Ken Martel has enjoyed a front-row seat for USA Hockey’s success since joining the National Team Development Program in 1998. Since then, it’s been two decades of growth and achievement. In fact, now as Technical Director of the American Development Model, a position he has held since 2009, Martel has been integral in helping associations across the country work with a blueprint for optimal athlete development.
As we enter a new season of hockey in Massachusetts, we asked Martel about the concept of potential, what we can do to foster it, the optimal long-term development trajectory (hint: there isn’t one) and one of the most important things you can ever tell your kid.
Massachusetts Hockey: From a general standpoint, should we all be a little less interested in trying to define a youth hockey player’s potential?
Ken Martel: I would just say that, for parents, the answer is … nobody knows. There will be a lot of different activities in their lives. Kids could look like they have a little bit of aptitude for the sport, but you don’t know where it’s all going to take them.
Their interests play a big part, along with their dedication to whatever endeavor they chose to pursue. The ones who find something they’re really passionate about and they really get after it, they seem to realize a little more potential in those areas.
But one of the problems in youth sports is that you’re looking at a kid as a Division I college hockey player at (age) 10. Well, nobody knows that. And a lot of that potential is up to the kids to define for themselves.
At the end of the day, the parents don’t do it for them and the coaches don’t do it for them. Kids tend to get where they want to go based on their own efforts.
Mass Hockey: With that in mind, what does encouragement look like for young athletes?
Martel: There are lots of studies, from the USOC for example, looking at all their medalists and what were their earliest experiences like. A lot of them said their coaches at the younger ages really didn’t know that much about the sport, but they were really positive, really encouraging; (they) just created a great atmosphere – so their passion for the sport can come through.
When you’re talking about parents, one of the most important things a parent can say to their kids is, “Hey, I love watching you play.” It doesn’t have to be any more than that. They know they’re supported and it’s non-judgmental. Sports are supposed to be about the kids and what they do. We’re supposed to be there in the background, be supportive and give them some encouragement. It’s supposed to be their gig.
It’s when we, as parents, over-insert ourselves in that youth environment that things tend to go awry.
Mass Hockey: We do see a fair amount of yelling from the sidelines of soccer games and in the stands at hockey games, don’t we?
Martel: I think some volume on the sidelines is OK, as long as it’s encouraging; as long as it’s cheering—and for both teams. The best thing parents can do is cheer for both teams, not one against the other.
Mass Hockey: What does the research show about the element of fun in sports? Does the research show that fun is an important part of the mix?
Martel: It’s the No. 1 reason kids play youth sports. Period. It’s because they perceive it to be fun.
Mass Hockey: How do coaches, administrators and coaches ensure that hockey is fun?
Martel: They can provide a really positive environment and encourage them. Don’t over-coach. It’s OK to give them some challenges – give them some things to solve, let them do races, things that might be a little competitive – and let them be the ones to kind of figure things out. Let them solve problems on the rink rather than overdoing your role.
If they don’t like what they’re doing or if they’ve been doing it too long in their mind … they quit. They’ll go do something else if they’re not enjoying what they’re doing. When we’re talking about not specializing in sports, not doing things year-round, if it’s kid-initiated, kids will self-regulate.
As long as it’s something they initiate, that’s the important thing. Think of that when you’re at your hockey practice. You want to put kids in position where they get to do things they find challenging, that they think are fun. Let them play. They shouldn’t always have to think, “Coach tells me I have to do this.” There are some things they’ll figure out. We can give them some advice, but we have to not be so controlling. They have to have freedom to have fun. Just play. They’ll make mistakes and that’s OK. Get up and go again.
Mass Hockey: The acronym LTAD has been gaining in familiarity as it relates to an athlete’s development. How does it weave into another acronym we hear so often about at USA Hockey: ADM?
Martel: Well, that’s what we’re based on. LTAD, long-term athlete development, is information that has been compiled to look at basic childhood development and basic physical education information that has been around for a while. We’re trying to create programming that best fits where the kids are developmentally along this path to adulthood. The ADM is just our version of LTAD.
Its’ been picked up by the USOC and a bunch of other spots, which is really cool, and we’re happy to be leaders in it.
Mass Hockey: When you’re talking about a kid at these younger ages stages around, say 6- or 7- or 8- or 9-years-old, are there ways to measure progress against this?
Martel: At those basic ages, we want kids to develop what we call physical literacy, movement competency, so that they’re comfortable in a lot of environments in their own skin. To be able to do basic things: run, catch, jump, skate, glide. These types of basic movements at these ages are the foundations for sports later on.
But we’re one of the few sports where there’s a whole new mode of locomotion, too. If you’re going to play soccer or basketball, technically, if you’re running up and down the stairs or to class, you’re running and working on your soccer locomotion skills. Everyone is somewhat competent in those efficiencies.
The movement economy on running is pretty low and pretty similar for everyone. That’s not the case for something like hockey or cross-country skiing. Those are much more sport-specific. The efficiency is important. In our sport, you have to learn a whole new way to get from Point A to Point B before you can actually play the game and play it well.
So, at the youngest ages, it’s getting the kids on their skates, getting them comfortable on two blades. Then they can fall down, get up, stop, start, change direction, those types of things.
Mass Hockey: How do you develop the age-appropriateness as a parent is looking at what their kid can or can’t do?
Martel: It’s kind of a misnomer. It’s easier for people to understand there are certain things that fit for a kid at a certain age, but it’s really developmentally appropriate. Some kids are little farther along than others. Especially in their teenage when kids around their adolescent growth spurt can be plus or minus two years or more even if they were born on the same date depending on where they’re at there.
Every kid is different o this path. Some kids are ready for a few more things, but it’s really about trying to address the kid with the right prescription for the point in time where they happen to be – drills, games, play, those kinds of things.
We talked earlier about fun. Well, what little kids at 5, 6 or 7 think is fun, teenagers don’t think are fun. You’re trying to find the right timing for kids.
Mass Hockey: Parents might look at their kid who has trouble standing on his or her skates or, say, skating backward, and assume that’s not going to be a decent player, but tell us why that should not be the case.
Martel: Again, kids are at different points, whether it’s athletics or school. Some might think progress is this nice, linear upward-trending line. That’s not really what development looks like. It’s all over the map. It’s messy.
A kid might be a pretty good skater but he goes through his adolescent growth spurt and he can’t skate anymore. His limb lengths have changed, his tendons and muscles haven’t caught up to bone growth, so the flexibility has been reduced. Mechanically he can’t put himself in the same position that he could three months ago. He’ll get it all back, but there’s going to be some regression in some things. It’s forward, backward up and down.
But, as long as the overall trend is in the right direction, there you go. Don’t worry about where your kid is today. They’re going to have some good days and some bad days, and you just never know how it’s going to turn out.
You see a lot of guys who play hockey at a high level that weren’t necessarily thought of as great players when they were kids. But they love it, have a passion for it, and they’re willing to put time and effort in. Next thing you know, they’re playing in the National Hockey League.
Mass Hockey: Are you saying that, as long as they’re having fun, the potential is something they will define for themselves?
Martel: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.