As parents, coaches, and teachers we’re often faced with a dilemma as to how much we encourage young people to follow certain pathways. This is particularly prevalent when young people show a high level of competence in a specific sport. How much should we encourage them to specialise? Could they become a professional? Should we send them for extra training? Should they miss school and fixtures to compete for county or even professional teams? By training will they miss out on social development with their friends? This blog might assist with some of the decision-making. It suggests that, until the age of 16, specialised training and structured training are not as advantageous as we might have been led to believe.
Volume 2.7 (Blog 102):
Côté, J., Hancock, D.J., Fischer, S.L., & Gurd, B.J. (2014). Rob: Talent in ice hockey: age, neighbourhood, and training. In K.M. Armour (ed.) Pedagogical cases in physical education and youth sport (pp. 89-100). London: Routledge.
Rob is an eleven-year old elite junior ice-hockey player who has, according to his coach and his father (an avid ice hockey player in his own right who, as a younger man played at the highest amateur level in Canada), a chance of playing professionally (something that his father aspired to but never achieved). To date, Rob has played elite junior hockey for three years and he has the advantage of being one of the oldest players in both his team and his league. He is also one of the biggest and strongest and while his skating ability is below average and he isn’t particularly fast he revels in the physical side of hockey. He reads the game well and uses his body and strength to his, and his team’s, advantage.
Hockey is a big commitment for Rob and his family. Four training sessions and two matches a week in the season equates to 10 hours of hockey a week. When travel (half an hour each way just to train) is considered this figure rises to 25-30 hours a week during the season. As a consequence Rob has little time for anything else and the time he used to spend playing sports for fun with family and friends has greatly diminished. He has stopped playing basketball competitively and while he still plays baseball there is pressure to focus on his ice hockey.
His father and coach want him to work on his skating through a power skating clinic in the summer (5 hours a week) and they feel he should also engage in an off-ice-training programme each week throughout the year (again 5 hours a week). Rob loves ice hockey but not the power skating or the off-ice training. His father, in contrast, would like to see Rob invest more time in his all-round training and he has Rob’s coach’s support in this. They both feel that if he (Rob) wants to continue playing at the elite level and have a chance of a professional career he needs to engage with the training. However, Rob is more interested in playing ice hockey, among other sports, for fun with his friends rather than investing solely in ice hockey and the associated training.
The Pedagogical Case
Rob’s case is individually explored from a sport psychology, biomechanics, and exercise physiology perspective before these ideas are collated and examined pedagogically. Throughout these explorations Rob’s age and his potential development (as a young man and as an ice hockey player) are weighed in an attempt to best consider how to move forwards.
From the perspective of sport psychology Rob already has two birth advantages and one family advantage. His first advantage is the day and month of his birth. Because age-group teams in Canadian ice hockey contain players born between 1st January and 31st December in the same calendar year it is possible that players could be 363 days apart in terms of their birthdays and still play on the same team. Rob’s 5th January birthday offers him some potential advantages. This advantage, known as the relative age effect, shows that older athletes are over represented in elite sports teams. This is primarily because older athletes often (but not always) have growth advantages. While these advantages do not always translate into talent (see Rob’s skating ability) Rob’s size has certainly helped him. His other advantage of birth is where he was born. Research suggests that living in a small town (with open spaces, opportunities for play, and a connection to a community) is advantages when it comes to playing professional ice hockey. Additionally having access (30 minutes away) to facilities, coaching and training in a larger city (but not a metropolis) also helps.
His family are also an advantage. To experience prolonged engagement in sport it helps if you have a supportive family. Parents provide opportunities for kids to plays sport (by enrolling them), facilitate engagement by paying subs and transporting them, and offer care and comfort. Furthermore, if parents are active then their children often want to be active as well. Pressure to participate, however, can also have a negative impact on engagement, especially at a younger age. Such pressure – especially sport specialism – can lead to dropout. The Developmental Model of Sport Participation is used to suggest that children between 6-12 should be engaged in sampling sports (i.e. be involved in free play with friends and little involvement from adults). It is not until the ages of 13-15 that children should be specializing and engaging in a balanced programme of play and practice. Only when they have reached 16 should children begin to make an investment, through high levels of deliberate practice, in one sport. It is at this age that young people are better equipped mentally and physically to increase specialised practice and focus on one sport.
Biomechanically there are a number of ways of enhancing and developing Rob’s skating. He needs to improve his technique and be able to better coordinate his movements. In addition, he needs to improve his off-ice strength and conditioning to then be able to improve his skating. In this respect Rob’s coach and father are correct but such specific training should not be encouraged at the expense of his sampling of different activities. Instead, other activities and games that include strength and plyometric components (like basketball and volleyball where he would jump hundreds of times in a game) would be more beneficial to a player as young as Rob.
Physiologically a similar story emerges. While a combination of aerobic fitness, leg strength, and anaerobic power (predominantly the last two) will help Rob in improving his skating, neither on- or off-ice training is recommended at this age. Instead “Rob would benefit from being allowed to mature and grow while participating in activities that he enjoys and that are characterised by play rather than dedicating himself to training.” Regular running sports that involve sprinting (repeatedly) will help him to develop while maintaining his engagement and enjoyment.
It is clear that Rob and his family face a dilemma but it is clear from the multiple perspectives offered that specialisation both in terms of sport and training is not the best thing for a child of his age. The short-term gains certainly don’t seem to outweigh the long-term outcomes. It is important that Rob maintains his current level of involvement in sport and should engage in far more play than deliberate practice. Cote and colleagues suggest that, statistically, there is only about a 0.01% chance that Rob will play enough professional hockey to even draw a players’ pension and this chance is reduced the earlier he specializes. Instead he should invest more time in deliberate play and maintain his passion for ice hockey. His passion emerged from “child-led activities such as play as well as interactions with peers and adults”. He experimented with skills and learnt how to learn not by being told but by doing. In other words, he learnt without formal instruction or adult involvement and didn’t need the “explicit knowledge [adults] associated with the execution of the skill”. He was provided with opportunities to play for fun and engaged in implicit learning. This involved what Cote and colleagues call a non-linear pedagogy that didn’t place skills in a hierarchical structure to be learnt in turn. These are the aspects of his learning that made him elite and to switch to an adult form of learning would not be beneficial.
It is important that we understand the needs of the learner and stay away from “regimented training environment[s] until [a child like] Rob is ready to make a full commitment to this environment.” We need to drop the adult need for specialism and the traditional approaches and take a longer-term view. We need to think of a slower developmental pace and understand the long-term impact of our interventions. Only them will we truly put the needs to the learner first.
What’s next? As part of this blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).
Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.
Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?
Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.
I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear for her work behind the scene as copy editor. Her help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.