Hockey and science

Stephen R. Norris talks about long-term athlete development


In one of the most anticipated presentations, Stephen R. Norris showed the audience at the 2013 IIHF Hockey Development Camp how players develop before being adults. Photo: Martin Merk

VIERUMÄKI – Talking to coaches, managers and administrators at the Hockey Development Camp, the participants got deep insight into the development of a hockey player and what’s in the best interest of kids.

Ph.D. Stephen R. Norris, a British sports and physiology scientist who has been living in Calgary for over 20 years, is Vice-President Sport at WinSport Canada, also known as the Canadian Winter Sport Institute. He impressed the crowd with a scientific approach tailor-made for the hockey audience.

Click here to watch his full presentation. (100 min.)

“The biology, how we develop especially in the first two decades of life, hasn’t changed over the years,” Norris started.

What has changed are other factors like that kids do less sports than they did let’s say 30 years ago. Recruiting kids for a sport, especially one with limited playing grounds like ice hockey, is therefore a bigger challenge than it used to be even in a traditional hockey country like Canada.

The whole reason for his presentation is raising the standard as he formulated it.

“It’s to try to get the coaches to be critical thinkers also when it comes to their own program. It’s about how they can work to improve the quality of the training minute and get to the level of execution at a competition they would expect,” Norris said. picked out some key topics from the presentation.

Kids are changing

“Youngsters are constantly changing. You don’t deal with something that’s stable,” Norris said. And he illustrated this with a timeline of the kids’ development.

The neural development curve already comes close to its peak around eight to ten years of age. The conclusion is that kids need to be stimulated especially at an early age when the brain capacity grows the fastest.

The hormonal curve, however, goes up exponentially around the age of 14 or 15, especially for males. With the presence of testosterone they can lay down more muscles.

All combined he sees a rapid growth in the first few years of life and then again a rapid growth in the adolescence.

Also the growth rate of the body itself is changing. It slows down in absolute numbers after birth and becomes stable, and then the rate goes up again around 9-13 for females who reach the adult height around 18, and around 11-16 for males who reach the adult height around 20. But during the period of faster growth rates bones are more vulnerable and loading forces challenge the skeletal system.

“The age from 4 to 10 is the most important period to learn the basics of movement and of a particular sport,” Norris said while the age from 10 to 17 is the period of biggest destruction with different growth spurts.

That’s also when body-checking is usually introduced – a topic that’s been in the news lately after Hockey Canada, and earlier USA Hockey, banned body-checking in peewee (U12) games, same as it has been the case in many European countries. The age has moved up but it’s still in age groups with big differences in size between kids that exist just as a matter of fact of growth and maturation.

“No matter at what age you introduce things like body-checking you see a rise in the injury rate the next year,” Norris said. “It’s not fully resolved but at least having the discussion and publicity makes us thinking about it.”

A conclusion that can definitely be drawn is that coaching kids and teenagers can have very different demands on coaches depending on the age group.

“The coach of every age group can be a world-leading coach. And when you put them at the professional level he may be not,” Norris said, “but there’s nothing bad about that. It’s to be applauded to be an expert in a certain area.”

Don’t get fooled by size

This period of the teenage years is not always an easy one, neither for ambitious kids, nor for coaches or parents.

“There are big dropout rates in this period also because kids don’t have enough patience within their hockey program. The champions of these age groups are usually not the champions in senior hockey,” Norris said.

What he means is that prospects may not win titles because they mature later or because their local team is not strong enough. That doesn’t mean that the player can’t become a good player. On the other hand top junior players may be good because they mature early but that doesn’t mean they will also be top players in adult hockey when others catch up.

“It’s a very difficult time for age-group coaches. That’s why it is the most difficult job. In that age the façade of athletes may become adult but in the brain they can still be kids,” he said.

And vice versa.

“Maybe the short kid who’s behind in his physical development may become the better player even if he’s not that good in his age group. You need to be encouraging and work on all things,” Norris said.

It’s an area of conflict in hockey programs between the ambition of developing individuals in an optimal way and simply performing well game by game – or between long-term and short-term thinking.

