MYHockey News

Be Careful What You Push For photo

By Scott Lowe -

There comes a time when every young person reaches a crossroads and faces important decisions. Hopefully the choices they make are fueled by their passion and what’s in their hearts instead of being dictated by outside forces or external pressures such as parents, peers or society at large.

Unfortunately, we all know this isn’t always the case, especially when it comes to young athletes who are pushed too hard by their parents.

It will never be totally clear what drives some parents to pressure their children about sports-related decisions or to force them in a direction that makes mom and dad happy and possibly satisfies their egos instead of letting the kids steer the ship.

But it happens, and it happens a lot. Too much, in fact.

As parents, we are supposed to be there to guide our children. When they are younger, we often must make the decisions we feel are in their best interest and help them learn from their mistakes. As they mature, our role should evolve from being the actual decision-makers in every situation to serving as resources willing and able to provide wisdom and insight that allows them to take ownership of their lives and make the more difficult and life-altering decisions themselves.

For parents who have fostered those types of relationships with their children in their formative years, that role may never change. We will always be there to guide them as needed and to console them when they are struggling.

While it’s important as our children grow older that we are there to provide them with all the information they need to make sound decisions, it’s also important that we let them own those decisions. Certainly we can help them learn from poor decisions and avoid similar mistakes in the future, but if we don’t let them make the decisions – if we always force what we think is best upon them – they may not be willing to fight through the struggles that might arise and instead might see themselves as victims.

If the decision was theirs and the going gets tough, rather than backing down and allowing us to say, “I told you so,” they are much more likely to persevere, push through and put in whatever extra time and effort is necessary to ensure success since the choice was theirs.

When our children are younger, though, it’s important for us as parents to gather information and make decisions based on many considerations that kids may not be aware of or able to comprehend. It’s okay to say no to something because of financial, health, family or time-commitment concerns. It may be painful to see the disappointment on our kids’ faces, but these are situations – when explained properly – that help our children learn the importance of family values, prioritization and financial prudence.

This is especially true when it comes to youth sports. No one ever has signed a pro contract or received an NCAA Division I scholarship offer as a 12-year-old. Realistically, more potential successful athletic careers have been squashed at that age pushing kids to the point that an activity ceases to be fun.

When my son Devin was growing up and developing as a hockey player, we didn’t know that AA, AAA or high-performance programs existed. In some ways, we may have been saved by our own ignorance.

Devin was enamored with hockey from a young age, so we researched the hockey club closest to our home and took him to that club’s Saturday clinic every week between mid-October and February for a few years before he was old enough to join a team. The club offered only “A” level teams for his age group, so that’s the level he played for the next seven years with the same group of teammates. They became more than teammates; they were his winter hockey buddies.

Every now and then we would run into a AA team and be amazed to see kids at such young ages who were so skilled and well-coached and who took the game that seriously. At that point he played about 35 games a year for the Baltimore Stars, attended some spring and summer skills, pick up and 3-on-3 sessions when he was itching to get back on the ice and played just about every other sport under the sun. He loved to play and compete, and we didn’t know any better.

As Devin got older and better, we became aware that some kids were going off to play 50 to 60 or more games a year with AA or AAA programs, but with soccer, baseball, basketball and hockey we had plenty going on, and he was staying active and fit and becoming a very good all-around athlete. That was always the main driving force for us – making sure our kids stayed active doing things they enjoyed.

Hockey always was his first love, but it just seemed natural that he would play multiple sports with a father who had been a coach and athletics administrator since graduating from college and a mother who was a high school athletic director.

Fast forward to second-year bantams (14U), and hockey had clearly emerged as the true love. Devin still played other sports, but when given the choice of how to spend his free time over the summer, he chose to spend a few weeks at hockey camps focusing on different aspects of the game – battle camps, power skating camps and stickhandling camps.

That little bit of extra summer work, which still allowed him plenty of time for other sports and activities that he enjoyed, helped him become the best player on his team, and he started to draw interest from AA and AAA teams. But he wanted to stay with his club, the Baltimore Stars. “I want to play with my friends one more year and then I know I need to play at a higher level,” he told me.

