There’s a lot of complaining these days that youth sports are too expensive and competitive. And, in fact, kids are dropping out and most sports are on the decline in the U.S.
One sport that is not losing players is hockey, which has also changed the way it trains young athletes. The approach has been so successful that the U.S. Olympic Committee recently adopted it.
The hockey club in Traverse City was a pioneer in this effort.
Kurt Froese can remember exactly where he was when he realized something was wrong. He was at Centre Ice in Traverse City coaching his sons' team, kids ages five and six.
“And I was having them stop on a line, and no one could stop,” he recalls. “They could not stop.”
Froese says even the best player on the team couldn’t stop on a line. They were getting ready for a game on a full-sized rink. That's 200 feet of ice.
“The kids couldn’t handle a puck, and they had no control on their skates,” he says. “And I just thought, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
Fifteen years later, Froese says he understands why they were doing it. He is a chiropractor and he says in many aspects of life — such as health and food — people want instant gratification.
For youth hockey, that meant parents expected to see their kids playing a game that looked like the one on TV.
“So what it is, at that age, you’ve got the two best kids from each team going up and down the ice trading scoring chances,” he says. “The other eight kids on the ice are kind of just watching them, trying to be involved.”
Because of people like Kurt Froese, that is not what happens in many places where kids play hockey today. They play games on half the rink.
George Atkinson says they make better players that way. Atkinson is the president of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association. He says even those fast players, the ones that used to take all the shots, learn more when the rink is smaller and congested.
“They have to learn how to control the puck, skate with the puck, work though traffic,” he says, “all the things that, if they’re ever going to aspire to a high level of hockey, they’re going to have to learn.”
This approach to coaching hockey, sometimes referred to as “development,” was not new even 15 years ago when Kurt Froese was first looking at those hapless five-year-olds in his charge. Froese says back then, USA Hockey recommended that kids practice three times as much as they play in games, but almost nobody followed that advice.
“At the time, the travel teams were playing more games than they were practicing,” he says. “So it was flip flopped.”
Kurt Froese began making changes in Traverse City with the teams he coached for the Grand Traverse Hockey Association. For example, his travel team practiced four times as much as they went to games and tournaments.
Froese wasn’t alone in thinking about all this a decade ago. Officials at USA Hockey were asking similar questions.
Ken Martel has directed this work at the national organization. He says they were worried about a problem almost all sports have: Many players burn out and quit by age 12.
“A lot will tell you they’re not having fun,” Martel says. “They’re being over-coached. Parents are too pushy.”
So in 2009, USA Hockey made a few changes, like putting games for eight-and-under players on half ice. And they started working closely with clubs like the one in Traverse City that were making changes on the ground.
Martel says people were not happy, particularly not with the switch to half-ice. He says it’s taken years to convince them this is a better way.
“People don’t like change,” he says. “Someone who grew up playing a certain way, it’s like, ‘Well this is what I did when I grew up, it’s good enough for me.’”
Hockey in Traverse City did not look like what Andrew Hiss remembers in Maine where he grew up. He has two girls who play in Traverse City.
Hiss says it took some time to adjust to the smaller rink but there are other differences, too. When he played hockey, the focus was on winning, and he says he has to adjust his expectations as a parent.
That is something the club can help him do. He says he recently asked the coach how he should talk with his daughters after a game, and whether he should talk about hustling and being aggressive.
“What the coach said was, ‘No, just ask her if she had fun,’” Hiss says.
Grand Traverse Hockey Association is one of 20 teams in the country to be named a model club by USA Hockey for implementing principles like this.
The change in the sport nationwide has been impressive enough to the U.S. Olympic Committee that it recently endorsed the approach and is using it to inspire change in other sports.
Chris Snyder is the director of coaching for the Olympic Committee. He says they want to keep kids playing sports.
“The less athletes playing sports in the United States, the less athletes that have a chance to become Olympic caliber,” Snyder says. "Which means we’ll have less athletes on the podium.”
Snyder says when they set out to address this problem, they saw that USA Hockey had developed a model based on lots of research.
“It takes the research about how to keep kids in sports, how to make it developmentally appropriate, but also puts expectations on key outcomes, on making sure they have fun,” he says.
Snyder says more than 20 sports organizations have pledged to make similar changes in their sports based on the lessons hockey has learned.
More than sports
Kurt Froese says changing the culture of a sport is hard. He says even when the parents were sold on the new approach in Traverse City, it took a lot of campaigning to get the club’s board to fully buy in.
Froese was a semi-professional hockey player in Manitoba but he says this wasn’t about hockey. It was about helping kids.
“You never get an opportunity to be a child again,” he says. “It wasn’t about hockey itself. It's about how kids learn. And that’s what drove me."