Ottawa Senators Strength Coach: “It’s an epidemic.”

Chris Schwarz is the Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Ottawa Senators of the NHL, and has the privilege of working with elite athletes every day. But there is one problem: his players are only hockey players.

Wayne Scanlan, a writer for the Ottawa Citizen, interviewed Schwarz on the subject of the decline in youth athletic skills (you can read the full article here). Schwarz’s premise is that because athletes specialize in a sport when they are young, by the time they make it to the professional ranks (if they even do), they lack the proper basis of movement skills to take their game to the next level.

But why?

Basketball, much like hockey, is a late-specialization sport. And thus when athletes specialize too early, they miss out on key developmental years where they can be gaining other fundamental movement skills.

Schwarz proposes parents ask these three simple questions to their kids to see what they say or what they do:

  1. Can he or she can somersault?
  2. Can he or she play catch with either hand?
  3. Can he or she run backwards?

He believes that parents would be astonished that their kids won’t be able to do it. Further, he says those same parents will ask him to help their kids skate faster, but he knows it will be a pointless cause because they lack the other basic movement skills.

The scariest part is that when players reach the professional ranks, the skills they missed out on cannot be learned in adulthood. This is essentially a point of no return, holding players back from reaching their full athletic potential.

There is a cognitive development component that goes along with the physical development athletes go through as youth. And athletes who don’t get the physical development will also miss out on the cognitive side as well!

The other fear Schwarz raises is the increased risk of injury from early specialization. Hockey players who didn’t learn to evade danger on the playground lack sporting instincts when a player is skating at them.

“They don’t know enough to step to one side — kids run right into each other,” Schwarz says. “Then when they fall, they haven’t fallen before in wrestling or gymnastics… they bang their heads on the ice.”

The interview also dives into the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) Model (of which SNYB is a big supporter, no surprise) and how the implementation of the model should help to redefine youth sport and how it is implemented across the country. For example, SNYB focuses on the first two stages of the model (FUNdamentals and Learn-to-Train) and takes careful consideration to ensure athletes develop appropriately.

The commonality of early specialization wont change overnight, or even over a decade. It will be a long uphill battle to reach a point where every young athlete has the proper base of movement skills, so that they can compete anywhere, anytime.

For now, all we can do is our best to ensure every young athlete has the opportunity to play and try different sports. This will also ensure young athletes have the opportunity to develop those fundamental movement skills in a fun and pressure-free environment. Because at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want?

brandon-brock-smallBrandon Brock is currently pursuing a degree in Honours Recreation & Sports Business (Co-op) at the University of Waterloo. A current intern at Canada Basketball, Brandon’s basketball passion lies in coaching – he is also an Assistant Coach with the University of Waterloo Men’s Basketball Team.

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