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Sport Specialization in Youth Athletes


Sport specialization is becoming more common in youth sports, especially in hockey. Sports medicine and pediatrics physician 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. As much as we learn about the dangers and hear more experts encourage sport diversity, the trend towards year-round play continues. Some parents may feel their 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 activity. 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 many 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 playing hockey.

Keep in mind why your child plays sports and why you want them to continue to play.  It should be 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. It is still preferable to have them play multiple sports to avoid overuse injuries and garner all the benefits sport diversity.  
  • Watch 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.

Positive Coaching Alliance is an organization with the goal of creating “Better Athletes, Better People.” Check out the Positive Coaching Alliance website for more information.

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 many sports have less injuries and are more likely to continue playing for a longer time. Collegiate coaches prefer athletes who have played multiple sports.
  • You might be ready to specialize in one sport when you find other are not as enjoyable.

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

If kids are specializing too young they may miss out on other sport and life opportunities. They also become more 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, an athlete is better suited to specialize in hockey because they have reached more skeletal and emotional maturity.

What are good cross-training alternative for hockey players?

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

Dryland training can be helpful to work on core strength, 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 athletes prevent these types of injuries?

  • Wear appropriate protective gear
    • 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. They should come in if pain is not improving after a week of rest, if there is joint swelling or experiencing limited range of motion.

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