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Sport Specialization in Youth Athletes


Sport specialization is becoming more common in youth sports, especially in hockey. Medical Director for the TRIA Pediatric Orthopedic Program, Dr. Heather Bergeson provides advice for parents, coaches, and players about the risks of sport specialization.

What advice do you have for parents about hockey specific specialization?

We have all heard the concerns about early sports specialization: increased acute and overuse injuries, burnout, and missed opportunities among others. But as much as we learn about the dangers and hear more experts encourage sport diversity, the trend towards year-round play continues. As parents, we feel like our kids will fall behind if they are not playing on competitive teams year-round. So, what can we do to reverse this trend?

  • Keep things in perspective. Foster your child’s love of hockey as you would approach their interest in any academic endeavor.  Encourage their independence and allow them to make mistakes.  
  • Remember they must love the game to fuel the commitment of deliberate practice. Make them eager to return to hockey by having them take some time off.
  • Encourage your child to play the sport of the season. Playing multiple sports creates more well-rounded athletes.
  • Avoid over-scheduling. Playing multiple sports doesn’t mean playing them all at the same time. Kids who go from hockey practice to soccer to lacrosse are even more at risk for overuse injuries than those just playing hockey.

Keep in mind why your child plays sports and why you want them to continue to play.  Hopefully, it is to have fun, improve, make friends, and learn sports’ life lessons. There is a time and place for hockey specialization:

  • Once your child is around 14 years old they are physically and emotionally ready to specialize in hockey. However, it is still preferable to have them play multiple sports to avoid overuse injuries and garner all the benefits sport diversity.  
  • Monitor for signs of burnout (i.e. changes in sports performance, attitude or health). Ensure your kids are having fun.
  • Advocate for your child. You know them best and know what is in their best interest, but allow them to make the decision free from parental or coach pressure.

Check out Positive Coaching Alliance, an organization with the goal of creating “Better Athletes, Better People.”

What advice do you have for players about hockey specific specialization?

  • Balance your athletic identity – you are not just a hockey player. Participating in sports is one of the activities you do, but it does not completely define who you are.
  • Be a multi-sport athlete. Improving your general athletic ability, endurance, and motor skills in other sports will cross over to hockey. Play the sport of the season and take time away from hockey.
  • Kids who play multiple sports have less injuries and are more likely to continue playing for a longer time. Collegiate coaches prefer athletes who have played multiple sports.
  • When you find that other sports are not as enjoyable and you want to dedicate your time to hockey, you might be ready to specialize. However, it is still important to take time off. Even the pros have an off-season.

What are the long-term effects for hockey specific specialization?

If specializing too young, kids miss out on other sport and life opportunities and are more at risk for early burnout. There is no question that deliberate practice is necessary to improve skills, but more is not always better.  By age 14, specializing in hockey is reasonable as the child reaches more skeletal and emotional maturity.

What would be considered a good cross-training alternative for hockey players?

Any exercise or sport that works the muscles/tendons/joints in different ways than hockey does. Cycling, soccer, lacrosse, tennis, and baseball are good options. Dribbling a basketball can help eye-hand coordination that can translate to improved stick-handling skills.

Also, dryland training can be helpful to work on core strength and appropriate stride and squat mechanics as long as there is proper attention to correct form.  

Are there parameters around the number of days an athlete practices (on-ice vs. dryland)?

A good rule of thumb is that kids should not play more hours a week than years in age (i.e. 10 hours per week for a 10 year old). Studies have shown that time spent beyond this increases risk for injury.

What are the top two common injuries you see?

  1. Concussion
  2. Shoulder Injuries: AC sprain, contusion, dislocation, fracture

How can these types of injuries be prevented?

  • Wearing appropriate protective gear (though helmets do not prevent concussion, they can prevent skull fractures and brain injury)
  • Follow rules of the game
  • Playing heads up hockey
  • Allow time for recovery days.

When should an athlete come into TRIA or see their physician?

We are happy to see an athlete at any time, but they should be seen if pain is not improving after a week of rest, or if there is joint swelling, limited range of motion, or mechanical symptoms.

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