Jack Blatherwick

Windows of greatest opportunity?

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

“Experts” are using the term “windows of greatest opportunity,” for periods of growth where youngsters supposedly have the greatest potential of their lifetime to develop certain athletic attributes and hockey skills.

It would be highly counterproductive to act on this notion as if there is some absolute, rigid schedule to follow, where certain attributes are left for another day, while we “emphasize” the one or two at the top of the recommended list. My argument is not that there isn’t some truth to the research, but that it is best to emphasize all things on the list at all times, and to integrate these together wherever possible.

To understand why, lets look at the list? I’ve asked many groups of coaches (NHL to college to youth coaches) to list the qualities that are necessary to compete at elite levels. Invariably, at the top of the list are mental toughness, confidence, poise, rink sense, creativity and anticipation. Skating and stick skills are always rated very high, and Terry Cullen, the former Moorhead High School coach and father of professional hockey players makes a good point. “If a player doesn’t develop great stick skills at a young age, hockey is not a very fun game, and he/she will have little motivation to improve in other areas.”

Dean Talafous has the perspective of an NHL player and longtime coach. He believes multi-tasking skills are essential – putting several pieces of this puzzle together at once, as they are required in a game. “Hockey Athleticism,” as defined by Herb Brooks, includes quickness, agility, speed, strength and the ability to react to unexpected challenges without losing a beat – without loss of speed, rhythm, balance, and coordination. To prepare the 1980 Olympic team, he also defined “endurance” as the ability to maintain all the above for every shift of a game. In other words, it is best to gain endurance as a byproduct of high quality training for the other attributes – not to go out on a jog around the lake.

For decades, I’ve observed the most important factor in how quickly an athlete develops is not physiological. It is passion. The best age to develop any of the above attributes is when the player is most motivated, and the hours of practice and training are considered fun. 

Physiological research into learning curves of young athletes is, to put it mildly, highly debatable. Imagine just how difficult it would be to draw definitive conclusions from observations on hundreds of kids, given the obvious limitations of isolating and identifying the exact reasons for an observed change in behavior or performance.

Another reason to doubt that there is just one right way to develop young talent? Listen and read research and the multitude of claims and gimmicks. There is universal disagreement on how to develop each of these separate athletic attributes.

Finally, the most important reason to be skeptical is that great hockey players are a synergistic combination of all of these attributes put together. They are not just the sum of the pieces. They may not win a contest of skill or speed or strength, but they put those together in the quickest, smartest reaction to instantaneous challenges in a game.

Brain scientists and learning experts believe you don’t have time to wait. You must start putting the pieces together as early as possible, just as Wayne Gretzky did in his backyard – and as every great player has done. A recent report outlines the major reasons for the success of four great Swedish players: At a young age, they all spent 20-30 hours per week playing and practicing on their own on an outside rink near their house. They each played other sports at very young ages.

Their model is a good one: Play other sports, and play unstructured hockey while practicing stick skills. Do this at the same age as your first skating practices. Don’t wait for a later date to train for quickness, or you’ll never be as quick as you could have been. The word “strength” has different meanings at various ages – but at the earliest stages of learning, kids should practice one-legged “strength” with good knee bend. This position is critical to learning efficient skating habits at the very start.

So…what element on the list could be put off for a later day?

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

 

It’s NOT the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the size of the fight in the dog.

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

I wish I were clever enough to create that title. I’m not, but Jerry York and his Boston College coaching staff definitely are. While the rest of college hockey suffers from a Neanderthal philosophy that size is one of the important factors in recruiting, Boston College is running away with NCAA Championships, and it looks like the trophy might reside permanently on Chestnut Hill.

The Eagles are champions again, defeating Wisconsin in the final (5-0) and Miami in the semifinal (7-1). Their roster includes only two forwards taller than 6’0" – the magic recruiting threshold at some colleges. They have a dozen players shorter than 6’0", starting at 5’6". This dozen averages less than 5’9" and 175 pounds, proving that Isaac Newton was right – the lower the center of gravity, the better suited a player is for a contest of quickness and agility. Even though the small superstars of hockey history have proven this over and over for a hundred years, coaches haven’t really been bothered with laws of physics.

Consider this ridiculous scenario. I was asked by a college coach to assess the talents of two of the top Minnesota players. When I finished a glowing report about their skills, athleticism and competitive instincts, the coach asked, “But don’t you think they’re too small?” This was the head coach of a college women’s team; I repeat, a WOMEN’S team. So, I bit my tongue and counted to 10 before I was tempted to assess coaching qualifications.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings have demonstrated clearly that Stanley Cups belong to the most skillful teams in the NHL. Aided by a return to the rule book, this has changed the philosophy of scouts and coaches, and skillful players of all sizes are dominating the league. Of course, when given the choice between a small skillful prospect and a huge one with the same skills, they will draft the bigger player. Pro teams can afford to waste some draft picks, gambling on potential and work ethic.

But consider this same question facing a college coach: Should you recruit the bigger player with skills comparable to a smaller player? Well, if the bigger player has a good year or two, he’ll leave school to play in the NHL. And if he doesn’t have a good year or two, why would you want him…or her?

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

 

 

Planning for offseason improvement

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

The best way to start an effective offseason training program is to sit down with your hockey coach and make a good plan, outlining your own specific goals. No matter how hard you work, training without a good plan would mean a high probability of failure.

This plan might be miles from what is recommended if you first visit a personal fitness instructor, a strength coach or a book. Why? Because they all have personal biases and money to make on their products. After 30 years of research I have my own biases, of course. I think every young player should train for the skills and athleticism of Pavel Datsyuk and Scott Niedermayer.

After you’ve set your own goals — only then you might visit with an expert in some particular area. If you’ve decided to improve skating or leg strength, overall strength, shooting or stickhandling, it might be helpful to work with someone who can assist you. 

If you don’t have video, study photos of Datsyuk and Niedermayer. Ask your coach how you can become more like them. The younger you are the more your training plan should be tailored toward those models.

As I speak to coaches around the country, I often ask them to list the qualities that are most important to develop at young ages. Or if it’s college coaches, “What qualities are you looking for in your recruits?”

Mental qualities include rink sense (read-react abilities), poise, toughness, creativity and so on. Physical skills include skating, stickhandling, shooting, passing/receiving and multi-tasking. Finally, ‘hockey athleticism’ includes (by the coaches’ priorities) quickness, agility, speed, explosive strength in the legs, coordination, overall strength and endurance.

Consider this illogical situation: Many college coaches recruit players based on the qualities above, yet when it comes to advice about offseason training, they say, “Go see Joe in the weight room. Lift hard. I don’t know what you’re doing — just work hard. I’ll see you in September.” 

I wonder why they don’t include a training manual to work on Datsyuk/Niedermayer skills. Those are the qualities that separate winning college teams from the also-rans. But no, it’s simply, “Go work hard in the weight room.”

College athletes should work hard in the weight room, of course, but they should also work hard on hockey skills plus quickness, speed and agility. And since this can be done in a way that improves core strength, endurance, dynamic balance and coordination, the former should be your priorities.

It is even more important for younger players to emphasize Datsyuk/Niedermayer qualities, because the windows of opportunity for developing skills, athleticism and rink sense — are most advantageous at younger ages. Explosive leg strength — emphasizing one leg at a time — good knee bend on every dryland exercise and maximal jumping ability will help form correct skating habits at a young age.

The other avenue of improvement for quickness is to do short sprints, mostly on a flat surface, but sometimes uphill, and occasionally down a slight hill. Every team we’ve tested in 30 years — youth levels through top professionals — has a highly significant relationship between short sprint speed and acceleration on the ice.

Finally, to improve multi-tasking abilities, it is a good idea to use a hockey stick sometimes while training your legs. But the best way to work on multi-tasking is to play active sports like football, lacrosse, soccer, track, tennis and basketball. Quickness, agility and skill training are most important in these sports also, and training for them can also improve endurance. So hopefully, coaches won’t be wasting your time with a five mile jog. 

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

 

 

 

Skating improvement off-ice

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Four world-class skaters (Kyle Okposo, Natalie Darwitz, Andrew Alberts, Troy Riddle) demonstrate dryland training concepts that are sure to improve skating technique and quickness. The difference between an elite skater and a beginner who runs around the ice stiff-legged, is very clear in these two photos.

 

Basic skating “Load-Up-Position”: Prior to every powerful extension, good skaters first “Load Up” their weight on one leg. If there is inadequate knee bend, the stride is shortened and less explosive, so every off-ice repetition should position the upper leg parallel to the ground. 

Michael Crowe, the U.S. Junior Speedskating coach warned, “Teaching youngsters to skate without practicing the ‘Load-Up-Position’ off-ice is a guarantee that bad habits will have to be corrected in coming years.”

