Saturday, October 17, 2015

What Youth Sports in America can learn from USA Hockey...

While it may seem a lot of my writing tends to be slanted toward a baseball theme I am developing a healthy respect for the hockey community. I have actually been “rubbing” elbows with the folks that run USA Hockey’s American Developmental Model (ADM) in hopes of applying some of the principles to my own practice while also convincing the baseball community that the ADM is just what that sport needs to ensure long-term viability.

Last week I had the pleasure to meet with USA Hockey’s Strength and Conditioning Coach to discuss the nuances of the ADM. I came away from my time with Darryl Nelson extremely excited about the future of USA Hockey and I also could hardly wait to share what I learned from my time with the folks at USA Arena in Plymouth.

Some of the highlights:

Minnesota high school hockey plays only 25 games. Minnesota does not have “travel” or “club” hockey. The result is their youth hockey players practice more than they play. While the Minnesotans may not be as competitive as the kids from states that play more games they are more skilled.  Interestingly if you look at a state-by-state breakdown of the top active point scorers in the NHL guess what state is disproportionately represented?  If you guessed Minnesota you are correct! *

And one more point that works in favor of the Minnesotan athletes because they only play hockey for the school they actually have an off-season. This leaves more time to play multiple sports. All around athletes have better long-term potential due to decreased risk of burnout and over-use injury and increased durability and athleticism.

In Michigan, with a few exceptions, the best hockey players don’t play for the school and play more games. They travel all the time leaving scant time for skill development. While the Michigan kids are more competitive due to more game experience they are not as skilled.

Another way to look at this …

Who owns and operates many of the top travel teams in Michigan? Businesses and corporations! What’s the main role of a business from a shareholder or CEO’s perspective?  They need to have their product on the market.

Lots of games is good business, practice and skill development doesn’t provide a quick return on investment. Wait a second... I thought youth sports was all about doing what’s in the best interest of the kids!

A Better Way Forward

In the United States, there has been more emphasis on competition starting at a young age. In many European countries, there is more of a patient approach to the game where coaches stress skill development at younger ages with a focus on ultimately developing players for national teams when they’re older.

I watched a seminar with Tommi Neimila, a coach with the Finnish national team, during which he provided a glimpse of his country’s patient approach to player development when he divided a group of local players into three groups and asked them to work on a specific skill for eight minutes. It was an abridged version of what the Finns do with young players over the course of the season. Every practice features 40 minutes dedicated to working on a specific skill twice a week for three months.

“When they’re finished we are 100 percent sure that they have mastered that skill before they move on to another skill,” said Neimila, who added that players typically work on three different skills over the course of a single season.

“If we try to do too many things in too short a time, we feel that our players won’t master that skill. It’s a very patient approach to skill development.”

Neimila understands that such an approach may not translate to the current state of affairs in youth hockey in the U.S., where a greater emphasis is placed on playing games at an early age. But as for a coach who is paid to develop players for the Finnish national teams and ultimately to play in the NHL, Neimila feels that his approach is the best way to accomplish these goals.

“As coaches, no matter if you’re an American, a Swede or a Finn, you want to make your kids better players,” he said. “We’re all human, and we all want to compete and we want to win. But winning a championship when our kids are 13 years old is not priority one for us. I can guarantee that winning a championship when you’re 13 won’t get you to the NHL.”

The point is to allow Americans to develop more like kids in Sweden's renowned youth system, which has produced stars such as Henrik Zetterberg. "The Swedes don't send over fourth-line NHLers," says Bob Mancini, a local ADM administrator based in Saginaw, MI. "They send over stars. And it starts at the youngest levels." ADM is inspired in part by this model. In Sweden, kids don't play full-ice games until age 10 or play on all-star travel teams until after most of them have hit puberty.

The patience has its rewards. Sweden's national team won Olympic gold in 2006 and the world championship in 2006 and 2013, not bad for a country with just 53,334 youth players (the U.S. has 305,453, Canada 455,806). The standard-bearer is Swedish league champion Skelleftea (population: 32,775), a town that is half the size of Waterford Township. Five current NHL players hail from Skelleftea, along with 21 members of Sweden's U17, U18 and U19 teams. All of them emerged from a club that cuts no kids until age 17 and plays only six months a year.

The chiefs running USA Hockey know all about Skelleftea. Every member of the U17 and U18 national teams in Ann Arbor played multiple sports growing up. It will clearly take time for the multisport message to trickle down. "At the youngest ages, we shouldn't try to develop hockey players," Mancini says. "We should develop athletes who love hockey."

"Deep down, most parents know something is wrong," Mancini says. "They come up and say things like, 'My older son quit hockey.' They're looking for something better."

Parents aren’t the only ones looking for something better… The United States Olympic Committee purchased the rights to provide all national teams with the ADM format.

USA Swimming and U.S. Tennis Association officials support kids playing other sports to reduce burnout and overuse injuries. Beyond those reasons they also need better overall athletes entering their sport or they risk becoming irrelevant on the international level… Sorry to say US men’s tennis is already there.

In the end we have to ask the question what is our goal for youth sport participation?

  • Is it about teaching kids how to compete and win?
  • Is it about using the sport to teach kids valuable life lessons/skills?
  • Is it about optimizing their development to ensure they have the best opportunity to reach their full potential?
  • Is it about socialization, creating an environment where kids can have fun and meet potential friends?
  • Is it about heath and fitness promotion?

I believe youth sport experiences should check all of the above boxes.  That said every kid has different goals and interests. Believe it or not all kids that play hockey don’t want to play in the NHL!

In an ideal world we would develop “tracks” that are tailored to each kids interest and commitment levels.

The biggest difference between youth sports in American and Europe isn’t the ideas we have or the humans around us. It's the technology, the civilization and the expectations in our infrastructure.

The US simply has not invested in athlete development. We have not created the infrastructure to support it. A strong determining factor of who gets “picked” has more to do with when and where they were born than their true ability.

We are to fractured. Every organization thinks they have the secret sauce and they want to hide it from everyone else for some sort of perceived competitive advantage.

Countries like Finland and Sweden have taken the time to invest in an infrastructure that supports athlete development and it works for them. Maybe they have to do it because they are relatively small compared to the US.

But imagine if we were to invest in an athletic development system like they have, how much it would benefit the American athlete... It's easy to take youth sports for granted. After all it seems to work for some kids. But when you see an organization or nation that doesn't have our resources accomplishing way more on the international stage with far less it should serve as a powerful wake up call.

Here's something that's unavoidably true: Investing in infrastructure always pays off. Always. Not just most of the time, but every single time. Sometimes the payoff takes longer than we'd like, sometimes there may be more efficient ways to get the same result, but every time we spend time and money, we're surprised at how much of a difference it makes.


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