Playing Attitudes to Win in Youth Hockey Sacrifice Personal Development for Winning


Veronica Allan, York University, Canada

The game culture to win youth hockey means that children’s personal development is put aside in the pursuit of victory.

Véronique Allan, York University, Canada

As Canada’s official winter sport, hockey is closely linked to the fabric of Canadian identity. Canada has more registered hockey players and more gold medals at the Olympics and World Hockey Championships than any other country in the world.

But recent trends suggest that hockey’s place in Canadian identity may be at a crossroads. After peaking at 639,510 members during the 2014-2015 season, Hockey Canada’s registration numbers have since declined. Meanwhile, Canada’s national hockey teams are lacking in their usual dominance. And in 2019, the number of Canadian players drafted into the NHL hit its lowest level in 10 years.

Recruitment strategies

To attract new players, the Hockey Canada website makes a heartfelt pitch to parents: playing hockey will help their child make new friends, get fit and build character, among other important skills.

However, our research suggests that the structure and culture of minor hockey in Canada – a model of professional sport that emphasizes competition and performance from early childhood – limits the potential benefits for young players.

As a postdoctoral fellow at York University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, I was part of a research team that included Associate Professor Jessica Fraser-Thomas and PhD student Cassidy Preston, who is now full-time sports psychology consultant. Our research focused on how to optimize the physical, social, and emotional development of children and youth in sport, and we recently published the second of three studies examining whether (and how) minor hockey coaches facilitate positive development. young people among their players.

Positive youth development involves fostering personal strengths, such as skills, confidence and character, through organized activities such as sport. These assets are essential for long-term sport participation, and for some, elite sport performance.

Limits to positive development

Specifically, our research looked at the experiences of team leader Cassidy Preston – an Ontario Hockey League alumnus and varsity athlete who honed her skills in the Ontario minor hockey system. After critically reflecting on his own experiences as the head coach of a men’s AAA minor hockey team, he joined the coaching staff of four other AAA men’s teams in a large urban center in Ontario. . The players are between the ages of nine and 15 and have played at the highest competitive level of minor hockey in Canada (AAA).

As an insider – that is, an accepted member of the study group – Preston observed and interviewed each team’s head coach over an eight-month season. All four coaches have been identified as role models by the president of the organization. And indeed, our research has shown that these coaches were able and motivated to foster the personal strengths of athletes in addition to their specific hockey skills.

Despite their best efforts, the competitive structure of sport – the pressure to win – limited the opportunities for coaches to foster the long-term development of their athletes. For example, teams spent as much time practicing as they did games and a key goal of the regular season was to advance to the playoffs. Therefore, the practices largely focused on short-term strategies for winning the next game, rather than developing each player’s individual skills.

Return on investment

Notably, for players aged seven to 13, Hockey Canada recommends a ratio of two practices (or more) for each game played, claiming that effective training will provide the player with more opportunities to develop their skills than 11 games combined. . However, minor hockey associations are not required to follow these guidelines.

The players’ parents also played a key role in the pressure to win. As parents invested time and money in their child’s participation in hockey – from ice time and equipment to travel and training costs – the coaches in our study felt compelled to get results. For example, after a loss, a coach recounted a situation in which a player’s parent told him that “[he] should be embarrassed ”and that“ it was [his] work ”to make sure the team wins matches.

For parents of aspiring athletes, college scholarships and professional contracts are carrots hanging in front of their noses. And while soaring costs and year-round training programs are barriers to sport participation for many families (especially those from low-income households), the desire to prepare their children for success means that parents often adhere to a culture that normalizes victory. mentality at all costs.

Costs of winning

Ironically, the competitive structure and the culture of win at all costs limit opportunities for players to develop not only specific hockey skills, but also personal strengths such as making friends and building character. The way coaches allocate playing time – whether and how long a player is on the ice during a game – is a prime example of this dilemma.

In our research, for example, athletes often had to save playing time through their performance in training and matches. Playing time could also be reduced if an athlete does not meet coaches’ performance expectations. The way coaches managed playing time could be seen as a strategy to instill a work ethic or resilience, but the best players were often rewarded with playing time whether they worked hard or not. In fact, for the majority of players, coaches cut off learning and growth opportunities at a critical point in development.

This work raises questions about whether the minor hockey system promotes the participation and long-term development of young Canadians. In contrast, the efforts of organizations like USA Hockey and Canada Soccer serve as models of successful participation and performance nationally on the international stage.

Tackling the culture of victory at all costs head-on, Canada Soccer does not allow league rankings and programs are built around small-scale games (fewer players on a smaller field) for players up to ‘At the age of 12.

Taking a similar approach, USA Hockey encourages a practice-to-game ratio of 3: 1 with in-station practices and games on a small area (or on the ice, when games are played across the ice rather than lengthwise). to provide more reps, more puck touches and more skill development per hour of ice time.

The Saskatchewan Hockey Association implemented ice games for young players during the 2016-17 season.

Although Hockey Canada introduced similar guidelines for player development, reluctance – largely on the part of parents – has slowed progress. More recently, Hockey Canada made ice games mandatory for players up to the age of nine. Despite the controversy, the policy goes into effect for the 2019-20 season.

Profound systemic changes are needed for hockey to maintain its place as one of Canada’s most popular and successful sports. But are Canadians ready to embrace these changes?

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Veronica Allan, Postdoctoral Fellow, York University, Canada

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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