Study Finds Just 12 Percent of NHL and NCAA Hockey Players Specialized Before Age 12

Think a child has to play hockey and only hockey if they want to reach an elite level later in life? New research says otherwise.

Early sport specialization does not guarantee future stardom.

If anything, it may make eventually reaching an elite level in said sport more difficult.

A new study from the Penn State College of Medicine polled 91 professional, NCAA Division I and NCA Division III hockey players about their sports history. From ScienceDaily:

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Early sport specialization does not guarantee future stardom.

If anything, it may make eventually reaching an elite level in said sport more difficult.

A new study from the Penn State College of Medicine polled 91 professional, NCAA Division I and NCA Division III hockey players about their sports history. From ScienceDaily:

"After analyzing the data, the researchers found that the mean age of beginning any sport was 4.5 years, and the mean age of specializing in ice hockey was 14.3 years. Only 12 percent of the athletes specialized in their sport before 12 years of age. Most of the athletes played two to four sports as children, with soccer and baseball being the most popular in addition to hockey. The mean age of specializing in ice hockey—around 14—was consistent across professional, NCAA Division I and NCAA Division III players."

"If you only play one sport, you (do) miss out on sports diversification, which is the idea that being a really good soccer or tennis player may help you be a really good ice hockey player," Matthew Silvis, a researcher on the study and the team physician for the Hershey Bears minor league hockey team, told ScienceDaily. "We've seen a lot of professional athletes coming out in support of this, saying that by playing a lot of sports you'll learn many skills and work different muscle groups that will help you if you specialize in one sport later on."

This was a rather small sample size, but bigger studies have found similar results. For example, a 2017 study from the Rothman Institute at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital analyzed 3,090 athletes (503 high school, 856 collegiate and 1,731 professional) and found that the average high school athlete began specializing in their sport at 12.7 years old while the average collegiate athlete specialized at 14.8 years old and the average pro athlete specialized at 14.1 years old. One of the most telling findings in the study was that only 22.3% of professional athletes said they "would want their own child to specialize to play a single sport during childhood/adolescence."

A 2017 study from the University of Wisconsin found that high school athletes with a "high specialization classification" had an 85-percent higher incidence of lower extremity injuries than high school athletes with a "low specialization classification." Essentially, athletes who specialized were found to be at a much higher risk of lower extremity injury than athletes who play and train in multiple sports.

USA Hockey's American Development Model, an initiative designed to help more American kids "play, love and excel in hockey", strongly encourages kids to play multiple sports during their childhood and pre-teen years. "I like the fact that kids are encouraged to play other sports. Hockey is a great sport, but playing other sports definitely helps you become a better hockey player," NHL all-star and 2014 U.S. Olympic captain Zach Parise said of the ADM.

Photo Credit: francisblack/iStock

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Topics: HOCKEY | YOUTH SPORTS | NHL | MULTI-SPORT ATHLETES