The Downside of Year-round Hockey

In my last blog, I spoke about the recent challenges with injuries in youth sport. A few months ago an interesting article was posted on the National Post, written by Wayne Scanlan. The article discusses the declining athleticism among youth from the Ottawa Senators strength and conditioning coach Chris Schwarz.  

Some great points in this article. Enjoy!

The Downside of Year-round Hockey: Ottawa Senators Strength Coach Warns of Declining Athleticism Among Youth

Chris Schwarz has a dream job.

As the strength and conditioning coach of the Ottawa Senators, Schwarz helps keep world-class athletes such as Erik Karlsson, Kyle Turris and Mark Stone finely tuned.

Schwarz isn’t referring to those star players, nor is he citing recent flu virus issues in the NHL when he says: “I can’t tell you how we’re in trouble. It’s an epidemic.”

Schwarz is talking about the lack of athleticism among our youth, even including some elite hockey players who didn’t play other sports or freelance in the playgrounds as children. He offers this simple test for parents: “Ask your kid if he or she can somersault. See if they can play catch with both hands. Can they run backwards? Do those three things. I think most parents would be astonished that their kids can’t do it.”

"How can play happen with no physical education and no balls in the schoolyards anymore?"

"How can play happen with no physical education and no balls in the schoolyards anymore?"

Those same parents approach Schwarz at his Fitquest private strength training centre and ask him to “make my son skate fast.” Unfortunately, it’s a losing proposition if the child hasn’t first learned to run and play; to kick and throw a ball.

Surprisingly, in this era of the professional who trains year round, some very good hockey players have come through the system, only to hit a wall at a certain point because their hockey aspirations lacked a foundation.

“We do assessments on players in the summertime,” says Schwarz, a former professional volleyball player in Europe. “I can tell if they have the ability to be a really good player by the way they see other games.

“I get kids here, and they missed this stage, because they’re not catching, running, throwing. They don’t process it. They can’t be creative. … you flick a puck over their heads, they can’t react, because they never caught a football that way.”

According to professional trainers such as Schwarz, an ideal developmental model for an athlete has him or her learning fundamental movement skills — crawling and rudimentary gymnastic exercises — up to the age of six. Sporting fundamentals, including running and jumping, are introduced from ages 9-12. From 10-14, children “train to train” and learn the basics of a specific sport. Training to compete is ideal for boys 14-18 and for girls 13-17. The performance focus is the final stage, in the late teens.

World renowned sport scientist Dr. Istvan Balyi developed this Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model (for late specialization sports) now used by most sport federations in Canada and it’s the foundation for British Columbia’s sport system.

Conditioning coach Chris Schwarz works with Ottawa Senator forward Kyle Turris at the CTC on March 14, 2017.

Conditioning coach Chris Schwarz works with Ottawa Senator forward Kyle Turris at the CTC on March 14, 2017.

If basic athletic movements aren’t experienced at a young age, the most well-intentioned athlete, even if she or he is physically mature, presents a potentially compelling shell but with no foundation.

“Movement skills, 60 to 70 per cent of that should be accomplished when they’re young,” Schwarz says. “Into mid-school, it’s less about that and more about power and strength. What we’re doing now, kids are coming to me at the NHL level, and they don’t have the movement skills. There’s no basis.”

In recent years, Schwarz says he has become equal parts strength coach and phys-ed teacher, introducing games and movements to players who missed out on that development. In some cases, it’s too late. Athletes need the cognitive ability to interpret and process information, as well as motor control. Thought, interpretation and movement work as a unit.

“If you lack one of those, you’re done,” Schwarz says.

“We’re trying to Frankenstein things,” says Schwarz. “We’re trying to take one aspect of sport and put it all together. But it has to happen in those early years, when play happens. And how can play happen with no physical education and no balls in the schoolyards anymore?”

Long before concerns about athlete burnout, before LTAD and “physical literacy,” there was play. Simple, unadulterated play. We ran in parks, played road hockey endlessly and invented games such as “burby” baseball, outlining a batter’s box on a brick wall. We wrestled at recess, sometimes attracting a crowd if it was a real good tilt.

Who knew we were inadvertently building our physical literacy (a term borrowed from the academic realm) and creating a foundation for athleticism and recreation for life?

Children don’t play much anymore. Parents are either too concerned about the safety and security of their kids running free, or they can’t tear them away from screens (phones, television and video games all vying for attention). Play at recess has all but been outlawed for fear of injury.

Recreation is something that gets scheduled, like a dentist appointment. And if a child is good at a game such as hockey or soccer, parents are often drawn into year-round programs that exclude other sports.

In recent years, specialization in sport, especially for preteens, has come under fire by educators and most sporting bodies.

These issues have led to a slow but steady crawl into something of a sport and health-care crisis.

You know some of this story: That children are chronically inactive, leading to soaring obesity rates (according to the Canadian Medical Association, 27 per cent of youth between the ages of two and 17 are overweight or obese). Playground play is just one endangered species in this tale. At school, phys-ed class is something to be skipped — not just because it’s the Friday afternoon of a long weekend, but skipped by most students altogether after Grade 9, the last year it is mandatory in the province of Ontario.

It infuriates Schwarz that children are kept from doing what comes naturally, being physically active.

“My son can’t bring a ball to school,” he says. “Some kid in Toronto got hit in head with a rubber ball and they’ve banned all balls in the schoolyard.”

Balls aren’t the only schoolyard targets. A few years ago, a school on Long Island banned cartwheels and games of tag. One can’t be too careful.

Schwarz, the father of a boy and girl, ages 9 and 12, keeps a trampoline in his backyard so his kids can develop co-ordination through jumping. On weekends, he rounds up neighbourhood kids and takes them to a playground with a bag of balls.

“Play is free,” Schwarz says. “Throwing a ball at the garage door is free (though not always popular with mom and dad). So is bouncing a ball off the roof, or playing catch.”

Numerous studies have shown that playing just one sport dramatically raises the risk of injury. Schwarz knows this first-hand.

Hockey players who didn’t learn to evade danger on the playground or football field lack sporting instincts when a player is skating at them.

“They don’t know enough to step to one side — kids run right into each other,” Schwarz says. “Then when they fall, they haven’t fallen before in wrestling or gymnastics … they bang their heads on the ice.”

Hockey: It Ain't as Easy as it Looks

In 1996, the inaugural year of the Western Professional Hockey League, I took on a job with the Amarillo Rattlers Hockey Team. They were in early start up mode, and I was hired as a consultant to set up their merchandise operations for the club. While there, we met some interesting people, including city officials and key members of the business community. Amarillo, located in the Texas panhandle, was, at the time a population of 120,000. Hockey was a foreign sport to the locals, all of the sporting goods stores were filled to brim with football gear. In fact, the nightly sports cast was inundated with junior and senior high football game results. Very little room for a hockey team story.

The city had one indoor rink, the Amarillo Civic Centre, a facility large enough to warrant a small, professional league team. Less foreign to the community was roller hockey, and the city supported a well-used roller hockey rink. It was a covered barn of sorts, where many tried out this latest of the popular trendy sports. The community leaders, who fancied themselves as (former) athletes, wanted to try out this new sport called ice hockey. Now they had been on ice skates before, so in their minds playing hockey would come easy. The club owners graciously offered to provide them with gear, sticks and pucks to try it out. They agreed, so we took them out to the rink.

Hockey, as many Canadians know, is not as easy as it looks. It takes lots of practice and hard work to master the skills of skates, puck and stick. But sometimes, people think things are easy until they actually try it. Sure, these guys could skate, but when they tried to shoot a puck (while moving) or take a slap-shot (while stationary) it was quite the scene. Many-a-fall for the newbies. Within 30 minutes or so, they had had enough, and humbly acknowledged that the sport was much tougher than they had imagined.

This story reminds me of some wannabe helicopter parents. The ones who coach from the sidelines. When you have been watching a sport for many years that you have never played, somehow people think that they are experts. Well, the truth is they are not. If you have never been on the pitcher’s mound with all the pressures that surround it, then you really don’t know what it is like. Further, you are NOT qualified to give advice, let alone coach your child.

If you really think you know a bit about the sport your child is participating in, maybe you should try it first before giving them advice on how to play. You will find it’s best to leave the coaching up to the coaches. That’s why they are in those roles, and why you are the parent.