Kevin Neeld — Hockey Training, Sports Performance, & Sports Science

Hockey Development Resistance

A couple days ago, I wrote a long post highlighting three of the major problems in our current youth hockey player development systems. If you missed it, you can check it out here: The State of Youth Hockey

That post was largely inspired by USA Hockey’s American Development Model Symposium, which I attended a couple weekends ago. Today I want to follow up on that post with a discussion on the most prominent barriers that USA Hockey will face in attempting to revamp the youth hockey development programs in our country.

It was interesting to hear speakers with backgrounds in basketball in the U.S., tennis in the U.S., hockey in the U.S., hockey in Canada, hockey in Sweden, and hockey in Finland ALL allude to the idea that parents are one of the largest problems in trying to do the right thing for youth athletes. In other words, it appears that the “parent problem” permeates all sports and all countries.

The Parent Problem Paradox
The idea that parents create an obstacle to doing what is in a kid’s best interest is a bit strange. Why would a parent NOT want the best for their kid? My guess is that not a single parent, not one, would admit that they’re purposely doing something to harm their child’s development. In fact, I would bet that a large proportion of parents would defend their attitudes and behaviors as HELPING their kids, if anything (the rest would probably admit to not really knowing what the best course is and just following the trend around them). In other words, it’s not that parents are consciously out to impair their kids’ development, but simply that there is a disconnect between intention and outcome. The paradox lies in the collective parents’ demands for what they view as best for their kids PREVENTING organizations from implementing what is actually best for their kids.

Of particular interest is where the disconnect originates. In other words, where has the misinformation regarding youth athletic development stemmed from and how has it permeated such a large audience? In this regard, the three largest culprits might be:

  1. Entrepreneurs
  2. Tiger Woods
  3. “This is what I did as an athlete” thinkers

Each of these could be the subject of an entire post, but in brief:

  1. Entrepreneurs, very wisely, have marketed year-round sports participation as the key to development and exposure. NEITHER of these is remotely accurate, but the people responsible for running “off-season” camps, select teams and tournaments make an incredible amount of money preying on the fears of youth athlete families.
  2. In April 1997, Tiger Woods won the Master’s at the age of 21, the youngest golfer to ever win. Shortly after, commercials were aired showing a very young Tiger hitting golf balls with his dad. This may have marked the official death of long-term athletic development and the birth of short-term athletic development. On a subconscious level, these commercials set the stage for a push toward early specialization. As Tiger continued to excel, so did the early specialization movement. Unfortunately, the model that produced Tiger is the same model that drives many potential world-class athletes out of sport altogether, and invariably leads to reduced peak performance and injuries in those that decide to stick it out.
  3. Some ex-athletes simply self-pronounce themselves as experts in that sport. We’ll discuss this more in a bit, but it’s important to recognize how inherently flawed this concept it. First, what works for one person rarely is the best solution for another. Individuals have individual needs. Second, the best coaches are rarely the best athletes. In fact, the more natural certain components of a sport come to a player, the harder it will be for them to relay that quality to another individual or group of athletes. How many hall of fame hockey coaches are there that were also hall of fame hockey players?

To be clear, these factors don’t just influence parents. They also influence coaches, organization heads, etc. In general, the problem in youth athletic development is that the people making the decisions are rarely long-term athletic development experts. It’s interesting, though, that many coaches and parents may view themselves (or at least behave as if they view themselves) as such. When was the last time a parent barged into a dentist’s office and demanded that the dentist did his/her job in accordance with the parent’s wishes. Think that happens to a heart surgeon? A lawyer? An accountant? A skydiving instructor? A street cleaner? No. In almost EVERY profession, outsiders defer to the professional. Athletics, for whatever reason and quite inappropriately, are an exception. Parents know how to coach better than the coach. They know what their kids need. They are the experts. Likewise, coaches with ZERO background or understanding of the physical, social, technical, and social development time courses of athletes are convinced that their system is the best. Does this sound familiar?

It’s interesting that the majority of these people have never heard of Istvan Balyi, the world’s foremost expert on long-term athletic development.

This guy really knows his stuff!

Nor are they familiar with the sensitive periods of specific athletic qualities during a young athlete’s development process.

Nor are they aware that research has shown that the world’s best hockey players spend the overwhelming majority of their time during their developmental years playing for fun and playing other sports. Note that deliberate practice (what we think of as normal practice) and organized games don’t take over these players’ sport time until ~15 years old!

Taken from: Soberlak, P. & Cote, J. (2003) The Developmental Activities of Elite Ice Hockey Players. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15 (1), pages 41 – 49.

