This summer, long-time hockey coach Jos Canale signed up his grandson and granddaughter, 7 and 9, for a week of hockey camp. They both play during the winter, so naturally he wanted to give them the chance to play over the summer, too. He also made sure they went to camps to play tennis, soccer and do arts and crafts.
“They both play hockey and other sports,” he stressed. “I’ve just seen too many kids pushed to go to the rink. If you only have them do one sport all the time, chances are slim that they’ll be passionate about it.” And no matter how many skills you drill them in, or how much ice time you get them, without passion, he says, they’ll never be great players. Most likely they’ll burn out and drop out.
He’s a big booster of the multi-sport ideal, exposing children to lots of different sports and getting them involved in as many as your budget and schedule will allow. For years, research has shown the best way both to develop star athletes and to keep children and adolescents active into adulthood, is for them to become well-rounded athletes long before focusing on just one sport. A recent public service campaign featured four elite Canadian athletes talking about how playing different sports made them better at the sport they ultimately specialized in.
“Most people get it, (the multi-sport ideal) and most people agree with it,” said Richard Monette, the managing director of Active for Life, a non-profit group that promotes physical literacy for children that was behind the public service ad.
And yet, both parents and coaches complain that kids are being forced to choose and specialize way too early. If everyone agrees, then what’s the problem?
“It’s such a big issue, people don’t know where to start and see it as impossible to change,” Monette said. Parents blame sports organizations for demanding huge time commitments from their kids that preclude other activities, and coaches blame parents for pushing their kids too hard in one direction, hoping they’ll become the next Olympic or NHL star.
One of the biggest issues is scheduling: baseball play-offs happen at the same time as hockey tryouts, hockey games and practices conflict with indoor soccer league schedules and the ski season; or, a sports coach has scheduled five practices a week for a group of 7-year-olds.
As a parent, sometimes you have to challenge the coaches or the sports organization to advocate for your child, says Claude Rioux. A former soccer coach himself, he encouraged his daughters to play as many sports as possible when they were younger. In cases of conflict, he met with coaches or teams to explain that his daughter would be missing a game or practice to accommodate a play-off game for her other sport.
“I’d go in with reasonable arguments. I’d say that the skills you learn in one sport are skills you can use in the other sport,” he said. In most cases, they reached an understanding, but he cautions that sometimes you might have to risk having your child cut from the team. “But if my kid was saying she wants to play, I wouldn’t let the federation or the team intimidate me.”
For real change, Monette says, parents, coaches and sports organization representatives need to talk to each other and think about the overall development of the child rather than one specific sport.
“The enemy is not another sport,” Monette said, “The enemy is inactivity and gaming.”
For ideas on children’s activities and fitness, see activeforlife.com.