CAN SPORTS BE FUN AGAIN?
Volleyball coach Jay Mooney believes he is fighting the good fight against sport specialization, which is limiting opportunity and athletic function in our youth. He wants his players to be athletes first, volleyball players second.
Volleyball coach Jay Mooney believes sport specialization is limiting opportunity and the overall athletic abilities of our youth. He wants his players to be athletes first, volleyball players second. Part 2 of Wayne Scanlan’s special report.
Parents often watch in wonder as Jay Mooney conducts a volleyball practice.
Sometimes, volleyballs don’t come into view. He’s been known to have 13-year-old girls throwing a football or playing catch with a lacrosse stick. This is elite club volleyball? “You’ve got to address the athlete component first,” says Mooney, head coach of the Ottawa Fusion Boys 17U and 18U teams and the club’s technical director.
“My beef with volleyball has been that in the last 12 years we’ve tried to specialize it, at an earlier age,” Mooney says. “It requires such a mature level of athleticism to be played at the university level, that by bringing the kids in and doing skill work so early, when we know they’re not out playing in the parks developing that other athleticism, it just doesn’t work.”
In today’s shift beyond grassroots programs, children and parents tend to latch onto one sport early and the ride can be consuming. Minor hockey season tends to bleed into summer leagues and camps. Soccer clubs use domes in winter. Indoor baseball is a thing. Year-round commitment to one sport is commonplace.
While lacrosse is a popular spring/summer pairing with hockey, football clubs hold spring tryouts. In general, associations make it challenging for a boy or girl to diversify. Some force kids to choose one sport over another.
Mooney runs against the grain, arguing in favour of a broader, longer-term view of youth sport. It’s a brave stance because club sports are a business and depend on revenues from clinics and programs for all ages.
In local sporting circles, Mooney is known for turning his volleyball tryouts into athletic combine camps, testing for arm strength and jumping skills instead of serving technique.
“If a kid can throw 80 (mph), they’re physically capable of developing the attacking or serving skill compared to someone throwing at 50,” Mooney says. “And if somebody jumps 30 inches, again, that physical ability or athleticism is going to bring them much farther than just a taught (volleyball) skill or an understanding of the skill.”
Mooney, who has coached at the University of Ottawa and Algonquin College, hears from university coaches who want their club grads to arrive with fundamental volleyball technique.
“But we know they always recruit the most athletic kids,” Mooney says. “And so why spend that time developing patterned movements when ultimately they’re still going to pick the 6-6 kid who jumps 42 inches over that kid who has that great fundamental basic skill down pat.”
Early specialization? Mooney played on his first volleyball team in Grade 12. It was his background in soccer, football, baseball and hockey that gave him the confidence and talent to absorb volleyball.
“I have a kid on my 18U team who has never played club volleyball,” Mooney says. “But he played all the school sports. He quickly passes kids who have been paying into the system for four or five years.”
A range of sports equals range of motion.
“As a club, I’m telling all our coaches, get your kids to play all the school sports. It’s going to hurt us at competition because they’re not going to know the system as well. But by the time they’re 18U, we’ve got a better athlete to work with.”
Increasingly, coaches, professional athletes and trainers are railing against the uni-sport trend. Burnout, lack of athletic “literacy” and a disconnect to lifelong recreational activity are among the risks of early sport specialization.
Some of the greatest stars in sport excelled in one game after dabbling in many.
American golf superstar Jordan Spieth was a competitive quarterback, baseball pitcher and basketball player in high school.
Wayne Gretzky, the greatest offensive scoring machine of all time, loved to put the hockey gear away and play summer baseball. Just this week, the Mercury News profiled San Jose Sharks defenceman Paul Martin, one of the finest all-around athletes to emerge from the state of Minnesota.
Closer to home, Brooke Henderson of Smiths Falls, who won an LPGA major tournament at 18, once dreamed of being an Olympic hockey goaltender for Canada. Last summer, she qualified for the Rio Olympics in golf instead.
Brooke’s sister, Brittany, who caddies for the young superstar, recently told a reporter in Florida that Brooke’s goaltending experience with the Smiths Falls Cubs helped make her the fearless golf competitor she is today.
HOCKEY CANADA LAUDS DIVERSITY
If hockey parents and coaches still get caught up in year-round participation, they do so without Hockey Canada’s blessing. The game’s national sporting body encourages children to play the game in-season, then diversify.
Paul Carson, vice-president of membership development for Hockey Canada, notes the swimming and soccer pictures on the Hockey Canada website. Scaling back the temperature of youth hockey is on the agenda.
“There’s that dream of the NHL and the women’s national team, those are nice dreams to have,” Carson says. “But it doesn’t mean they’re going to have to knock everybody over getting to that end point. They just want to be a part of a sport environment that allows them to grow.”
Carson challenges families and coaches to assess the longterm goals for a child’s sport participation. The focus should be on competition that accompanies character development and success at school. If an elite player later emerges from that approach, so be it. More likely, the outcome will be a solid citizen and someone with a lifelong interest in health and recreation.
According to a 2016 study done in Wisconsin for the National Federation of High School Associations, high school athletes who focused on a single sport were 70 per cent more likely to suffer injury than those involved in multiple sports.
Dr. Mark Aubry, the Ottawa Senators team doctor and a longtime chief medical officer for the International Ice Hockey Federation and Hockey Canada, believes the risks of early specialization are as much mental and cultural as physical.
“Parents are so focused on their kids now it almost becomes a means to an end,” Aubry says. “As soon as their child develops a skill in a sport, they feel compelled to provide this opportunity to be the best at that sport that they can be.
“So they specialize without asking, necessarily, what is the goal of sport? It’s to develop the person, make friends, all the values we want our kids to have. That’s more important than the remote possibility of our son making a living out of it or getting a scholarship.
“Our sport is so intense at such a young age that a lot of the kids don’t have time to enjoy it as much as they should,” Aubry adds. “We’ve taken the fun out of it.”
Ottawa Fusion volleyball coach Jay Mooney and his players, from left, Alexa Sibiga, Elly Cavan, Sara Jetten, Elly van Baaren, Teia Dewhirst, Grace Crooks, Marika Wildeboer, Caitlin Hauser, Diliana Antonov, Rebecca Illingworth and Regan Hachey.
Ottawa Fusion volleyball coach Jay Mooney is an advocate for youth playing multiple sports rather than focusing on one. During his volleyball practices, players will sometimes throw footballs or try lacrosse.