In the wake of Canada's loss to Russia in the bronze medal game of the World Junior Hockey Championship, there have been plenty of comments made about the state of hockey player development in Canada.
Brent Sutter, head coach of the Canadian team, believes that there is a skill deficit in Canada.
"There's too much focus on winning and losing at such a young age and not enough about the skill part of it and the skating part of it, because that's truly where it starts ... I'd, personally, like to see more skill, more creativity, because we had to play against it here and we got beat by it some nights."
In March of last year, Sutter said that he believes that the shift to year-round hockey is stunting the development of young players in Canada.
"You just don't have as many players today that are as good athletes as they used to be. Too much today, especially in young players, is focused on hockey 12 months a year. They don't play soccer, they don't play baseball or tennis or the other things that people used to do."
Sutter's comments, while being made about the development of young hockey players, are equally applicable to the development of young soccer players in Canada.
Year-round participation is trending younger and younger in all sports, including soccer, with players as young as eight now routinely chasing a ball for 12 months of the year. Parents and coaches justify this decision by pointing to research such as the "10,000 hour rule" - put forward in Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 bestseller, "Outliers" - which claims that it takes 10,000 hours of "deep practice" to become an expert in a sporting discipline.
The rule has come under increasing criticism, as many have pointed out that factors like genetics also play a significant role in determining an athlete's career trajectory. That criticism hasn't stopped some parents, though, as they feel the only way for their child to reach the elite level of their sport is to play as much of it as they can - and the earlier the better.
While practice will most definitely lead to improvement, if you are a believer in the 10,000 hour rule, it is important to understand that practicing one's sport can take many forms.
Growing up, I played multiple organized sports that all had an impact on my athletic development, which in turn helped my development as a soccer player. From the ages of 7-12, I played soccer in the spring/summer and hockey in the fall/winter. I didn't know it at the time, but I was building my aerobic endurance by playing soccer and my anaerobic endurance by playing hockey.
Although I stopped playing hockey when I was 13 to focus my attention on soccer, when I started high school, I played as many varsity sports as I could cram into my schedule.
Volleyball helped me develop my jumping ability - something that would prove to be a major asset for me as a central defender in soccer. The athletic movements involved in spiking a volleyball are very similar to those needed to win a header in soccer; two or three steps, a two-foot takeoff, swinging the arms to gain elevation, arching the back to generate power - all of these movements take place when spiking a volleyball or heading a soccer ball. While I was having fun playing high school volleyball, I was training to become a better soccer player - without even knowing it.
Basketball helped me to develop my ability to read dangerous situations. Whether playing man-to-man defence or marking zonally, basketball trains your ability to use your peripheral vision to track not only the ball, but more importantly, the opponent. I played as a forward in basketball, and learning to box out players for rebounds taught me how to be 'ball-side, goal-side' in soccer - always in a better position than the opponent to win the ball.
Badminton and squash helped me to improve on and compensate for one of my major athletic flaws - quickness.
Both sports are heavily dependent on quick reactions and the first two steps. I was never quick - despite my best efforts over the years to improve that facet of my game - but I learned to compensate for that by reading the game well and anticipating what was going to happen next. Again, these skills were not solely developed on a soccer field, but rather, on badminton and squash courts when I was a teenager.
Squash became such a good training tool for me that I continued to play the game right up until the day I retired as a professional footballer. The Academy Director at Ipswich Town, Bryan Klug, is an excellent squash player, and our squash games would often be more demanding than the work we did on the football pitch!
So, if you are a parent of an aspiring athlete, consider letting them play other sports. Encourage them to go outside and play games with their friends. This is often where creativity and improvisation are learned, far from the eyes of demanding coaches and parents.