According to USA Hockey, colleges and universities across the country are recruiting talented and skilled ice hockey players even before they start high school. Verbal compromises are being made between prospects and perennial powerhouses like the University of Wisconsin. Talented players who don’t want to take the college route are opting for the top youth system in Canada and then turning pro at the age of 18 or 19. There are a growing number of very young players in the National Hockey League, with a handful of them becoming captain of their professional squads as Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby. The emergence of young athletes taking on key roles in the elite circles of Division 1 and professional sports makes younger players seem like specialization is the way to go. Ice hockey is not the only sport that identifies talents at unusually young ages. Top soccer colleges are finding players just starting high school. A lot can be said about an athlete’s physical and mental development in high school and college. Schools like Yale University will not consider a young recruit for their college sports because they realize how much a 14-18 year old can change mentally. Academic integrity is as important to them as athletic performance. Therefore, making a guarantee four years in advance does not appeal to them. They want to see where that candidate will be in the future before making commitments. What happened to waiting and buying the best? We don’t elect presidents 4 years before they are sworn in, why should we choose which jersey an athlete will wear before we get there? If you keep the competition to play close to the actual time they will, the path to getting there will be more about process and development.
Ten years ago, it was thought that athletes needed more time to develop and gain competitive advantage. In ice hockey, graduate programs (PG years) in high schools and youth teams were common staples to attract the attention of competitive college hockey programs. It was thought that to gain an advantage, it took time to develop physically and mentally, as well as to gain the experience of playing with other like-minded athletes. When you knew you had a long road ahead of you to reach college and career ranks, specializing in your sport at age 12 wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Parents, coaches and experts worried that applying too much pressure at a young age to perform and excel could cause players to burn out prematurely.
Performance development coaches like myself believe that while players should focus primarily on two sports, their programs should incorporate the skills and abilities necessary to perform well in 10 other sports or activities. Even if you don’t play baseball, ice hockey players have the ability to go to a batting cage and hit a high percentage of pitches. Hockey players who can play baseball well will have better reaction times on the ice and will be better able to react to pucks in flight from a high shot or when fielding a bad pass. Similarly, playing soccer is great for the development of a budding ice hockey player because many highly skilled players are very good at carrying and handling the puck with their feet. Whether your main sport is baseball or ice hockey, you can learn a lot by playing other sports such as tennis, soccer, football, etc.
The spectrum is wide with respect to what parents think their children should do. Some want their children to be like Sidney Crosby and will force them to specialize at age 8 and others want their children to just have fun and do whatever they want for as long as they want. Both approaches are bad. Specializing or being distant is bad. The key is to keep intensity, focus, stimulation, and vigor high with expectation and pressure low. Young athletes must be taught discipline, passion, love of training and sport, and heart. The road to interuniversity and professional sport is long. The people who make it and stay there are the ones who love the unglamorous looks, the long road trips, the sweat, the low pay (the pay for most professional athletes is not like ARod), the relentless schedule, and the inherent uncertainty that it entails. It comes from a profession that is so fluid, where one day the best team wants you and the day the other team that will look at you is the farm club with the worst team.
Success comes from love for what you do, whatever it is. The day it becomes work is the day you know it might be time to consider a new path. Athletes who play for glory will be prepared for a rude awakening. The athletes who can weather adversity and overcome it through hard work and concentration are the ones you know really love what they do. The Tampa Bay Rays baseball team’s turnaround shows outstanding determination, will, and passion to improve and surpass themselves. They didn’t care about playing as well as timeless powerful teams like the Boston Red Sox. They played the game the way they knew best and defined their run to the World Series in their own way and on their terms. The way they went from the worst team in major professional baseball to runner-up in the World Series is an example of how individual athletes must approach their development. You cannot go out and be alone to win. Unfortunately, raw desire is not enough to get there. You must be willing and able to do hard work that is not appreciated or valued. By doing so, you put yourself in a better position to start doing it right.
As a sports development coach, I am useless to the person who just wants to play in a recreational league and get the fanfare when he scores. When someone is ready to work hard, put in long hours, and sweat, I am the perfect person for them. I will help you get where you want. What I do has no glamor, more than the satisfaction in myself, knowing that I had a role in helping an athlete demonstrate his capabilities to an audience. I do what I do because I have a love and passion for sports.
The key to professional happiness is to specialize in a commitment to hard work. Anything else you do to get ahead will come later. Don’t worry about the nods you’re getting at 14 for college sports. Keep your head down and focus on getting better. A lot can happen in high school. If you keep your options open at 14, you’ll have more to turn to when you’re 18.
If you specialize in soccer at age 14 and it doesn’t work for you, you won’t have anything else to turn to. If you play multiple sports and perform well in a couple of them, if one doesn’t lead to a salary or fame, maybe the other will. The more options you have, the less pressure you will feel to excel in one, which will make it more enjoyable. Nobody wants to think that everything depends on how you do in one thing.
Keep your options open and have fun, but remember that you won’t get better without trying too hard. So decide what your priorities are, and then move on from there. If you don’t want to break a sweat or do the things necessary to improve your game, don’t expect to play to the next level. There is nothing wrong with playing pickup games. You have to be honest with yourself about your skill level and desire to put in the time to do it. Sidney Crosby, Eli Manning, Tom, Brady, Michael Jordan, and other teammates didn’t get where they did simply because of life. They evaluated their abilities and accordingly decided where they wanted to go. Once they did that, they worked tirelessly to make sure they got there. That due diligence is why everyone stood out in the professional arena.
The key to take away from this article is that you need more determination than skill. Most importantly, you need more love than determination. Therefore, you need more love than skill. If you don’t enjoy what you do, it won’t matter how much skill you have because you don’t want to keep doing it. Being focused is different from specializing. Play a lot of sports. Get active in many different things. Do it because you love it. You can decide later which one will allow you to do it in college or professionally. You will benefit more from playing other sports and training for those sports than you will spend all that time training for just one sport. My program is so effective because despite his focus, I expose him to movements and exercises common to other activities, making him a more well-rounded and balanced athlete.
Stay tuned for more articles from DSWAthletes, owned and managed by Derrick Wong. We write about everything related to sports. We want to help you get where you want to go and enjoy both the process and the result. We will help you stay focused and in good shape.