Less could mean more for Canadian minor hockey players

Less could mean more for Canadian minor hockey players

Practice makes perfect, but don’t overdo it.

Summer hockey, power skating and dryland training heaped atop a standard season are all part of what has made hockey a year-round sport in Canada for decades, but how much is too much and when does it start to hinder development at the youth level?

In “Debunking the 10,000-Hour Rule,” a presentation made at the TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference in Toronto, Dr. Justin Davis challenged and expounded on a theory that Malcolm Gladwell brought to the mainstream with the 2008 bestseller: "Outliers: The Story of Success."

Gladwell’s basic premise was that those who practice something the right way, or “deliberately,” early in life for a total of 10,000 hours, were likely to develop expertise in that field.

After receiving backlash, he later posted a statement explaining that “sometimes complex ideas get over simplified in translation.”

Dr. Davis illustrated that “deliberate practice” when combined with grit – the passion and motivation to achieve a long-term goal, are necessary ingredients, but not a sufficient recipe for developing minor hockey players to an elite level.

“When Malcolm Gladwell published the 10,000-Hour rule, a lot of hockey dads really latched on to the idea (that) if I want to get my kid into junior hockey, what I need to do is get these 10,000 hours in before his 10th birthday,” said Dr. Davis, who in addition to his scentific endevours in Vancouver, coaches minor hockey in the city. “When you put your kid on the ice, hour after hour, all year long, you are potentially doing more harm than good.”

“Deliberate practice” comprises of “effortful activities designed to optimize improvement,” according to scholars who have spent years studying “experts." It was their findings Gladwell used for his book.

With any sport, talent is sought out and spotted early. Given that, the fact Davis seems to have noticed such a push in Canadian minor hockey to achieve 10,000 hours of practice specifically around age 10 can likley be attributed to timing.  It is of the first few times where "deliberate practice" could be believed to have an impact on a career when the herd is culled through "rep" team selection.

So there can be a push, either internally or parentally to aim for mastery through repetition as soon as possible.

As it turns out, this might not only be physically hampering but creativity stifling as well.

“People who are really great and persevere at doing something over and over again aren’t necessarily that great at having an original idea.  They don’t necessarily have a vivid imagination,” he said. “Creativity and imagination is not something you are going to develop through deliberate practice, you have to get out there and give kids the freedom to explore, play (hockey and other sports) and make mistakes.”

This concept may seem skeptical to most hockey coaches, but hockey instructor Jim Vitale was not dismissing Davis’ lecture as though it belonged only in an ivory tower. He has seen many of the examples presented, first hand.

Vitale runs Toronto-based Vital Hockey Skills Inc. where students hone various parts of their game like edgework and puck handling.  He says that he often tells parents that solely focusing on hockey can be detrimental to their child’s potential future that they are trying to cultivate.

“I get a lot of of nine and 10-year-old kids whose parents say “I forced them to only focus on hockey, they’ve got to make a choice,” he explains. “I pull out articles by guys like (Soviet sports trainer) Tudor Bompa who specialize in periodization and say “look, if you are doing that, you’re looking at burnout by 12, if not a major overuse injury by 14.”

Davis said that burnout along with injury, which might include the dreaded “C” word feared so much in the world of sports, is more likely to occur with increased ice time.

Based on a University of Buffalo study published in 2011 which examined concussions in the Burlington (Ontario) Minor Hockey Association, 66 percent of those concussed sustained the injury in “accidents” as opposed to intentional physical contact like a bodycheck.

“When you try and take your child, your player and try to cram in their 10,000 hours before their 10th birthday by enrolling them in all these on-ice activities, all you are really doing is increasing the probability that they are going to have a slip, trip or fall and sustain a concussion,” he said. “Just by virtue of being on the ice which is an inherently dangerous activity, there is that risk.”

But for some parents, primarily those with the means to afford their kid a potential leg-up over the competition, there is no such thing as going overboard.

Vitale says there are times when a parent wants to register a child for all five of his one-week summer camps. He will only allow for a maximum of two.

“I don’t find there are a lot of resources to educate a parent on how much is too much,” he said. “More ice is not always better.”

Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya