Jack Blatherwick

Hockey endurance…endure what?

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Exercise scientists and fitness gurus have recommended endurance training that does not fit the demands of a hockey game, because words like ‘aerobic and anaerobic metabolism’ have not evolved to a useful place in team sports. Currently, these words are ivory tower distractions, limited to their elementary definitions in biochemistry textbooks. 

To plan for conditioning that actually works, it’s better to ask, “Endure what?” Before wasting a lot of time and energy, decide which physical qualities your conditioning program should try to maintain throughout a hockey game.

When I address a group of coaches, I ask them to list the physical attributes needed for a player (or team) to excel. As a coach, I certainly recognize that mental assets are most important, but since I’m asked to speak about physical qualities, the list is limited to these.

Invariably coaches agree that the most important physical assets are stick skills and skating speed, quickness and agility. Next, they add strength, coordination, balance and endurance. In other words, the priorities are skills and athleticism, and it’s the same list for every team sport. Therefore, ENDURANCE would correctly be defined as the ability to maintain quality skills and athleticism for an entire game. This wouldn’t look much like jogging around the lake — admirable, but dumb. Playing other sports is a much better choice.

Why have words like ‘aerobic’ and ‘anaerobic metabolism’ become distractions in planning a conditioning program? Because their misuse has led “outside experts” to recommend isolating the various aspects of metabolism into separate workouts — exactly the opposite from the way they are needed in games. Instead, we should focus on high speed intervals to improve skills, speed and acceleration in every direction — repetition after repetition, until we can do it for the length of a game.

Forget the words ‘aerobic’ and ‘anaerobic,’ and listen to players and coaches. They talk about  ‘game shape’ or ‘hockey shape.’ If at any point in a game a player cannot compete with speed, agility, quickness, strength and skill … that player is poorly conditioned for hockey.

It is counterproductive to isolate the “conditioning” process into separate pieces all the time: (a) long slow aerobic distances; (b) isolated anaerobic interval workouts for speed, or agility, or endurance; (c) limiting strength and power training to the weight room where movement typically isn’t specific to hockey and lacks speed, agility and quickness.

Separate workouts like these would correctly be called ‘compartmentalization,’ not preparation for hockey, because the game requires all of these qualities at the same time. The greatest athletes in team sports are not necessarily the very fastest, strongest or most skillful. They are usually the best combination of all of these.

Why are we stuck on compartmentalization? Because this is the way metabolism is taught in Biochemistry 101. Teachers must separate aerobic metabolism from the various anaerobic pathways in order to outline the chemical reactions of each. But it is important for coaches to understand that our body uses all aerobic and anaerobic pathways at once when we play hockey. All different types of metabolism occur simultaneously in separate muscle fibers and various organs in the body. Lactate produced in fast twitch fibers is incorrectly called a metabolic poison. In fact, it is an important fuel — not a poison — in other parts of the body.

Fitness gurus mislead us with amazing success. On the tube, I recently saw a genius explaining that as the intensity of exercise increases, there is a point where, “…we switch to anaerobic metabolism.” Actually, as the intensity of a game increases, and we need anaerobic power from fast twitch muscle fibers, we don’t switch off aerobic metabolism to let slow twitch fibers take a break.  The demand for energy is greater! No one gets a break, so anaerobic training can also be highly aerobic, because we are using oxygen to supply much of the energy. 

I’m not a word cop, and I don’t write to correct gurus who mis-speak. However, this is an incredibly important and almost universal misconception — the thought that exercise is either aerobic or anaerobic, but not both. Coaches and athletes should know that with appropriate anaerobic interval training, athletes can also improve aerobic fitness and cardiovascular efficiency, often to a greater extent than if they had spent the same time doing long, slow distances.

So...what does all this mean for hockey players and coaches? The bottom line is this: what we want to maintain for an entire game is high quality skills and skating speed, quickness, agility and strength. Effective endurance training for this purpose would therefore include practices and dryland training which involve superfast execution of skills…eventually lasting for the length of a game. This integrates (rather than separates) the various physical attributes needed for success.

Contrary to impressions from the movie “Miracle,” Herb Brooks’ conditioning philosophy for the 1980 Olympic Team called for high speed, full-ice team skills with lots of creative decision-making. Early in the season, quality execution lasted only about an hour. Later, the team was able to maintain quality for two hours or more, and this continued for six months. Training at slow speed has no role in this concept. 

And from the previous discussion you can see we are not neglecting aerobic fitness when we practice high speed anaerobic intervals for two hours. There is no need for young hockey players to join the middle-aged pot-bellies who ride bikes and climb stairmasters.

Brooks would advise any coach that nothing you can tell your team will be as meaningful as preparing them to execute skills and make decisions at high speed, without slowing down for the entire game.

When you combine the incredible skills and competitiveness of 20 motivated players, many of whom eventually played in the NHL, and the masterful execution of high speed, high quality interval practices by Herb Brooks, it’s easy to see why the “Miracle of Lake Placid” was not a miracle.

 

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

 

 

 

Don’t underestimate the simple things

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

In planning your summer training, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the most expensive options are the best.  After all, that’s what marketing is all about.

Certainly, there are many valuable ‘pay-for-play’ options: stickhandling, shooting or skating instruction lead the way. You can also skate on treadmills, plug your muscles into a machine that stimulates them, lift weights and compete in summer hockey leagues. All good stuff really, but each represents only a single piece of the puzzle.

Watch closely as the Red Wings and Penguins battle over the Stanley Cup.  You’ll see the two teams who best represent the future direction of hockey — the type of players to copy if you’re serious about getting better. They play faster and with more skill than the rest of the NHL.

Faster. More skillful. Don’t forget these qualities this summer. The scouts certainly won’t. Their preoccupation a few years ago with size has been replaced with a search for skillful speedsters, and the league will continue to evolve in that direction as each team tries to catch the top two.

Skill and speed – plus quickness, agility, coordination and explosive strong legs – are athletic qualities that require repetition after repetition after repetition – not money. Instruction might help some players, but improving stick skills, athleticism and skating speed are projects for those willing to put in quality practice time. 

The one off-ice activity that is most likely to improve skating acceleration is short, explosive sprinting. It’s free; therefore no one is marketing it. In testing 500 teams, we have consistently found a high correlation between short sprints on-ice and off – a higher correlation than any other variable: strength, vertical jump or power measured on a bike or in any other way. The shorter the sprints the higher the correlation. 

At every age, off-ice sprints are a high priority. It’s too obvious and simple; therefore sprinting for quickness is unduly left out of the development process. Sprints are suggested for endurance training, but generally these sprints are too long and the rest intervals too short to improve speed and quickness. 

This is often the case when planning skating drills. Somehow “skating” equates to “drudgery,” meaning endless stops-and-starts or tough drills that are counterproductive for improving quickness and skill. Don’t make this mistake in the summer. Keep your on-ice and off-ice sprints short, and allow enough recovery to ensure that speed and quality technique are the highest priorities.

Another good choice is participation in explosive sports that involve quickness and agility – sports like basketball, soccer, football, lacrosse, tennis, racquetball and squash. One drawback however: in team sports it is easy to put it on cruise control and play without speed. Therefore, my recommendation is to try “BASELINE TENNIS,” a training game used by elite tennis players.

This is tennis without serves, so points last longer and are filled with incredible athleticism. There’s no way to hide, as in a team sport. You must sprint to each shot and immediately back to the middle to prepare for the next one. It includes dynamic training of core muscles, as you lunge and twist for forehands and backhands; plus, it duplicates the explosive interval nature of endurance in a hockey game.

Don’t fall for a sales pitch that the more money you spend, the better development you’re getting. Sprinting, stickhandling, shooting pucks and baseline tennis are free. Skating practice can be inexpensive at the right time of day. All these require no instruction – nothing but a commitment, and the rewards are not easily matched at any cost.

 

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

 

 

Play sports to develop athleticism

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

As spring arrives, serious hockey players should plan for off-ice training that will produce the greatest results —the most bang for your buck. This does not mean that training should start right now or that it must be in the form of structured workouts. Playing fun sports that are explosive and athletic would be a great way to invest your energy this spring. This is a feature of the USA Hockey program that is excellent advice.

Lacrosse, soccer, track, basketball and tennis require, and therefore develop, athleticism that transfers to hockey: quickness, agility, speed, coordination, strength, explosive power, endurance, body control, core stability and dynamic balance. Keep this list in front of you while you plan, because NHL stars have an incredible combination of athleticism and skill, and most of them developed this playing other sports.

Unfortunately, after they are established in the NHL, their off-season training is not as athletic as when they were young, unless they train in Moscow. Too often, they start losing these qualities before they should. This shortens careers unnecessarily and exposes them to muscular injuries that may not be an NHL epidemic if players trained less on a bike, less in the weight room, and played more explosive sports like tennis, racquetball, squash and handball.

For your own sake, do not mis-interpret my words. The weight room is an important part of the summer program for NHL’ers; and it should be part of your development at the right age. But it is a small part of the overall program; yet the trend is to spend too much time in the weight room, and not enough on integrated athleticism and skills. Most NHL’ers did it right to get where they are, but once they are established, training takes a serious nosedive, even though they work very hard.

INTEGRATED ATHLETICISM: this is the dynamic result when athletes put all the elements together at once, the kind of athleticism we saw on the basketball court when Michael Jordan dominated. It’s the kind of integrated package we see in a Kobe Bryant, a Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Pavol Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Jenny Potter, Krissy Wendell, Natalie Darwitz or Marta Vieira da Silva.

Some, who know basketball believe Michael Jordan was the greatest of all time. He wasn’t the greatest shooter, but he could really shoot. He didn’t have the greatest vertical jump or fastest sprint time, but darn close. His greatness was in his ability to integrate all his athletic qualities with his skills, and make sudden, unexpected adjustments in the midst of moving obstacles — monsters like Shaq, for example. The greatest hockey players do the same thing while maintaining puck control and getting off shots in situations that average players cannot.

In other words, they put all the pieces together at once. That’s integrated athleticism, and the more your workouts are integrated, not separated (compartmentalized), the more likely your results will be athletic and skillful like Jordan. Close your eyes for 10 seconds, and picture your favorite athlete in a game; then make plans to move your training more in this direction.

Of course, there are elements that need to be separated at times to really increase the intensity of the stimulus. For example, this is where the weight room is important for strength — or sprinting for quick feet. However, it’s doubtful that an over-emphasis on compartmentalized training could ever produce a Michael Jordan or Alex Ovechkin. It certainly never has.

Unfortunately, compartmentalized training is what the ‘experts’ recommend, because one or another of the compartments happens to be their expertise. This is why NHL’ers fall into this trap once they become wealthy, because there is a lot of money to be made selling each piece separately.

Imagine this extreme example: machines are invented, so that someone can sit practically motionless and strengthen muscles without the integrative involvement of areas in the spinal cord and brain that are critical for coordination of Jordanesque movement — as if strength, not athletic movement, is the objective.

There is a lot more to moving your body quickly and with poetic athleticism than simply making each muscle stronger, especially if the muscles are not moving your body during training the way it moves in games. Do not fall into this trap at a young age. It really doesn’t hurt NHL players much between the ages of 20 and 30, except for their groin/hip injuries. As they get older, however, they should be training the way they did as kids — not like middle-aged potbellies at the fitness centers.

This is why kids (and their parents/coaches) should not ask an NHL player how he trains. What you want to know is how he got there.

Make sure your strength is integrated into athletic movement — that your endurance matches the metabolic demands of a game. Don’t buy into the compartmentalized endurance workouts that ‘experts’ recommend, workouts that are isolated as either aerobic or anaerobic training, but not both at the same time.

As a parting note that will really upset the ‘experts,’ I believe core training for youth hockey players should be integrated as quick, explosive, agile activities like tennis, or soccer, lacrosse, football or basketball, not the fads that are sold as core training.

In other words, participate in other sports.

 

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Sprinting: the surest off-ice training to improve skating quickness

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Advice from many sources is abundant, and often misleading. To understand how to prioritize offseason training, I wish every youngster could see up close an NHL practice and dryland workout. World-class hockey skills and athleticism are obvious in this setting, and they can be hidden by bulky equipment and game conditions when players are seen from the 30th row of an arena.

Stick skills and skating are exceptional, and should never take a back seat to any other form of training. To develop as a player, it is not possible to spend too much time in these areas. Skating experts may not like the skating style of some players, but our tests from 30 years show that superior skating speed, agility and acceleration are required to play college or professional hockey. Besides unique mental qualities, NHL stars have superior multi-tasking abilities, putting skills and athleticism together at once, while their eyes and mind are busy making quick, creative decisions.

One of the most important athletic qualities is skating quickness. So here is an important fact — and there are not many invariant facts in exercise science: players who accelerate quickly on skates are also quick sprinters over a short distance. The shorter the sprint, the better the correlation to on-ice acceleration.

Without exception, we find high correlations like the one shown in the graph below for a professional team (r=0.86), and this is typical of every team (every age) tested in 30 years. Given the number of times this result has occurred, the probability that it would not occur with the next team tested is about one in several trillion.

A recent published study concluded that the relationship between sprinting and skating speed was only valid at younger ages, but speeds were timed with a stop watch. With all due respect, the authors might just as well have used a sun dial. I offer this acerbic, rather unprofessional criticism for one reason: kids would be misled if these conclusions were not challenged.

Besides mathematical probability, the photo below of Kyle Okposo (N.Y. Islanders) and Rodney Glass (Arizona State) shows a remarkable similarity in the first few strides. One difference of course: skaters must externally rotate their ankle and hip, but computer analysis verifies the two-dimensional similarity in biomechanics. After the first few strides, skating and sprinting become progressively different at higher speeds, and perhaps this is why coaches have failed to advise youngsters that sprinting is an important training tool.

As velocity increases, skating thrust is directed more to the side (so arm swing must also be across the body), while sprinting posture becomes more upright, and there are changes in the nature of force production. So the biomechanical similarity holds only for the initial acceleration, which is of course, most important for hockey.

Any hockey player, at any age, who wants to be a quicker skater should do quality short sprints. Longer sprints may be helpful in developing quick feet, and certainly sprinting is a good way to prevent hip flexor injuries. Allow plenty of rest, so each sprint is as fast as possible. Example: for a thirty meter sprint, allow 30-60 seconds rest — the more quality, the less endurance.

This is not just mathematical and biomechanical inference. In testing hundreds of players before and after significant skating improvement (over various periods of time) each one who showed improvement in sprinting acceleration also improved skating acceleration.

Sprinting is vastly under-rated as a training tool, perhaps because it is not so easy to collect an exorbitant fee for this advice. This is an incredible oversight, because there is absolutely no other training modality that has such compelling statistical implications.

In plain English, skating quickness, agility and speed are essential for playing at a higher level, and there is no known off-ice training regimen that is as likely to improve skating quickness as quality, short sprints. Is it best to combine this with hockey-specific leg strength and explosive power? And should skating practice be included? Absolutely.

 

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Establish your own priorities for off-season training

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

If your goal in hockey is to be as good as you can possibly be, there is no more important question than: how should I spend my time and energy? You already know you’ll have to work hard and long, but it’s just as important to have a good plan, so your efforts transfer to results.

For the best plan, trust yourself if you’re old enough to read this article. The answers are simple, inexpensive and fun.

You’ve been taught to ask adults, but this can be confusing at best. Besides, you already know what the experts would say: buy their program. They’d like you to think that the more expensive the program, the better it is.

The problem with this approach is that there are so many pieces to the development puzzle, and if each piece is developed separately, there is no coordinated athleticism like a Randy Moss.  There is less chance of multi-tasking like Sidney Crosby. This is “compartmentalized” training. The end product is a bionic super robot, not a smooth, skillful athletic wizard like Michael Jordan.

NHL players would tell you that the most important experiences in their development were simple, inexpensive things like unstructured pond hockey or playing other sports. But experts are tempting them with expensive gimmicks, so don’t ask NHL’ers what they’re doing now; ask what they did to get there.

USA Hockey recently presented some incredibly important advice; but unfortunately it was disguised in condescending rhetoric and pseudo-scientific graphs and charts about optimum windows of opportunity.

What they should have said is, “You have only one chance to be young. Use this golden opportunity wisely.” In other words, don’t think it is best for your development to play a schedule with 50 high-stakes games, trophies for weekend tournaments and cheerleaders in the stands. Adults want the best for you, so they try to make a season of youth hockey look like a mini-NHL production. But grandiose productions do not equate to the best developmental experience.

In this hyped-up environment where winning is so important to adults, they make poor decisions. Structure replaces creativity. You are told to dump the puck in, don’t control it — that a “coachable player” goes where the X or O is drawn, not where intuition or rink sense would lead you. Another poor decision: teams are too large, and you have no chance to become a Wayne Gretzky playing one-third of a game. Whistles and faceoffs waste valuable ice time. Scoreboards, coaches, screaming parents and the pressure to win make it intimidating to learn by trial and error.

However, the winter structure has ended, and now you have the chance to plan your own development. Don’t start by asking a strength/conditioning expert, because you’ll hear about their priority. You may go to that person later, but first, you have to decide your own priorities, not someone else’s.

Start with a simple question: what are the qualities most important for success? Every coach, scout and player would agree. Success in hockey depends on rink sense, stick skills, skating and athleticism, plus mental qualities like confidence and toughness.

It is now a simpler puzzle. Rink sense: get a parent to buy some ice time, organize a group of friends and scrimmage all summer. Stick skills and skating are more about practice than advice, but as a serious golfer might do, you may seek help first — then practice, practice, practice.

Athleticism, confidence and mental toughness? Play other sports. And for the strength and conditioning, reduce compartmentalization where you can. Make sure your training is highly athletic, like your mental highlight tape of Randy Moss, Alex Ovechkin and Michael Jordan.

 

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