Dr. Stephen Norris: Student of the game
Posted by Dean Holden at January 20th, 2014
by Derrick Newman, Hockey Alberta Magazine 2013-2014
“What it takes to become a champion is very different than what it takes to be a champion.”
This is what Dr. Steven Norris, a renowned sports scientist, firmly believes regarding the process of developing athletes in the 21st century.
“One of the things is that we rush to make hockey look like the adult game but we don’t understand that we haven’t put the building blocks in place to be able to play the game,” Norris said. “Just because that’s the way it’s always been done doesn’t mean it’s the best way and the most appropriate.”
Before taking the job as vice president of sport at WinSport Canada in Calgary, Norris was a critical behind-the-scenes player in the past three Winter Olympics and helped play a key role in the Own the Podium high performance and technical program from 2005 to 2010.
“Many of the deficiencies in technical acumen are because we tend to rush – imposing an adult game on youngsters – at a time when you also have to superimpose gross maturation differences, and particularly at critical ages.”
The former Director of Performance and Strategy with the Canadian Sport Institute views hockey, and all other sports, in the realm of performance arts and believes parent education is at the forefront of changing the way child athletes develop.
“Dr. Cal Botterill, a very eminent sport psychologist, is often quoted as saying: ‘Sport allows us to care passionately about something that doesn’t really matter.’ I think he says that kind of tongue and cheek,” Norris said, pointing out that sport, like art, is a very important aspect of people’s lives.
“The aspect of sport at the highest end is about pushing those boundaries; how far can we go? And then as you come down through the development ranks it’s almost a microcosm of life. Life itself is this athletic event and every child is an athlete. If we are lucky we have about 80 years on the planet. It’s largely aerobic endurance type activities, wandering around, jogging here and there. Sporadically we have some lifting and some sprints thrown in for fun. That’s life.”
The British sports scientist is adamant to point out that sports have some harsh realities for parents and children alike to learn and it’s about understanding those realities that will enable the athlete to succeed in life.
“What the parents have to do is instill in children some of the values that sport can teach them. And if they are lucky enough to have both the attitude and desire to be one of those few that go to the Olympics or makes a professional career out of it, then so be it.”
He constantly points to the more prevalent issues in this day and age that we specialize too early in a child’s life, where as we should be doing the exact opposite.
“We’ve moved very rapidly into this age and parents are caught up in the trap of thinking that more is better. They want to put all their resources into one activity at very early ages and not understand the process of doing as many things as possible initially and gradually specializing.’
“What I tend to see with increasing frequency is kids that can’t throw or catch or can’t run. They might look quite good as a young skier or young hockey player but there are too many cracks or deficiencies so what actually happens is parents actually limit where their child can ultimately get to. We have to put a lot more time into parent education,” Norris said despite stating that he thinks some organizations are getting better in this aspect.
Norris continually makes it clear that parents far too often focus on what the professional game looks like and they try to mirror that for the 10-year olds going out on a Saturday morning at the community rink.
“What does hockey look like for a vast majority of participants? Although we focus on the professional game, that’s not necessarily the real game that everyone plays. Can we manage to be all things to everyone that plays the game and understand where certain decisions have to be made? It’s not simply one-size fits all. It’s a blend. It’s slight alterations that really fit what the different demographic require.”
“Many of the very important discussions degenerate into emotional arguments rather than necessarily looking at the facts.”
Furthermore, when asked to discuss the new bodychecking rules in Peewee hockey, Norris is quick to say that the emotional discussion comes through the brutally honest truth that child sport has quickly become adult entertainment.
“It’s because of what people want to watch. We rush everything and we don’t teach anything effectively. Personally, I’m fed up as a professional dealing with 23-year-old defenceman at the highest level of the game that can’t even skate backwards because people haven’t spent the time early on to do that. We just are not students of the process.”