In recent years, the hockey community has awakened to the dramatic impact training can have on performance. Even the most traditional coach now recognizes the basic role of fitness, and more forward thinking coaches have adopted new training principles, significantly upgrading their player development process. Due to both the multi dimensional nature of hockey requiring acceleration/deceleration, lateral movement, linear speed, multi directional quickness, rotational power, balance, combatives and other attributes, a neural-based training program is best for athletes from all multi directional sports.
Over time, as players become bigger, faster and stronger, body contact gets more aggressive through high-speed collisions and more powerful combative forces. The focus on durability is heightened. The approach is to build a strong and reactive body to withstand hockey impact but also to build the physical arsenal needed to get the upper hand during head-to-head confrontations. Interestingly, even with the evolution of bigger players, a heightened emphasis on speed, quickness and agility has been driven by recent NHL rule changes to open up the game.
Training programs are rounded out with an emphasis on improving skill and on-ice creativity. Fitness is the base, athleticism a foundation and enhanced hockey-specific skills and tactics the end goal. Efforts to improve training methods over the past decade have been all about increasing strength and speed in a way that translates to improved skills, tactics and overall game performance, not just because a player has better fitness to fuel his skills but because the training has directly helped him to become a better hockey player.
Certainly Xs and Os provide a framework for the on-ice plan, but in reality, hockey is a game of organized chaos. Absolutely no one knows what will happen from one second to the next. Opponents do not often cooperate with your team system, and the game breaks down to a series of one-on-one battles. The player with the best physical tools and most creative toolbox will usually win.
As such, a progressive hockey conditioning program has evolved into the number one resource world class players turn to in order to take their games to a new level. For coaches who desire to ice a competitive team, they must know how to train their team to execute the strategies, systems and style of play they define. A team mandated to transition quickly in the neutral zone, attack and pressure with speed, with D-men who jump up into the play, would opt for a training curriculum skewed towards speed, first step quickness and anaerobic conditioning until the players obtain an optimal level of the attributes needed to excel within the coach’s system.
By utilizing an integrated strength model that focuses on linked system strength and power, multi-directional movement skills and secondary fitness characteristics, hockey players are able to build lean muscle mass, size and strength levels in a functional, whole body manner that improves transfer to on-ice performance and produces results that better express weight room-gained strength in actual game action. New hockey training programs draw heavily on the secondary characteristics of fitness including dynamic balance, speed, agility, quickness, movement skills, muscle reactivity and full body reaction skills. This training takes muscular and physiological gains such as strength, aerobic and anaerobic fitness and applies them towards movement skills, the foundational movement patterns for athletic actions. When these are linked together in sequence, players can execute better skating, shooting, passing, checking, stop and starts, pivoting, turns, turn-backs and crossovers and play one-on-ones at a higher intensity.
To accomplish this, coaches must train and teach players. There is a massive difference between coaching a drill and teaching a drill. Coaching a drill involves running a drill, making sure everyone is positioned correctly, in the optimal area of the ice, making good decisions, jumping in at the right time. Teaching a drill requires a critical eye to detect mechanical errors, delivering purposeful corrective cues to help the athlete improve the technical ability within that drill. Why do we spend time forcing young players to memorize X’s and O’s and compliance to a team system when players do not even yet have the skating, puck handling and passing skills to get the job done, especially at the youth level? Take another step back - they don’t even have the physical tools needed to improve their skating. As Paul Coffey, whose career was fueled on beautiful skating, used to say “if you can’t skate you can’t play.” Asking for further technical improvements without the physical tools needed to handle the mechanical modifications needed for more skillful and high speed movement will be met with unnecessary ceilings to improvement level.
So how could we approach this differently? At all ages, to build fitness, movement skills and improve individual players, you must train for the diversity of a decathlete. Hockey players require aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, speed, quick feet, quick hands, agility, reaction skills, balance, deceleration skills, multi joint strength, whole body power, rotary power and dynamic flexibility, each trained specifically for the unique characteristics of a hockey game. Consider carrying a stick, handling a puck, passing, shooting, body checking, dropping to block shots, warding off opponents, stops and starts, continual switching between decelerating and accelerating, backward skating, lateral movement, pivots, exiting turns and constant changes in direction. Hockey has its own unique characteristics, biomechanical, physiological, bioenergetic and neuromuscular demands as well as challenging nutritional requirements.
The skating stride is a good example of the conditioning skill integration. A player who is a technically sound skater is a mechanically efficient skater, using less energy and delaying fatigue, while poor skaters use up a lot more energy, leading to quicker fatigue. A well-conditioned player will be able to skate longer without the fatigue that adversely affects skating technique, while poorly conditioned athletes will become fatigued more quickly, affecting their technique. Acquiring proper skating technique requires a base of strength, flexibility, speed, quickness and agility. Ankle reactivity and whole body balance greatly influences edging and aggressive on-ice maneuvers, while core strength helps players skate through defenders. Asymmetrical strength imbalances inhibit skating technique, and lack of joint mobility and movement skills interfere with complex skating patterns. Clearly skill and technique acquisition or improvement must be integrated with physical conditioning for optimal player development.
The dramatic change overall in hockey conditioning is represented in the table below. The left hand column lists the typical athlete fitness program. Even many recently retired NHLers will recognize in this table the training program they experienced. The commonalities in leading edge hockey conditioning programs are itemized in the right hand column.
|Aerobic cardiovascular emphasis
||Anaerobic and on-ice testing
||Multi directional intervals
|Stationary warm ups
||Dynamic warm ups
|Forced stretching pre-ice
||Gentle stretching post-ice
||Whole body integrated lifts
|Isolation to overload muscles
||Multi joint, multi planar lifts for explosive power
|Traditional sit ups and floor based stabilization
||Closed kinetic chain core stabilization and rotary power
|Linear Acceleration - Speed
||Quickness and Agility
Multi Directional Movement Skills
|Integrated Balance (for strength)
Transitional Balance (for direction change)
|Whole Body Reaction Skills
Joint and Muscle Reactivity
|Vision Training under Physical Duress
Complete conditioning for hockey must incorporate a multi dimensional program. Coaches who know this and follow the above strategies will be at an advantage when training the hockey stars of tomorrow.