Early Sport Specialization?

How Soon Is Too Soon For Only Hockey?

Q: My son’s first season of 12U hockey is winding down. We are getting some pressure from his coach to join his club’s AAA hockey team this spring. I don’t want my son to fall behind his teammates on the ice, but I feel conflicted because the spring has usually been reserved for baseball. When do you think is the right age to specialize in ice hockey? I have some FOMO if I don’t keep going with spring hockey. What’s the best choice for my son?  What do I do, Doc?

– Sara E., Princeton, N.J.


A: Your question is a great one, and one I get asked often. Youth hockey is becoming a year-round pursuit. We are seeing the professionalization of youth sports. Once the main season is over, then it is time for spring hockey, followed by 3-on-3 and then summer elite leagues. Kids and their parents are being asked to choose before 12 years of age to focus exclusively on hockey or risk falling behind. The logic is there. If you want to be good at ice hockey, you should play year-round to have an advantage, right?

Not necessarily. There is a growing body of literature that clearly shows that early sports specialization (ESS) is not the ideal pathway for hockey success (obtaining a college scholarship or playing professionally) or for lifelong enjoyment of sport. 

Here are two strong reasons to push off specializing only in ice hockey before 14 years of age: there is an increased risk for injuries and burnout with early sports specialization.

When you narrow the scope of focus and specialize, you miss out on whole body skill development like balance, quickness, and core strength that can enhance a child’s overall athletic ability. You can transfer skills from one sport and apply them to another. The larger issue is that when it comes to improving athletic skills on and off the ice, we are better built to grow through a variety of activities. Multi-sport kids that prioritize early diversification and late specialization develop a far more useful skill: how to learn. They learn how to adapt to different situations and are more likely to take ownership over their improvement by playing different sports.

Kids who take part in early diversification and late specialization also have a better chance of staying emotionally healthy and don’t have all the pressure that can accompany an all-or-nothing specialized approach.

Some parents like tangible examples or multi-sport kids exceeding at the highest level. Auston Matthews played baseball and hockey growing up and credits his love for baseball for developing his elite hand-eye coordination. Anders Lee was a three-sport sensation at Edina High School in Minnesota, winning a player of the year award in football, while also lettering in baseball and hockey.

So, when is the right time for a growing athlete to specialize in the game of ice hockey? 

USA Hockey’s American Development Model, multiple studies, and my personal experience all point to the 14U level (starting at 14 years of age) as the earliest time to specialize in ice hockey. 

There is no compelling evidence that early sports specialization is a requirement for ice hockey success. Enjoyment of the sport combined with an athlete’s intrinsic drive have been shown to be the strongest predictors of long-term success to keep a young athlete going back to the rink to improve and grow their game. 



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