In Massachusetts, there is a great tradition of youth hockey with intensely competitive leagues starting from young ages to high school. Yet, very few hockey players who are brought up in Massachusetts hockey programs progress to play on the national team. In contrast, Minnesota hockey programs are designed around a recreational and skill development model. And these athletes have experienced greater success in progressing to the highest levels.

Youth Training Models and Their Differences

While we can’t scientifically identify why this has occurred, we can speculate that a different training model may be more effective. US Hockey has since reevaluated how they train their youth athletes. Lacrosse experts might want to evaluate the construction and implementation of the current system.

With these points in mind, parents of children in sports are often in a good position if they can encourage a passionate yet balanced approach to sports that celebrates the passionate pursuit of fun and excellence. We want our youth to enjoy the game so that they continue to participate and sustain their love of play and exercise.

Getting started

For those youth who may be curious about sports as they watch their old brothers and sisters play, it can be appropriate, but not necessary, to expose them to that same sport, whether it is baseball, soccer, or lacrosse. Learning the basics of throwing and scooping with soft sticks and balls, playing catch with a glove, or kicking a ball, if offered in a fun, safe and informal manner can be a nice way of introducing sports to children. Most children will be more interested in playing fun games then they are in skill development, so having a fun catch in the back yard is a great place to start. And while there are some organized sport opportunities for 4 and 5 year-old children, it is critical that such structures are fun based and without structured competition.

The Right Structure

Reasons for this approach include the following about young kids. Their auditory and visual capacities are in the early stages of development. Depth perception, static vision, auditory discrimination skills are not mature. Gross motor skills are developing and fine motor skills are just developing. Cognitively, they understand very little about the principles and rules of games or how to be a member of a team. These are some of the many physiological limitations of this age group, all of which inform us to have very limited expectations and demands.

Focus on What’s Important

Even young kids may keep score when playing informal games. Our job as adults is to focus on making it fun and safe for them while they learn a little about the game. The objective in this age group is to make the game so enjoyable that the kids want to play again the next season. If we can do this, we are doing our jobs.

This article was adapted by Dr. Ginsburg’s original posting on the US Lacrosse website and from the book Whose Game Is It, Anyway?, Ginsburg, Durant and Baltzell

Dr. Richard Ginsburg
Dr. Richard D. Ginsburg is a clinical psychologist and sport psychology consultant. He is co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital PACES Institute of Sport Psychology and is an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ginsburg also serves as staff psychologist in the Newton Wellesley Hospital Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department and is the director of Behavioral Health for the Boston Red Sox. Dr. Ginsburg offers a broad range of clinical services to children, adolescents and adults and conducts youth and professional sport research. He is author of the book, Whose Game Is It, Anyway, A guide to helping your child get the most from sports, organized by age and stage and has served as a sport psychology consultant for a variety of professional and college-level sports teams, including lacrosse, soccer, water polo and ice hockey at Harvard University. He is a member of the US Lacrosse Safety and Science Committee and provides talks and consultations nationally to youth, high school, and collegiate athletic programs. Dr. Ginsburg played lacrosse and soccer at Kenyon College, where he won all-conference and all-Midwest honors. He is also a former independent school teacher and coach. He lives with his wife, Teri, and their two children in Newton, Massachusetts.