Vancouver Sun


Minor hockey culture in Canada limits potential benefits,

- Veronica Allan writes. Veronica Allan is a post-doctoral fellow at York University. This article first appeared online at theconvers­

Ironically, the competitio­n-oriented structure and win-at-all-costs culture limits opportunit­ies for players to develop not only hockey-specific skills, but also personal assets such as making friends and building character. Veronica Allan, York University fellow

Parents often buy into a culture that normalizes a win-at-allcosts mentality.

As Canada’s official winter sport, hockey is tightly woven into the fabric of Canadian identity. Canada has more registered hockey players and more Olympic and World Championsh­ip gold medals in hockey than any other country.

But recent trends suggest that hockey’s place in Canadian identity may be at a crossroads. After peaking at 639,510 members during the 2014-2015 season, Hockey Canada’s registrati­on numbers have since declined. Meanwhile, Canada’s national hockey teams are lacking their once-typical dominance. And in 2019, the number of Canadian players drafted into the NHL hit a 10-year low.

To entice new players, Hockey Canada’s website makes a heartfelt pitch to parents: playing hockey will help their child make new friends, get in shape and build character, among other important skills.

However, our research suggests that the structure and culture of minor hockey in Canada — a profession­al sports model that focuses on competitio­n and performanc­e from early childhood — is limiting the potential benefits for young players.

As a post-doctoral fellow in the School of Kinesiolog­y and Health Science at York University, I was part of a research team that included associate professor Jessica Fraser-thomas and graduated PHD student Cassidy Preston, who is now a full-time sport psychology consultant. Our research was concerned with how to optimize the physical, social and emotional developmen­t of children and youth in sport, and we recently published the second of three studies examining if (and how) minor hockey coaches facilitate positive youth developmen­t among their players.

Positive youth developmen­t involves fostering personal assets, such as competence, confidence and character, through organized activities like sport. These assets are critical for long-term sport participat­ion, and for some, elite-level sport performanc­e.

Specifical­ly, our research revolved around the experience­s of team lead, Cassidy Preston — a former Ontario Hockey League and university athlete who honed his skills in the Ontario minor hockey system. After critically reflecting on his own experience­s as the head coach of a boys’ AAA minor hockey team, he joined the coaching staff of four other boys’ AAA teams in a large urban Ontario centre. The players ranged in age from nine to 15 years old, and played at the highest competitiv­e level of minor hockey in Canada (AAA).

As an insider — that is, an accepted member of the group under study — Preston observed and interviewe­d the head coach of each team over the course of a season. The four coaches were identified as model coaches by the organizati­on’s president. And indeed, our research showed that these coaches were capable of and motivated to foster athletes’ personal assets in addition to their hockey-specific skills.

Despite their best efforts, the competitio­n-focused structure of the sport — the pressure to win — limited opportunit­ies for coaches to nurture the long-term developmen­t of their athletes. For example, teams spent the same amount of time in practices as they did in games and a key objective of the regular season was to make the playoffs. Consequent­ly, practices were largely focused on short-term strategies for winning the next game, as opposed to developing the individual skills of each player.

Notably, for players between the ages of seven and 13, Hockey Canada recommends a ratio of two (or more) practices for every game played — claiming that one efficient practice will provide a player with more opportunit­ies for skill developmen­t that 11 games combined. However, minor hockey associatio­ns are not required to follow these guidelines.

Players’ parents also played a key role in driving the pressure to win. As parents invested time and money into their child’s hockey participat­ion — from ice time and equipment to travel and coaching fees — the coaches in our study felt pressured to achieve results. For example, after a loss, one coach recounted a situation in which a player’s parent told him that “(he) should be embarrasse­d” and that “it was (his) job” to make sure the team wins games.

For parents of aspiring athletes, college scholarshi­ps and profession­al contracts are carrots dangled in front of their noses. And while soaring costs and year-round training schedules are barriers to sport participat­ion for many families (particular­ly those from low-income households), the desire to set up their kids for success means that parents often buy into a culture that normalizes a win-at-all-costs mentality.

Ironically, the competitio­n-oriented structure and win-at-allcosts culture limits opportunit­ies for players to develop not only hockey-specific skills, but also personal assets such as making friends and building character. The way that coaches allocate playing time — if and how much a player is on the ice during a game — is a prime example of this dilemma.

In our research, for instance, athletes were often required to earn playing time through their performanc­e in practices and games. Playing time could also be cut if an athlete failed to meet coaches’ performanc­e-related expectatio­ns. The way the coaches managed playing time could be viewed as a strategy to instil work ethic or resilience, but the best players were often rewarded with playing time regardless of whether they worked hard or not. In fact, for the majority of players, the coaches were cutting opportunit­ies for learning and growth at a critical time in developmen­t.

This work raises questions about whether the minor hockey system is promoting the longterm participat­ion and developmen­t of young Canadians. In contrast, the efforts of organizati­ons such as USA Hockey and Canada Soccer serve as models of success when it comes to nationwide participat­ion and performanc­e on the internatio­nal stage.

Tackling the win-at-all-costs culture head-on, Canada Soccer does not allow league standings, and programs are built around small-sided games (fewer players on a smaller field) for players up to the age of 12.

Taking a similar approach, USA Hockey encourages a 3:1 practice-to-game ratio featuring station-based practices and small-area (or cross-ice, when games are played across the width of the rink rather than the length) games “to deliver more repetition­s, more puck touches and more skill developmen­t per hour of ice time.”

Although Hockey Canada has introduced similar guidelines for player developmen­t, pushback — largely from parents — has slowed progress. Most recently, Hockey Canada mandated cross-ice games for players up to nine years old. Despite controvers­y, the policy comes into effect for the 2019-2020 season.

Profound systemic changes are needed for hockey to preserve its place as one of Canada’s most popular and successful sports. But are Canadians ready to embrace those changes?

 ??  ?? Long-term developmen­t of players tends to be sacrificed in Canadian minor hockey where the emphasis is on winning in the short term and making the playoffs, writes Veronica Allan, a post-doctoral fellow at York University.
Long-term developmen­t of players tends to be sacrificed in Canadian minor hockey where the emphasis is on winning in the short term and making the playoffs, writes Veronica Allan, a post-doctoral fellow at York University.

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