No matter what the sport, every young athlete who is fully committed and focused on the improvement of skills will look to gain every competitive advantage available, whether it means putting in a few extra hours of practice, eating right or soaking up tips and tricks through television, books or the Internet.
And for many young hockey players, it also means hitting the gym or taking part in other types of off-ice training. But how young is too young to start weight training?
“We get that question a lot, because there are so many misconceptions out there these days,” said Jordan Mackenzie, a strength coach with Langley, B.C.–based Impact Hockey Development.
“I’ve seen kids as young as 10 or 11, but really, once you hit 14 to16 years old, that’s when you can start with weights.”
Of course, the term “weight training” can be misleading, conjuring up images of preteen athletes trying in vain to lift heavy dumbbells nearly twice their body weight. In truth, weight training is simply a form of strength training, and need not involve heavy weights at all.
According to Dr. John A. Bergfeld, a director and senior surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, strength training“ refers to a method of conditioning designed to increase an individual’s ability to exert or resist force. The goal is not to see which child is the strongest, but to improve the musculoskeletal strength.”
“Strength training can mean using weights, or it can mean doing sit-ups, push-ups and leg curls without weights,” continued Bergfeld, who for many years was also the head physician for the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns and National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
Mackenzie echoed that statement, saying that he doesn’t like to see young hockey players touch weights at all until their mid to late teens.
“It’s not about lifting weights, it’s about proper body movements, and about learning your body’s mechanics, and improving motor skills,” he said.
And though it was previously thought that strength training for children was unsafe and, more often than not, ineffective, experts such as Mackenzie, Bergfeld and others are of the mind that such training during adolescence can have many positive effects — from increased sports performance to, more importantly, a healthier lifestyle for years and years to come.
The key, of course, is to make sure such programs are done right.
For example, Mackenzie said that when he works with teenage players, the programs are not hockey specific, but age specific, focusing on a variety of different stretches and exercises.
Overdoing it on one area of the body can cause harm to the individual, not to mention wear them out mentally. That’s another reason Mackenzie likes to see his youngest clients playing a variety of sports, not just hockey.
“Nowadays, by the time kids are 14, they can see their future (in hockey), so that’s all they focus on, but hockey can be hard on the hips and other things. I like to see kids who still play soccer, or baseball, or any sport — it all helps. You look at someone like Wayne Gretzky, he never played hockey in the summer, he played baseball.”
Mackenzie said that during training, it’s important to keep the sessions fun and to make sure the students are properly supervised. He tells his clients to go to the gym on their own only “to see how not to do things.”
“With young players that age, they don’t really know what they’re doing, so before you do anything, you have to make sure they have the proper techniques,” he said.
“You go to a gym and all you see are people trying to lift more than the person next to them, and that’s not going to help any young person. It’s only going to hurt them. As long as it’s done correctly, and it’s supervised, it can be very beneficial.”
“No matter what age you start at, strength training can really build up self-esteem, motor control — there are many benefits if it’s done right.”