Kids want to have fun

Doing what’s in the best interests of the kids is a slogan that came up in the presentation every now and then. But what is the best? People may have different thoughts and values about that. For Norris it’s clear that the fun factor has to be central.

“It’s interesting that the Americans with their Athletes Development Model have a phrase ‘let’s kids be kids’. It’s an important one to remember,” he said.

“It shows that the number-one reason for staying in hockey for Canadian kids is fun and the number-one reason given for not staying in hockey is not having fun.

“We must be interested in every kid. You only have little time to work with the kids, so you need to use it as quality time.”

Outpunch your weight and don’t stop improving

If you want to be successful, you have to outpunch your weight and work more efficiently than others. That’s how smaller nations can manage to compete against the Goliaths of the hockey world.

“In Canada too many kids stop at some point. In relative numbers there’s a town in Sweden that outperforms Ontario, and California outperforms Massachusetts, something that’s very much discussed in the U.S.,” Norris said.

He illustrates sports with sand castles. At some point you may have the biggest and most beautiful one. But if you don’t move, somebody else might capitalize on one’s stagnation and build a better one.

Norris also mentioned the Japanese Kaizen principle of constant improvement.

“You constantly need to move your program forward otherwise others will set new standards,” he said. “This is what sport is all about.”

All-round learning

Norris splits the components that develop an athlete in mainly five components: technical, tactical, physical, psychological and lifestyle.

To reach the potential, a player must work on all aspects. Norris criticizes that too often the focus is mainly on the physical element.

“They want to have the size, power and strength, but they also need to be able to receive the puck and conserve the momentum. They need to skate and make the right moves on the ice,” Norris explained. Learning decision-making processes is important as well.

“Even at highest levels there are players who look clumsy when they’re under pressure.”

Then he talked about weddings and funerals. About where you like to be invited to and what’s depressing. What he means in hockey terms is that players do things they’re good at and they love to do much more than working on their weaknesses by doing work they don’t appreciate or that is difficult for them.

That’s why players and coaches need to be stimulated and have courage, Norris concluded.

Practice vs. Competition

Until the age of 15, hockey players have more unorganized games and play other sports, after that age they play more organized games and have more deliberate practice.

But the ratio between practice and games varies a lot between programs and countries.

“In Canadian peewee hockey kids can be happy if they get one practice per two games,” Norris said. The opposite he could observe in the Soviet Union with two to three practices per game.

Although games are often perceived as the fun part, it’s not necessarily the part players develop most.

“During a game kids play maybe 15 minutes and have the puck for a few seconds,” Norris said.

He criticized that the games have changed in a way that watching children play has become entertainment for the adults.

“At times we lose the focus why we do age-group sports. What is the purpose for that? It’s about the kids. Learning things, having fun, progressing. And give those who have the desire and the capability to pursue higher levels that opportunity,” Norris said.

“Everyone should improve. If we don’t give people the chance to practise, how do you expect them to improve? If we don’t understand the role of play, unstructured practice if you like, then we don’t understand what it is to be a child.”

It’s also a field of differences between cultures especially for somebody like Norris, who has studied the methods from North America to Western Europe to the former Soviet Union.

“In general I’m typically more encouraged by what I see in Europe and Scandinavia than what I see in North America. North American kids’ sport has become very big business,” Norris said and criticized the too big focus on competition.

“The pressure is always on and they try to do things faster and faster, younger and younger, and more expensively, and usually around a competition focus,” he said.

“There’s nothing wrong with competitions understanding when and how much is appropriate for the ages. There’s not one right answer, it’s a bit of a blend.”

Relative age effect

Many more players are born in the first months of a year in the Canadian Junior League than in the last few months.

“People are focused on winning in the short term in junior hockey so they select predominately large people and kids born earlier in the year on average have a better chance than kids born later,” Norris explained.

In the NHL the distribution is even bigger. 56 per cent of the players according to an older study were born in the first three months of the year.

You can do the study wherever you want. One from Switzerland showed the same effect as did the original studies about the so-called relative age effect from schooling systems.

The trend may seem explainable, even natural. But in the end it means that due to the desire of winning junior games, players born some months later in an age category may not get the same chance. An attitude that should change if the focus is on long-term player development.

“Lots of talent gets lost in junior years because of this effect,” Norris said.

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