Eat, sleep, hockey, repeat. This list is a good reflection of nine-year-old Connor Heron’s days. Connor’s daily regime includes playing hockey, practicing hockey, and watching hockey highlights whenever possible. No doubt, when Connor closes his eyes at the end of the day, he has hockey dreams as he sleeps under the silhouette of a hockey player wearing his jersey number.
“I like playing it (hockey) to get better all year. (So I can) be a better hockey player,” Connor states.
At two and a half, Connor was in his first pair of skates. At five he was in a ‘Get Ready For Hockey’ class. Timbits was at six, Novice followed after for two years and this fall he’ll move up to Atom. This year, he begged his parents to play spring hockey and they eventually gave in, which means Connor will play hockey for ten months of the year.
Connor’s father Ian Heron struggled with the decision to allow his son to play spring hockey but in the end, chose not to deny Connor the opportunity to play the sport he adores. “He loves it. Every day we get home and he starts shooting on his net. It’s more that he loves hockey so I relented. If your kid loves something, why would I deny him?”
Connor is certainly not alone in his passion and pursuit of a single sport. This trend, known as single-sport specialization, is when a young athlete specializes in one sport exclusively over others for eight months or more during the year. Connor does participate in karate and soccer at various times during the year as well, but to see young athletes commit to one sport exclusively is quite common in North America.
In 2013, the National Institute for Health published a study on Sports Specialization in Youth Athletes, saying that ‘there is no evidence that intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status,’ and that ‘risks of early sport specialization include higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress, and quitting sports at a young age.’
So why are parents allowing their kids to specialize early on?
“Mis-education or lack of education, and a bit of a fear that your kid is falling behind,” says Richard Monette the Managing Director for Active for Life. He says these are two reasons parents make the choice to allow their kids to sport specialize at an early age.
When parents hear things in the media like, “Connor McDavid played only hockey since he was two years old,” it makes it seem like early sport specialization is a valid option. Perhaps a smart option, so little Johnny won’t fall behind – maybe even excel.
Monette wants to clear up these misconceptions, especially when it comes to how early a child needs to specialize in a sport. “The reality of sport is that it is really hard to tell before the age of twelve, sometimes fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, the true potential of an athlete in one sport. “
Canadian Olympian and gold medalist, Duff Gibson grew up playing a variety of sports. He’s on a mission at the grassroots level, to get kids back to the basics when it comes to sports. “The main problem is that we’ve forgotten what youth sport is, in the first place.”
Gibson saw this first hand when his son was eight years old. His son complained one day that the coach was taking hockey way too ‘seriously’, and Gibson agreed. To give back to the sporting world that gave him so much, Gibson founded Dark Hose Athletic, a multi-sport program for kids with a focus on having fun, developing physical literacy and nurturing a growth mindset.
“What is the goal? What is the purpose? A soccer program may involve an entry fee of a few thousand dollars, so someone is making money to have your kid participate. So it’s very common for someone to say your kid needs to do this spring program or they’ll be left out in the fall. That’s forgetting why you have it in the first place. Inspiring a love of physical activity, if you do that, you win in terms of the purpose of it and if you don’t it defeats the purpose of why you have it.”
As for Connor, he is involved in other sports and says even though he loves hockey, he does like to try new sports.
So will he move away from hockey? Maybe. His father says spring hockey is off the table for next year and while agreeing Connor is obsessed with the game, he says he’s very clear on his son’s future when it comes to hockey.
“I don’t have any ambitions of him or thoughts he’ll make the NHL or WHL. It’s really how far he wants to go. If he at 13 said I don’t want to play hockey I would say that’s fine by me. “