Most years I had been one of Devin's coaches, but it was becoming readily apparent that his skill level and needs were surpassing what I could provide. Watching him play after being around the sport for 35 years, I was starting to feel like he had a chance to do something special in hockey and wanted to be sure I wasn’t holding him back by not pushing him to play at a higher level. 

So, I approached Baltimore Stars Hockey Director Boe Leslie, a former NCAA Division I and European professional player, to make sure staying with that club was the best decision.

“He has plenty of time,” he told me. “Right now, if he loves the game and is willing to put time into it, we want to be sure that he’s still having fun playing. He’s been with these kids for a long time. They are a great group, and I know he enjoys playing with them. He will know when he’s ready to move up.”

That proved to be the best and most accurate advice we ever received. Devin did love hockey, which was why he chose to attend camps that helped him improve over other activities. When he came back and realized that he was the best player, of course he enjoyed being that good as well, so he didn’t mind working hard. And he loved his teammates.

Devin went on to score well over 100 points and earn club player-of-the-year honors that season. His team won the regional Silver Sticks tournament and went to Michigan for the international tournament, playing against Canadian teams for the first time. He got a taste of higher-level hockey and enjoyed it. And he enjoyed being a leader and a player the coach counted on.

To shorten the story, Devin played “A” hockey all the way through bantams. The most games he ever played in a season might have been 40, and that was because of that extra trip to Michigan. After that season he went on to play three years of AA and one year of AAA. Then he was drafted by teams in both United States Tier 2 junior leagues. After two years playing in the Tier 2 National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC), he committed to play NCAA Division III hockey at Suffolk University, where he just finished his junior year as the team’s leading scorer and was named captain for the upcoming 2022-23 season.

Throughout his hockey developmental path, we allowed Devin to make his own decisions. I didn’t always agree 100 percent with what he chose, but it was always his choice, which ensured that he was going to be happy and give it his all. I would provide him with all the relevant information, and he would decide. To his credit, the decisions he made allowed him to achieve his goal of playing NCAA college hockey.

As parents, while we always want to make sure we are protecting our kids and leading them in the right direction, allowing them to make decisions and take ownership of their choices is a huge component of their maturation process.

Why do I mention Devin’s story?

Well, as I remain involved in hockey and try to help kids from our area follow in his footsteps and achieve their hockey goals, I notice that more young players than ever are getting more serious about hockey at younger ages. Thanks to the success of the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin, hockey has exploded in the DMV.

There are more opportunities for kids to play hockey all year long than ever before, and more kids are “specializing” in hockey and playing for 11 or 12 months. Of course, more opportunities are great, but how much is too much? Is it necessary for squirt, peewee and bantam teams to play 60 to 80 games a year, and should any young person be playing any sport year-round?

In addition to those 60-plus games, tryouts in many regions are held for a season that is still five or six months away almost immediately following that long and grueling slate of games. So, the kids don’t even get a true physical or mental break from the sport before they are thrown right back into the fire trying to make the team they hope to play for the following season.

And then there are all the spring and summer “exposure events” for pre-teen players that have started popping up within weeks of the regular season’s conclusion. Exactly who are we exposing these 10- and 11-year-olds to again?

It’s okay to say no, even when it seems like everyone else is doing something. In fact, it’s more than just okay. It’s the answer we should give as adults when something is not in our kids’ best interest. Everyone needs a break, even the top professional athletes in the world. No one’s career is going to be negatively affected by missing a 10U spring hockey tournament.

“In Canada I have friends who call it ‘changing socks season,’” Leslie told me many years later. “Kids play on the same teams with the same teammates year-round, and they just change the color of their socks when they move to a new team from one season to the next. They change socks and uniforms when the season changes.”

The concerns about a growing young person playing the same sport all year long or “specializing” in a sport have been well documented. Experts say that kids shouldn’t even consider specializing until they are 14 or 15 years old, and even at that point they need breaks to avoid overuse injuries and can benefit from playing other sports and working other body parts. Abdominal, hip and groin injuries – typical overuse ailments – among young hockey players are more prevalent than ever and continue to increase.

On top of the potential injuries, almost any professional athlete that you speak to talks about having played – and enjoyed – multiple sports growing up, and college and pro coaches love players who have played multiple sports and developed their all-around athleticism.

“Twelve-month hockey is wrong,” former NHL player and current television analyst Ray Ferraro, also a hockey dad, said in a 2015 presentation. “Kids can shoot pucks, stickhandle and play street hockey, but they need to be out of the mental insanity of a hockey rink and need to be engaged in something other than hockey … Time away reinforces their passion to want it.”

Still, every year we see more kids specializing in one sport at younger ages and losing out on the experience of enjoying other activities with friends as well as many of the other everyday social activities that are part of being a kid and growing up. As with anything, striking a balance is important in avoiding burnout. Taking some time off from any activity that a young person pursues seriously helps to rekindle the original fire and excitement that caused him or her to fall in love with that activity in the first place.  

“Sometimes I think the burnout is caused not only by the hockey, but some of the travel that comes along with it,” said Leslie. “When we see 11- and 12-year-old kids behind their masks on the ice, sometimes we think about them as if they are adults, but as soon as they take their helmets off they are back to being 11-year-old kids. So many kids at that age are playing so many games that they are missing out on many experiences that are part of just being a kid.

“Their neighborhood buddies are going to do something together down the street on a weekend and they are getting in a car to drive two or three hours to a game. Or they are getting picked up by their parents right after school and driving an hour or an hour and a half to practice, skating and getting dressed quickly to rush back home because it’s bedtime. The only socialization they get is that 10 or 15 minutes they are rushing to get dressed in the locker room. The kids playing with the local club are playing with their friends after school, getting dinner and doing homework before going to the rink, so they are getting their practice time and the social aspects that come with being a kid.”

A brief look at this year’s MYHockey Rankings shows that among the top-20 teams at the 10U "squirt" level, only one team played fewer than 44 games. Thirteen teams played 50 or more games, five played 60 or more and one played 79. These kids are 9 and 10 years old.  

At the "peewee" AAA 12U level, only one of the top-20 clubs played fewer than 41 games, two played fewer than 51, 18 played 50 or more, seven played 60 or more and four played more than 70 contests.

“We need to consider a couple things when we look at kids who are playing AAA hockey at very young ages,” Castleton State College NCAA Division III assistant coach Anthony Matarazzo, a former youth AAA coach and hockey director, said. “First, are mom and dad pushing their careers at this level and not the other way around? And second, is this the player liking hockey that much, or is this mom and dad liking hockey.”

Games are fun, and we want kids to have fun. Thus, the premise of playing more games seems positive. The truth is that with more games comes more travel, which can be draining for players and their families as well. The time spent traveling and playing more games also might be better spent at the local rink developing the players’ skills while also giving them more time to just be kids.

In addition, these aren't the fun pickup games many of us grew up playing every day of our young lives. These are intense, often pressure-packed games with a lot of adults screaming from the benches and sidelines.

“I’m a massive fan of the {USA Hockey American Development Model},” Leslie said. “USA Hockey, Hockey Canada and the European hockey nations have all done studies on how many puck touches developing players need and how station-based reps allow for a lot of touches in little bit of time. In a game, some kids might get one or two shots – or less – but in a one-hour station-based practice I can guarantee that each kid gets 30-40 shots. That’s much better for their development. I can challenge them and make sure that it is skill- and competition-based and that they are having a blast and are engaged.”

Over time, statistics have shown that there is a large drop in hockey participation at around age 13. Most of this is has been attributed to the onset of checking and more physical play that is permitted as players reach that age, but for kids who started playing AA or AAA hockey as squirts, four-plus years of games, travel and all of hockey’s other associated expenses take a huge toll on many families. Kids also start developing their own interests and making their own choices about how they want to spend their time around that age.

“Why travel so far when the kids are that young?” Matarazzo said. “Is a kid at that age really going to get that much better spending all that time traveling to play against good competition, or will they be better off playing with friends who live down the street for a really good coach and having a great time?”