I realize that the general tone of this post could be interpreted as blaming parents (and youth coaches for that matter). This is not my intention. In fact, hockey parents and youth coaches are truly heroic in the amount of time and energy they put into helping the kids. I don’t think any sport requires as much of a total commitment as ice hockey (team costs, equipment costs, travel time and costs, etc.). Youth hockey wouldn’t exist without their collective consistent efforts. Instead, the intention of this discussion is one of awareness. Parents are the largest advocates for the development of their kids, but are viewed as one of the larger barriers to positive change.

Ultimately, I think that player development decisions need to be placed back in the hands of the TRUE experts in long-term athletic development (and related fields), and that youth parents and coaches just need to be a little more patient with younger kids. It doesn’t matter if a kid isn’t a superstar at age 10! We shouldn’t be dividing kids by ability at this age anyway. At the mite and squirt levels, kids should have pucks on their sticks for the majority of the time they’re on the ice and should almost never stop moving. It should look like chaos, and it should be fun! By backing off the “rushed development” idea a bit, we can allow kids to develop a true love for the sport, which will be what fuels them to want to put in the time and energy to achieve excellence later in the development process.

I say all that to say this: It will be of great benefit to the hockey community to learn more about USA Hockey’s American Development Model-their intentions, their age-specific recommendations, and their plan of implementation. In a future post, I’ll identify some of the more “big picture” messages that accompany their ADM, but in the meantime you can refer to here for more information: ADM Kids

If your initial reaction to anything you read from their site is dismissive or generally disagreeable, please ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Do you believe that knowledge has the power to change opinion?
  2. Do you believe that you possess greater knowledge than the collective group of people that have collaborated in developing the model?

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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  • James

    The toughest part is that telling parents to not specialize early goes against all the 10,000 hrs and stuff that people have been fed recently.

    Also, specialization appears to be a common sense approach.

    One area that the US isn’t good at is giving kids the time and space to play their sports outside of normal coaching in a pick up environment.

    Basketball has a pick up culture to it. Baseball used to have a sandlot baseball culture.

    Canada has a pond & backyard rink culture.

    Other countries have a street soccer culture.

    These ways to “specialize” outside of a structured practice environment is something that the US is missing for sports like hockey & soccer, IMO.

  • Pops

    Wayne Gretzky was not a very good coach. Enough said about the relationship between playing the game and coaching the game. As for parents, their subjectivity does not go away easily. I can assure you that, even at the college level, there are disconnects between the actual skill set and the perceived one. Wish I had the answer for correcting these issues. One thing I am sure of though, is that sports related instincts can not be taught – but they can be learned. The game itself is the best teacher and coaches are more successful when they create a learning environment as opposed to a teaching one.

  • James-You’re absolutely right about your comments on pick-up play. The best athletes develop a lot of their skills in these environments, but current development systems (and cultural trends) largely strip these opportunities away from today’s youth. The 10,000 hour rule was brought up in the comments from my previous post ( My reply was: “Those books, more than saying talent is overrated, are suggesting that talent doesn’t really exist. Instead, it’s ability developed through PURPOSEFUL repetition (read: practice). What may be lost in their somewhat vague references to “practice” is what constitutes purposeful practice. I think this is where you may be coming from with your question. USA Hockey (and the others) are suggesting that, at younger ages, kids should play LESS hockey, but be MORE active. The goal is to develop as large a diversity of motor patterns (expanding their “motor pool”) as possible so they can develop a wider range of movement proficiencies in the future. At younger ages, playing baseball is a form of “practice” for playing hockey. It teaches rotational power, hand-eye coordination, good body position, etc.-all things that transfer. Doing basic off-ice activities like skipping, hopping, holding single-leg stance, etc. help improve coordination, rythmicity, balance, and other motor qualities that will positively influence hockey. WATCHING hockey practices and games of players at the next level above where the kid is at will help the player learn how plays develop (and crumble), positioning on the ice, individual skill sets, etc. Also, USA Hockey is recommending SIGNIFICANTLY more skill-oriented work during the time that the kids are on the ice. Honestly, after watching a few of their practices, younger kids would get more skill work in a 3-month season using their methods than they would in a year-long season using the most common current methods. I could go on and on. The point is that we need to expand our vision of what practice entails and also understand that practice needs to be age-appropriate AND consider the stress-recovery relationship. Hope this all makes sense!”

