Q: I have a six-year-old boy who loves sports and is quite good at them. This year he’s been asked to try out for select hockey. If he makes the team it would mean four ice times per week. I think that is too much hockey at his age; it will close the door to other options, and it will have a big impact on family and friend time. My dilemma is … if other kids are starting to be on the ice four hours a week this year and he is only going for two hours per week, will he ever be able to “catch up” to that level of hockey at a later age? Am I making a decision that could affect his hockey options in the long term?
That is a great question. The catch is that there is no black-and-white answer. It depends on the personality of your child, the coaches, the program and other time demands of your family.
Here are some things to consider:
- First of all, and most important, does your son actually want to practice hockey four days each week?
- If yes, will he start to dread hockey after a few weeks of the training routine? Be prepared to monitor him for signs of mental and physical fatigue, and don’t hesitate to give him breaks from practice if he needs them.
- Will his coaches permit him to take breaks from practice if he needs them? (If the coaches are not prepared to allow their players breaks at this age, they are ignoring the needs of the child.)
- What stresses will the additional practices put on your family as a whole? Maybe your son will practice four times a week with a smile, but your family may be stretched with extra driving to practice, getting homework done and spending family time together.
- Will the extra practices mean that he doesn’t have time for unstructured free play with friends and siblings? Unstructured free play is essential for children’s healthy mental, emotional and social development.
- Will your son have any time to do other sports and physical activities? The best hockey players say that they played a variety of sports when they were growing up.
- Are you prepared to make a commitment to no summer hockey, so your son has the opportunity to experience other sports during the summer? This is important so he can develop a wider array of movement and sport skills.
- Does “select” hockey mean a win-at-all-costs approach by the coaches when it comes to each player’s ice time during games? Every player should get equal playing time at this age, whether or not it is a “select” team. They should also have opportunities to play in every different position.
- Does the competition environment for six-year-old “select” hockey include spectators and coaches screaming verbal abuse and negativity? This is destructive for teenage athletes, never mind a six-year-old.
Assuming you have answered all of the above questions to your satisfaction, and assuming your son really wants to play that much hockey, then here are some other things to consider:
- The extra skating time each week will definitely help your son to become a better skater in the long run, and better skating skills mean he will probably become a better player than most of his child peers through to his adolescent growth spurt.
- However, the adolescent growth spurt changes a lot of things. Depending on how much he grows, how much muscle mass he develops, how fast he ends up being, and many other performance factors, there is still no guarantee that he will be able to continue in high-level hockey or reach the NHL just because he started to play select hockey at age six. Meanwhile, he may have lost significant opportunities to play other sports on the way to that discovery.
- As one alternative, he can probably improve his skating skills and gain an advantage in his hockey performance if he takes up another skating activity like figure skating or power skating during the extra two practice days instead. Those activities will make him a better skater, and he will also have another winter sport. You never know – he might discover that he likes figure skating more than hockey! Perhaps he’ll become the next Patrick Chan.
You are concerned that your son won’t be able to catch up to his peers and integrate with them later if he doesn’t play select hockey this year. This is partly true from a social standpoint. As kids get close to their teens, it is always more difficult to fit in within an established team social group. However, when it comes to actual hockey skills, your son will probabaly catch up to his peers if he likes hockey and is a well-rounded athlete.
As you can see, you asked a tough question! And there is no single easy answer. Consider the questions above, and trust your instincts with regard to your own child.