Just getting into a good deep “Load-Up Position” hundreds of times is, in itself, good skating practice. It improves dynamic balance and uses core muscles that stabilize the hip joint. Lunges (shown below left) can be done by stepping forward, sideways, at 45° and backwards.

To strengthen larger skating muscles, Natalie (below right) is using a 60-pound plyotube (sand bag). Other exercises from this same position, like one-legged squats, dip squats, step-ups, slide board, Russian Box and all kinds of one-legged jumps will develop balance and explosive one-legged strength.

 

Straight-Line-Extension: The most efficient skaters extend their entire body in a straight line when they push off, because this generates force through the center of gravity. Bending at the waist into a pike position is wasting force, so be sure to optimize your training efforts by forming correct habits of “Straight-Line-Extension.”

 

Sprinting: Improving acceleration in a short sprint (10-30 yards) is a sure way to improve acceleration on the ice. You won’t hear this advice from many sources, because they can’t make money on it. One of the best sprint workouts is to start from a good two-legged squat position – facing sideways at about 45° to the direction you’ll sprint – then explode for 10-20  yards, trying to get your entire body into “Straight-Line-Extension” as quickly as possible. Repeat facing the other way. Rest. Then continue with 100 percent effort and plenty of rest. Uphill sprints are excellent as well.

Invest: Your future in hockey depends to some extent on how quickly you skate with good balance, agility and posture.  On-ice repetition of sound fundamentals works synergistically with intelligent off-ice training, but one without the other is a distant second-best. Investing hours – and then years – in these basic concepts is money in the bank.

 

 

 

 

You can’t have it both ways

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Highly skilled, young superstars like Patrick Kane have changed the face of the NHL. He was the first pick in the 2007 Draft, but simply because he lacks size, he might not have been drafted at all if he were eligible four years earlier.

During the lockout year (2004), the NHL decided to feature hockey’s unique, intrinsic skills, so they told referees to dust off their rule books and call the game the way it is written. They are judged — not by how many coaches are happy with their work — but by video replays and grading systems based objectively on how they enforce the rules.

There are many other young superstars in the league — too many to name here — but Kane has become a rock star in Chicago while the Blackhawks vaulted from the bottom to the top of the league. Of course, his teammates, like Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, and the entire roster all share in the team’s success. But because Kane is one of the smaller players, his success illustrates what an impact there is on the game when the officials protect the rules.

Offensive and defensive skills — not stick penalties — dominate games in the NHL and the Olympics. But the college game is still plagued by defensive tactics which depend on hooking, holding, slashing and interference.

It has not been easy for the NHL to make this transition, because one team or the other will always be unhappy when a call is made that would not have been made seven years ago. It will not be easy to stay this course — and harder yet to convince leaders at other levels of hockey to interpret the rules as they are written.

Watching an NHL game recently, I heard the analyst say, “The referees are calling it too close. They should put the whistle in their pockets, and let the players decide the outcome.”

Then, within a few seconds a forward was tripped as he tried to split the D. The refs let it go, and the same analyst said, “You have to call that one.”

This is the kind of hockey double-speak that makes it difficult for referees to protect the rules. Well-meaning coaches, players and fans would like refs to do all of the following: “Call the same number of penalties on both teams. Have some feel; put the whistle away late in the game. Let the players decide the game. Don’t call it so close…but hey, you’ve got to call that one.”

Right now, the NHL has the right formula most the time: Every stick penalty and interference is called exactly as it is written. The ref doesn’t have to ask — as in other levels of hockey, “Is that hook really a hook? Does it really make a difference in the outcome? Did I call the last penalty on team A or B? How much time is left?”

It’s more subjective to call infractions of body checking, because hockey is a tough, physical sport. I heard that some youth districts have come up with a ridiculous neo-rule that if a player is hurt from a body check, even if it is a legal hit, the checker is suspended.

Sorry. If your child is going to play hockey, there is a chance of injuries, and the only protection is from the rule book. This is precisely why we must empower the referees to enforce the rule book without our own biased double-speak.

All officials are professionals — they care about the game and about the safety of players. Some are better than others, and they all make mistakes. But the worst thing we can do is to assign them the impossible task of satisfying coaches. I know from 45 years of my own irrational behavior, coaches are only satisfied when everything goes their way.

You can’t have it both ways in hockey: Protecting the skills and satisfying the biases of everyone who has a thought on the subject. Those who have a personal bias have the right to lobby to change the rules, but in the meantime referees must officiate by the letter of the rulebook.

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.