  • Pops-The “perception vs. reality” disconnect exists at the pro level as well. I agree that the game can be powerful teacher and that coaches should work to foster a positive learning environment. I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that sports-related instincts cannot be taught. It might be semantics, but I think these qualities are perceived as “unteachable” because our current system doesn’t do a very good job of teaching them. Breaking down game film can be a very powerful teacher. Watching players at the next level up practice and play can be a powerful teacher. Controlled scrimmages and small area games with very brief interjections from the coach on things to look for/improve on can be powerful. It’s true that certain players, as with all abilities, will demonstrate better proficiency in this area than others, but I think the tactics above (among others) will certainly help improve all players’ hockey sense (or sport related instincts).

  • In foreign countries specifically the former Soviet Union, Olympic Medalist and World Champions had to go back to the Soviet Sport Science Schools in order to learn how to coach athletes after their athletic careers were over. One of few players(in any sport) that I could see coaching would be Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Hell, Peyton practically runs the practices in Indy right now.
    Kevin, I agree. It’s a VERY slippery slope in working with parents who volunteer so much time to coach kids. At the end of the day, it’s about kids so it’s worth the fight!

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  • Ray

    Kevin – Great info! It seams USA Hockey has done a great job of discussing LTAD for the individual. But is there more info out there for organizations and how organizations should be structured? My question to you is also – given the choice do you think an organization should have Squirt A and B teams that are separated by ability? In Duluth MN we are having that discussion now. Our kids skate outdoors through squirts at local neighborhood rinks that act semi-autonomously as hockey associations but organized togehter under the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association. For the last few years, in order to make A teams, several rinks have joined “tryouts” to make one A team between several rinks. The negatives of this arrangement have been the politics and hurt feelings that go along with tryouts. Also, it has caused kids to be displaced out of their neighborhood rinks and having to go play in a different neighborhood A or B team depending. IMO, displacing kids has caused some kids to reconsider playing hockey. So the discussion on the table in Duluth is should we scrap the A system and go to only B teams in Duluth that are balanced by ability. The thought is that this would avoid displacing kids. However, critics believe we should have an A team so the better players are pushed, challenged, face better competition, etc. In the past we’ve had four A teams accross the city and some would even like to narrow that down to 1 or 2 A teams. Or do we just have B teams? IMO, the negatives of having A teams outweigh any perceived positives and we should have B only. Your thoughts from a LTAD? Is there any information that would help us in this decision process?

  • Ray-You ask great questions. USA Hockey does have recommendations for organizations that closely follow the LTAD path. I recommend checking out their website for more information.

    Regarding the division of squirt A & B teams, the reality is that there is no perfect answer. The arguments you bring up on both sides are common. The reality is that kids excel at these ages because they develop faster (or are relatively older, such as having an earlier birth date compared to other players), which means NOTHING in terms of future development (e.g. the best squirts aren’t always the best midgets). Often times these “best players” stay the best players because they’re provided with better coaching and resources to develop in the future. Early “talent” identification becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

    Any segregation of players based on skill at this age needs to be done with caution and awareness of the differences in TIMING of development. In my opinion, dividing 8-10 year-olds up based on ability is comically misguided. There is no such thing as an elite 10-year old, and the failure to recognize this has been one of the greatest downfalls in ALL American sports. Let them play together. The better players will benefit from the ice time and extra puck touches; the lesser developed players will benefit from observing and competing against the better players. It’s a win-win.

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  • Marc Kapsalis

    I publish the Hockey Stop paper in Chicago. I like your writing and would like to speak with you.

    • Hi Marc,

      Thanks for reaching out. I just sent you an email. Looking forward to connecting.

  • Eric Fink


    I’m a little late to the party but in case you didn’t see online recently. This group seems to sum up your old post rather nicely.

    • Eric-Thanks for passing this along. I haven’t seen it, but I look forward to checking it out.

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  • jake


    another problem as well is today’s youth. When i have my whole team together I could run them through hours and hours of training, if I chose to do that. but 1 kid alone….just wants to be done. not always an easy thing to do. give them homework to do on their own….alone…forget about it.

    • Jake, I’ve actually found the exact opposite. Tough to keep the kids’ attention in larger groups with some of the things we want, but much easier to make large leaps in technique progress with a smaller coach:athlete ratio.

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Kevin Neeld

Kevin Neeld Knows Hockey

Kevin has rapidly established himself as a leader in the field of physical preparation and sports science for ice hockey. He spent the last 7 years as the Director of Performance at Endeavor Sports Performance in Pitman, NJ, the last 3 of which he was also the Strength and Conditioning Coach and Manual Therapist for the Philadelphia Flyers Junior Team. Kevin is in his 5th year as a Strength and Conditioning Coach with USA Hockey’s Women’s National Team, and has been an invited speaker at conferences hosted by the NHL, NSCA, and USA Hockey .