Hayley Wickenheiser on getting kids active

Hayley Wickenheiser on getting kids active

Photography by Dave Holland Image by: Photography by Dave Holland Author: Canadian Living


Hayley Wickenheiser on getting kids active

For Hayley Wickenheiser, it started when she was a little girl. After spending hours with her dad watching the Oilers, a lifelong passion was ignited. "I asked my dad if I could play, too," remembers the now-famous hockey player. So Hayley's dad built a rink in the backyard of their Shaunavon, Sask., home, and soon, her younger brother and sister and all the neighbourhood kids joined the five-year-old on the ice for games, sticks in hand. "I loved hockey right from the start," she says. "It was such an exciting game. Every time you stepped out there, you could do something different."

As a kid, Hayley was always outdoors, being active. She had some key role models close to home: Hayley's dad played hockey and her mom curled, taught physed and led aerobics classes. But they never pressured their kids to get involved in any particular activity. "My parents always said, ‘We don't care what you do, but you're going to have to do something,' " recalls Hayley with a laugh.

For her, "something"  was playing hockey with such devotion that she became a leader in the sport. The first woman to score in a men's professional league, she went on to earn five Olympic medals and was named MVP on multiple occasions.

Getting teens interested in sports
Today, more than 30 years after she first stepped onto the ice, Hayley, 36, still plays hockey and she continues to follow her parents' mantra with her own child. When it comes to her 14-year-old son, Noah, she knows it's important that he's active, even if it isn't through hockey.

Hayley did her best to pass on her love of hockey to Noah. "I wanted him to learn how to skate, so I kind of forced him to skate for the first five or six years of his life," says Hayley, who insists that skating and swimming are skills every Canadian should have. But Noah didn't love being on the ice the way she did. "I knew it wasn't going to be his thing, and that's OK." Following in her parents' footsteps, Hayley exposed Noah to as many activities as possible: gymnastics, swimming, hip-hop dancing, basketball, volleyball, —you name it. As it turned out, Noah loves the water and became a competitive swimmer by Grade 1.

Noah still swims, though not competitively, and is a cadet who loves the outdoors. Together, they go biking, hiking and, sometimes, swimming. "He's much better than I am," laughs Hayley. "He has his own interests, his own life, and hockey has never been part of it." And she doesn't mind one bit. "He knows what he wants to do, and it makes me very proud to see him so committed to something."

But he's a teenager, and even Olympic athletes struggle to keep their kids active at times. "I have to drag him off the Xbox, too," says Hayley. But the effort is worth it today, and it will be years down the road. "I see the difference in my son's demeanour when he goes to the pool and swims for an hour, how much happier and outgoing he is afterward versus sitting on the couch, staring at the television."

How physical activity benefits adults
In Hayley's own life, the benefits of sport are clear, and they go well beyond her collection of medals. "The skills you learn in team sport translate to every aspect of life," she says. "You learn how to work together toward a common goal, you learn how to accept others even if they think differently than you do and you get a sense of accomplishment from doing something together." And though Hayley says there's no better feeling than the moment you win gold for your country, she's learned more from her losses. "I think you have to lose many times in your life in order to learn how to win. Failure is part of learning how to be successful."

These days, Hayley takes the skills and knowledge she's learned from sport and applies them to research. With a dream of becoming a doctor, she's currently working on her master's degree in medical sciences at the University of Calgary, studying how exercise can impact the brains of youth with autism. "Everybody knows exercise is good," she says, "but what hasn't been researched in this country is the link between exercise and brain health. I think there's a huge untapped world that we can look at further."

Hayley supports charities such as Right to Play, which uses play to educate and empower kids in developing nations, and KidSport, which offers financial assistance to families who can't afford sports registration and equipment. And she hosts the Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Tournament in Calgary to help grow the sport for young women, giving them a weekend in which they can compete, meet players from around the world and learn skills from some of the best in the game.

"When I grew up, I often had to fight for the right to play—just because I was a girl playing in a male-dominated sport— so I feel very passionate about trying to give kids the right to play," says Hayley. "Sport has equipped me with the skills to go forward in life." What more could parents want for their children?

5 ways to get active with your kids
In Canada, kids spend an average of six to nine hours each day being sedentary, and just 37 percent of parents play actively with their kids. It’s time to start moving together.

1. Hit the slopes with a toboggan. The excitement of racing downhill will motivate them to climb back up.

2. Head to a local pool for a swim. It doesn’t have to be competitive to benefit their health.

3. Leave the car at home and cycle. to the library, the movies or other fun attractions.

4. Pack a picnic and go for a hike! Venturing into a forest or park will help nurture kids’ love of nature.

5. Visit a rock-climbing gym and let the kids literally climb the walls.

Hayley is Canadian Living's January 2015 guest editor - here's why she's a proud Canadian.

This story was originally titled "The Power of Play" in the January 2015 issue.

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Hayley Wickenheiser on getting kids active