When Sport Nova Scotia’s Amy Walsh sat down with some provincial sport organizations in October 2016, she heard loud and clear that early sport specialization is a troubling trend. As Director of Sport Development, she had already seen reams of data on this subject, but hearing about its direct impact on Sport Nova Scotia’s members – and ultimately families – was inciting. Something had to be done. Here is an excerpt from that first conversation with Hockey Nova Scotia’s Executive Director, Darren Cossar.
AMY WALSH: What would you say is one of the biggest issues in your sport right now?
DARREN COSSAR: Within our sport, over the years we keep seeing these situations where kids who are playing other sports have a hard time adding hockey, as well as kids who play hockey finding it difficult to play other sports. Do I miss my try-outs or my provincial championship in soccer? Which one do I choose? Will I be penalized by one if I choose the other?
AMY WALSH: And you’re saying that’s not good.
DARREN COSSAR: It’s a big problem. Those are choices a young kid shouldn’t have to make! If we truly want what’s best for these kids in life, we (adults) have a responsibility to have a system where kids can play and enjoy every sport they like and are never forced to choose.
AMY WALSH: Most parents just want what’s best for their kids. So what advice would you give them?
DARREN COSSAR: I would tell them to get the facts. The parent peer pressure can be very powerful, this idea that they have to sign their kids up for all the extras and play all year round. That feeling that ‘if others are doing it, I guess I should be too.’ And it not only comes from other parents, it also comes from coaches. We need to do a better job of educating on the facts and the evidence so parents can be confident making educated decisions and they’re not caught up in all that pressure.
AMY WALSH: What does Hockey Nova Scotia do now to help promote multi-sport play?
DARREN COSSAR: Hockey Nova Scotia runs very limited skills development programming between April and September. And there are no games between April and September, outside of a couple of weekends for provincial teams. We do that on purpose because we believe kids need to have a break from the sport to go off and do other things.
AMY WALSH: That begs the question. If a child leaves the sport for months at a time, many would worry that their child will then fall behind.
DARREN COSSAR: Actually what we’re seeing is the opposite. In hockey we have more and more teams and coaches and scouts recruiting athletes vs. hockey players. The kids who have played other sports and experienced different things when they’re younger are almost always the smarter players on the team, and they are able to handle adversity better. Scott Bonner said it best: “We’re in an era in which hockey players are becoming one-dimensional at a young age and that’s dangerous.”
AMY WALSH: So that fits well with what you said earlier about hockey having such limited programming and no games between April and September. Yes it seems like a lot of parents are signing up their kids for spring and even summer hockey now.
DARREN COSSAR: The competition-based programs parents see are offered by private entrepreneurs who are there to make a profit. We’re often reassessing: Does our season start too early and end too late? Could we change it to accommodate other sports? The reality is, no matter what we do, the entrepreneurs will supplement. So, again, it all comes down to educating.
AMY WALSH: Some parents would argue their kids want to play 365 days a year.
DARREN COSSAR: I’m sure kids want to eat cotton candy every day too, but as parents we’re supposed to know better. I’m not here to give parenting advice but I do know the evidence. The reality is we are trying to groom little kids to be the next NHLer when in fact we should be helping them grow a love of the game so they’ll stay active and enjoy it until they’re grandparents themselves. We need a bigger lense.
AMY WALSH: I know you have a lot more changes coming, like policy reviews, coach education and multi-sport camps. What do you hope comes out of this work?
DARREN COSSAR: This is an important priority for us. Because in a perfect world, kids will play hockey along with other sports for their whole lives, and just enjoy the game – whatever level that means… just to be there and have those opportunities for what THEY want to get out of it.