In addition, once kids become teens and families start to look toward what might lie ahead, hockey presents the most complicated and misunderstood path to college of any sport. Nearly 90 percent of all NCAA college players are required to play junior hockey after 18U, and the majority of junior opportunities are “pay to play” situations that will cost families $10,000 or more per year.

Hockey is a huge time and financial commitment even for families of kids who play in local travel leagues. To play at the highest levels of youth and junior hockey necessary to advance to the NCAA level is an enormous commitment that many aren’t willing or able to make for more than a few years.

For the parents of kids who are playing 60 to 80 games per year from ages 9 through 13 to look ahead and realize they have up to seven more years of that ahead of them if the player is going to make it to the NCAA level is extremely daunting. Other athletic options are often simply more attractive and practical for most families.

“I mean 80 games at the peewee level, “Leslie said. “is anything more crazy than that?”

He also pointed out that college teams usually practice or skate four to five times a week while playing two games and said that when he played professionally in Switzerland all the teams practiced or skated seven times every week while playing twice.

“Even at the highest levels with pros a lot more time is spent practicing than playing games," Leslie said.

The amazing thing is that parents often shell out five figures financially to play on these high-level, high-volume teams when tuition, equipment, uniforms, travel and lodging are all factored in. Many of these parents are hoping that this money spent up front will pay off on the back end in the form of NCAA Division I athletic scholarships that are few and far between.

For a fraction of the money often spent on sports, parents could provide extra tutoring or college-prep classes that might help their children tap into an infinitely larger pool of academic scholarship money that is out there for the taking. It’s hard to find time for extra studying, though, when most of your free time is spent on the ice or in a car traveling to an ice rink. Someone who is good at hockey and strong academically might be able to get into a college he or she never thought possible at a price that is more affordable than the family ever expected.

Believe it or not, top 16U AAA teams are playing about the same number of games as the youngest AAA players, and the number drops slightly for 18U teams since many players juggle high-school or prep-school schedules and end up playing for “split-season” club teams on top of their school commitments.

Ironically, for players who continue playing beyond 18U, many leagues at even the top junior levels only play between 50 and 60 games per year. At the college level that number dips to between 25 and 32 or so at the Division III level and between 35 and about 42 at the Division I level. Again, even for college players, practices outnumber games by a large margin.

“I don’t have a problem with midget {16U and 18U} teams playing that many games, because those are kids who, for the most part, are looking to play junior or college hockey and need as much exposure as they can get,” Matarrazzo said. “The problem is that games don’t always equate to exposure. If it’s showcases, tournaments or events that are scouted, then it makes sense. Teams would be better off taking a look at how they schedule and getting to more exposure events at the midget level. Why do I need to play eight games against the same two teams in my league or my area when I can go to an event like the USHL Showcase in Pittsburgh instead?”

The bottom line is that if your child truly loves hockey at a young age, you don’t have to foot the bill for year-round training, for him or her to play 75 games for the top AAA program in your area, for private lessons from the top former pro around or even for the best equipment.

Find an affordable program with good coaching and a good group of kids and parents that you enjoy being around and that allows your child to develop a solid base of fundamentals while having a great time – and leaves time for him or her to be a kid and do other things.

If your child is going to fall in love with the sport and want to pursue it all the way to college and maybe even beyond that, understand that hockey has the longest and most convoluted path to get to those levels. Keep the big picture in focus and realize the level of commitment and sacrifice – financially and otherwise – it will require from your child and your family to make that dream a reality.

You may not want to make that commitment too soon since there are no guarantees, it's incredibly expensive and it could lead to burnout. 

Every family’s situation is different. This is not to say that playing the highest-level hockey and as many games as possible at a young age isn’t the right situation for some players and families. Examine your situation completely and do what is best for you and your child. There’s just no need to rush into something at the risk of player and family burnout if you’re not sure.

Either way, enjoy the ride and try not to push too hard or stress out too much

And remember, no 12-year old ever signed a pro contract or got an NCAA Division I scholarship offer.  

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