“You don’t choose your sport, your sport chooses you.”
In the past decade or so, this adage has become popular lore in the coaching, and hockey, world. And as both a skating and strength and conditioning coach, I’m here to tell you it’s complete, utter crap.
Ok. Maybe not entirely, but it’s a cop out. It’s a cop out excusing the way we enable kids unconsciously, or perhaps even consciously, to rise to the top while discouraging others. The bottom line is, it’s lazy coaching.
As humans, we all have implicit biases whether we like it or not, and as coaches we are naive if we don’t recognize them. We also need to recognize that most people are born to succeed not because they are genetically more adaptive to a certain sport, but because of the circumstances in which they are born. Socioeconomic circumstances aside, as we all know the high cost of hockey is a barrier to many, there are a plethora of variables that dictate whether an athlete will succeed.
The first, and probably most widely researched factor is birth date. Given that the cut-off for most team sports is Jan 1, kids born in December are at a disadvantage. They tend to be smaller and further behind in their development, particularly strength and skating development, than teammates that are born in say, February. That year often makes a huge difference in how those kids are seen in terms of talent. That talent is either nurtured or ignored by many coaches who subconsciously give the older, more developed hockey players more coaching and more playing time. That gap grows exponentially over the years and will often lead to an athlete leaving the sport after being left behind during a crucial time in their athletic development.
Similarly, some kids simply develop later. Kids who are going to be taller tend to grow much later than their shorter peers and physiologically will probably not reach their peak musculature until well into their 20s. While one could say this is a genetic characteristic, obviously there is no scientific evidence that concludes taller kids behind in their development are even the slightest bit physically inferior in the long term. However the fact is these kids are often given less attention than those who have reached puberty earlier and are simply stronger. I have actually found the converse to be true: For those kids who are acknowledged, nurtured and encouraged to work hard and be patient, they develop a work ethic that will often lead to greater success in the sport. In fact, I currently have a young defenseman who is well behind his peers physically (but not skill-wise), and is incredibly dedicated, mature and realistic. I predict he is going to develop into one of my most successful players if he continues to be encouraged, supported and hence stays in the sport.
Of course, there are some physiological factors that can’t be ignored. Some skaters genetically have more Type II musculature (aka fast twitch) while others have more Type I (slow twitch) muscles fibers. While this make up is truly genetic, there are muscle fibers that fall in-between these two areas, just waiting for the right demand before they go one way or another. Since hockey demands both types of musculature, those in-between fibers can be developed to be more Type II, and hence more powerful, with the appropriate training. Given all the demands of the sport, the genetic differences eventually become marginal.
Finally, there is the psychological component. While this is rarely addressed, and even less trained in the coaching world, we know that the mental and emotional state of young children has a huge impact on their success. Again, kids who are more outgoing, have more self-esteem and are even “better looking” get more attention from coaches. In a sport where a coach is trying to develop 20 plus players, those athletes who are more gregarious, outgoing and have the confidence to ask the coach for most assistance will almost always get more attention while kids that are quieter, introverted, or lacking self-esteem from either home situations, physical appearance, being bullied (by peers and sadly, sometimes coaches), or simply because of personality, will be overlooked and ignore far more often. Worse yet, those athletes are sometimes seen as aloof, “stuck up,” or disinterested. What we all need to remember is that these are kids who are developing mentally and emotionally, not just physically, and our actions contribute to that development. We can make or break not only their athletic career, but their confidence as a developing person.
As coaches, it is our responsibility to recognize these biases we have and give every kid a chance to become the best athlete they can. That means being cognizant of who we give attention to, and be self-reflective as to why. It means putting our adult egos aside, and wondering if that kid who’s never said a word to us isn’t disinterested, but is just painfully shy. It means looking at that small, young kid who might not be the best skater and giving him or her the encouragement to keep working, and reward that hard work with the help they have earned. I have a philosophy with each kid I coach: If you come to my skates, work hard, and show both me and the other skaters respect, I will give you equal respect and passion regardless of development, personality or any other characteristic. Our goal should not be to make NHL players, but to help make confident, contributing human beings who have faith in every thing they do.
And if we’re lucky, in that process we’ll help some of them realize their dreams to play at the highest level. Because skaters and players aren’t born — they’re made.
Interested in learning more? Contact me to find out more about my coaching philosophy and programs.