September brings with it a change in schedules and routines. For us hockey players, perhaps September is the month where we return to our routines. Practice days, training days, travel days, game days, and rest days. All 7 days of the week might soon fall into one of those categories. If the off-season has been spent the right way, the return to hockey should be an exciting one. Players should be "feeling the itch" to get back on the ice for a new season of hockey. If you're not "feeling the itch" perhaps it is your body and your brain telling you that you need to change up your off-season activities.

The concept of year-round athletics is debated in sports circles almost as much as year-round schooling is debated in academic ones. Should kids be training all year round or should they be given a break to do other things and pursue other interests? In some senses, a hiatus from hockey during the summer may seem like a bad idea. Players spend all year improving their skills, developing their hockey IQ, and reaching their peak physical conditioning. Why then would they waste all of that by taking 2 or 3 months away from hockey? That is the rationale behind why some parents and coaches opt to have their kids in hockey year round. But there is a flip side to that too.

In most sports, peak performance isn't reached until well after puberty. Studies show that female athletes don't reach peak performance until age 27 (1) , and males (specifically in the NHL) don't peak until age 28 or 29 (2). There is a myth that if players do not specialize in one sport early, they will not be good enough to make it to the pros when it's time for them to make that leap. This is far from true. Almost on cue for this blog, this tweet was posted by USA Hockey a few moments ago:

USA Hockey Magazine@USAHMagazine I would encourage playing other sports and not dedicating yourself to year-round hockey. Dan Bylsma
Here are a few reasons why year-round hockey is not a good idea:

1. We all know that kids get bored pretty easily - (think of the "are we there yet!?" question and how often it gets asked during long trips). Kids are just as likely to enjoy playing competitive hockey every day as they are to enjoy eating the same food every day. Even if that food is ice cream, they will eventually tire and ask for something else.

2. Physical development - Playing different sports strengthens different muscle groups. It is important for young kids to strengthen all parts of their bodies and not just one or two areas. Often times, the motions required to play one sport will compliment the motions of another sport too, so trying new sports is a great way to learn different skills while still working on improving at your "main sport". Henrik Lundqvist, goalie for the New York Rangers, has recently taken up tennis as a way to strengthen all the muscle groups required for the lateral movement of a goalie (3). 

3. Mental and physical burnout - Hockey is a fast and exciting game. It should never feel routine or inconvenient. But when you overdo it, there will be days where the motivation to get back on the ice is lacking. There is no way kids will perform at their best if they're exhausted. Summertime is a great time to heal up the bumps and bruises that are inevitably sustained during a long season, and to refresh the brain and get it ready for the new season as well. If the body is tired, players will look for shortcuts. Their stride will become lazy, their shooting motions may become abbreviated, and they will look to just make it through games rather than to thrive and succeed in them.

4. Sports IQ - The ability to think the game of hockey is not only developed by playing hockey. Funnily enough, one can work on their Hockey IQ - their ability to read the game, make creative plays, anticipate the moves of opponents, etc. - by taking part in other sports too. Thinking tactically about one sport might yield some ideas about how to succeed at another.

Pertaining specifically to the sport of women's hockey, there is perhaps no better example of this whole concept than to examine one of its greatest players. Hayley Wickenheiser has 5 Winter Olympics medals, but she also represented Canada at the 2000 Summer Olympics in the sport of softball. If there was any doubt that time away from hockey is a good thing, looking back at Hayley's career should erase all of that. If being a multi-sport athlete didn't hold Hayley Wickenheiser back, it shouldn't hold the rest of us back either!

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