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.

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - WAYNE SCAN­LAN ws­can­lan@post­ twit­­eyscan­ner

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.


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.


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