So your child loves hockey. Awesome! Do they also love it so much that they want to play year-round?
Dr. Heather Bergeson is a hockey mom, and like many, has difficulty in deciding how much hockey is too much hockey for her two children. It’s especially hard when the kids love it so much and want to play all the time.
Bergeson is also a leading expert in the field of sports specialization and the effects it has both physically and mentally. She is a physician at TRIA where her focus is in pediatric sports medicine and women’s health.
Specializing in one sport can have numerous downsides such as increased injury risk, a high rate of burnout and a lack of overall athleticism. Minnesota Hockey spoke with Dr. Bergeson about specialization in youth hockey today.
Minnesota Hockey: How does specialization negatively affect young hockey players?
Dr. Heather Bergeson: Well, I think it can affect kids in a variety of ways. One, they don’t have the opportunity to play other sports or do other things. They might be missing their true calling. But if they are spending all this time on hockey they will never find out. Two, we know that the kids that specialize early burn out quickly. The nice thing about playing the sport of the season is that it makes them hungry to come back and play hockey again. If you haven’t played hockey year-round then you’ll have the drive and passion. If you don’t have the love of the game anymore, the drive, the motivation that is needed to keep playing, you’re going to burn out.
Minnesota Hockey: One of the biggest downsides from a physical standpoint of playing the same sport is the occurrence of overuse injuries. At TRIA, what sort of overuse injuries are you seeing?
Dr. Bergeson: The majority are the acute injuries: shoulder separations and dislocations, clavicle fractures and concussions. A lot of what we’re seeing now is hip injuries. That is an overuse injury. These kids start to play when they are really young. They’re in that stride position when they are young and there can be some abnormal mechanics that predispose the kids to developing problems in the hip. More and more hockey players we’re seeing now have hip pain because of overuse and partly because of the biomechanics of how they are moving. We’re seeing that a lot of hockey goalies are having hip pain due to the butterfly position.
Minnesota Hockey: What are some signs of burnout that parents should look for?
Dr. Bergeson: The signs of burnout can be really subtle. It’s a small change in health and attitude. One, the kids are frequently complaining about being injured when there really isn’t a lot of objective evidence that they are, in fact, injured. So, the kid might feign injury when it’s more of an emotional thing. When they are worried about their play or making a mistake sometimes they will feign an injury. Sometimes the kid doesn’t have the insight to be able to express that they’re burned out. So, it comes out in other ways. Second, you’ll see a kid not try as hard at practice or they’re not wanting to even go to practice or they’re complaining about other symptoms like joint pain. As parents, it’s important that we ask the right questions.
Minnesota Hockey: One of the best ways to beat burnout is by playing more sports. How can playing multiple sports help a young hockey player?
Dr. Bergeson: Playing any sport will help a hockey player become a better overall athlete. It helps to play any other sport because you’re using your muscles in a different way. So, cycling, Nordic skiing, soccer and lacrosse are great. These sports will move the body in a different way and keep it strong and build up endurance.
But parents should know that playing multiple sports has to be done right. Overscheduling things can be just as big of a problem. Sometimes parents think they are doing the right thing by having their kid play multiple sports but they are playing all of them at the same time. When kids are playing multiple sports all at the same time is also when we see overuse injury problems.
Minnesota Hockey: But sometimes a kid really does just want to play one sport.
Dr. Bergeson: Absolutely. There are some kids who are really driven. It’s all driven by them. They have a real passion for the sport. And if they say, ‘I’ve tried soccer. I want to focus on hockey’ as a parent you have to decide what the best thing is for your kid.
Minnesota Hockey: So, if a kid wants to play hockey year-round what are your limits?
Dr. Bergeson: If kids are exercising more hours per week than years that they are old then there is an increase for injuries. So, if your kid is 12 years old, they should not be participating in more than 12 hours in that sport. They should have off days, too. They still need time off for rest and recovery.
Editor’s Note: The American Development Model (ADM), which was developed by USA Hockey and adapted for all sports by the United States Olympic Committee, provides specific training recommendations for young athletes. For instance, Peewee/12U players are recommended to train and compete on the ice about 4 times per week for 7 months out of the year (ex: Oct.-March). More detailed training recommendations are available at admkids.com.
Minnesota Hockey: When is it OK, if ever, for kids to specialize in hockey?
Dr. Bergeson: 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.
Minnesota Hockey: How can parents be a good advocate for their young athlete?
Dr. Bergeson: The most important thing is to set boundaries. Just because others might be playing hockey year-round doesn’t make it the right thing for your child. Really look for the signs of burnout. Every parent thinks they’re doing the right thing and trying to provide the best opportunities for their kids. But it can be misguided. We should put just as much emphasis on the things in their lives to make them a well-rounded person and not just as well-rounded athlete.