Hockey season is just around the corner, and like clockwork, the whispers about what level players should be at are growing louder by the day.
“Wow, Robbie looks really great out there!”
“Kelly is easily the best player on her team.”
Those thoughts then tend to lead to one final question: “Should my kid be playing up?”
While it’s natural to assume playing up, or playing above your age (i.e. an 8- or 9-year-old Mite playing with 10- and 11-year-old Squirts instead and so on), will benefit your child, the opposite is often true.
Just ask Mike Orn, father of three hockey-playing boys, and current Associate Coach-in-Chief for Minnesota Hockey District 10. Orn, who played four years at Miami-Ohio University and was drafted by the Minnesota North Stars, warns that while players and parents might be drawn to the idea of “advancing,” it’s not usually in their child’s best interest.
“Every situation is unique, so you do need to look at it on a case-by-case basis, but in my opinion, I think it’s a rare occasion that the player has the ability and skill to significantly benefit from moving up,” said Orn. “Most youth skaters are just not going to get enough benefit out of it from a development standpoint and, frankly, most youth aren’t mature enough, physically or mentally, to be ready for that either.”
Here are five questions to ask yourself, and your child, about playing up.
1. Who wants to make the move?
There’s no question, parents want what is best for their child. But in Orn’s experience, it’s not always a child-led drive to move up to the next age classification.
“To me, the most important thing to look at is doing what’s best for your child, not the parent,” he said. “It just seems like a lot of times, the parent is the driving force behind the move up decision, and the child may not be ready yet physically, mentally, emotionally or socially to be playing with older kids. To me, that’s the biggest thing to consider.”
“I think most parents are really level-headed and possess good common sense,” he continues, “but the minute someone else does something, they think that they have to accelerate their kid to keep up. They’re worried about being left out or left behind and rational thinking goes out the door. I get it; you never want to deprive your child of an opportunity. I’ve raised three boys that played hockey and I know exactly where they’re coming from. But if you get into this habit of rushing things and rushing development you’re going to do more damage than good.”
Remember to keep those emotions in check and focus on what’s best for your child, not making those decisions based on what everyone else is doing or is most appealing for adults.
2. Is my child physically ready?
Hockey players come in all shapes and sizes. But expecting a 10-year-old to stack up against 12-year-olds is a stretch.
“Parents already cringe at some of the physicalness in our sport, but now you’re asking maybe a small 9-year-old to play with kids who can be up to two years older than him or her,” explained Orn. “That’s a lot for any kid to handle—whether they have hit a growth spurt or not.”
Even if young players have the hockey skills to keep up with older players, the differences in size and strength can inhibit young players’ confidence in competing for pucks and body position in tight areas, which is a critical component of player development.
3. Is my child socially/emotionally ready?
“As a parent, are you ready to have your child hear some of the things said in an older locker room?” Orn questions. “By moving up, they’re not having the natural opportunity to grow up with their friends and they’re growing up faster than they should in those social situations.”
That social component of playing hockey with your friends is a large part of what makes the game fun. Sticking with your classmates and the kids you will naturally grow up with encourages a child to continue to get back on the ice and talk about last night’s victory at school the next day.
Editor’s Note: If the primary reason for playing up is to stay with your classmates (July/August birthdates), that’s a unique situation and should be taken into consideration.
4. What’s wrong with being the best on your team?
The temptation to hit the accelerate button when your son or daughter is outscoring, out-passing and outperforming others on a team is natural.
But what’s wrong with allowing your superstar to shine?
“There are a lot of benefits for a good, skilled player to play at his or her own level,” Orn said. “He or she gets to possess the puck more, he or she gets more opportunity to demonstrate creativity, they develop more hockey confidence and they’re not just chasing the puck as much as they would when they move up.”
While its common to want to challenge your player against better competition, going from being a big fish in a little pond to a little fish in a big pond can always have its drawbacks. Fewer puck touches, scoring chances and a different role on the team all have negative effects, including on a player’s confidence.
“Hockey’s a game of confidence, and if you don’t have confidence or have reduced confidence, you’re absolutely not going to be a better player,” said Orn. “When I played, I was counted on to score goals, and the more chances you get to score goals, the more ways you can think in your brain, ‘I can score a goal.’ And if you don’t get that opportunity, you’re going to stagnate and never develop.
“There’s nothing wrong with being the best player, regardless of the status of whose team you’re on.”
5. What are we missing out on?
As addressed in the first question, we recognize it’s hard to consider that your kiddo might be missing out on something great.
But judging your player’s ability and level of skill at ages 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and even 16, isn’t always the right measuring stick. There are early stars, late bloomers and everyone in between.
“You never know where your kid’s full potential is,” reminds Orn. “It’s an ongoing process. For my three kids, one was an early star, one was average and one was a later bloomer. They all hit their full potential down the road.
“It’s a hard thing, but it’s so important for your child to be eager to step on the ice and to play hockey. Parents know their kids better than anyone else, and you’re always going to be worried about them falling behind, but trust your instinct, and trust your child. Let’s continue to make it fun for them and not rush them to grow up.”