Jack Blatherwick

Cardio fitness is a high priority; cardio workouts are not

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

So that I am not misunderstood on a topic this important, let’s be clear: Aerobic and Cardiovascular fitness are vitally important for everyone, including young people — certainly for hockey players. But if you train intelligently for hockey skills and athleticism (quickness, speed, explosive strength, agility, etc.) you will NOT need to spend time doing aerobic training (long, slow distances). Leave the “cardio workouts” to adults who are smart enough to get off the couch.

The front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press (Nov. 16, 2009) featured an article quoting an amazing study: 75 percent of Americans in the prime of their lives, ages 17-24, could not qualify for military service because they are physically unfit, have dropped out of high school, or have criminal or other disqualifying records. Three out of every four! Now that’s an eye opener, and certainly points out the need for education and a whole bunch of aerobic training.

However, for a young hockey player, aerobic training has little value if you plan intelligently and train for the qualities needed to play hockey at a higher level. This includes aerobic fitness, of course, but that will be improved as a byproduct of high tempo practices on-ice and off.

Youth hockey games may not be enough of a cardiovascular challenge to qualify. There are too many players on each team; too much ice time wasted while referees hold the puck; and ice rental is expensive compared to facilities in other youth sports. No one improves fitness or hockey skills while sitting on the bench. Also keep in mind, no one improves fitness while standing too much during practice.

If on-ice and off-ice workouts keep players moving, while practicing hockey skills and athleticism, this does improve cardiovascular fitness…even more than by “cardio” workouts. Research is pouring in from studies on soccer and basketball teams, showing that game-like drills and skill drills are very effective in improving aerobic fitness (start your Google search with these words: small-sided soccer games aerobic fitness). 

It has been known for decades (Fox EL, and other authors) that intervals designed for speed, quickness and agility can also improve cardiovascular and aerobic fitness. In a six-week preseason study on a college hockey team, we used dryland sprint interval training to improve running and skating acceleration, skating endurance, leg strength, vertical jump, anaerobic endurance and power measured on a bicycle ergometer (all pre- to post-training differences were statistically significant at p<0.01 levels). These improvements in explosiveness were not surprising, because the three training sessions per week were very intense, and lasted 60-90 minutes. 

We were a little surprised to find remarkable improvements in aerobic fitness, because none of the training was aerobic in nature. Players were tested in the lab for cardiovascular and respiratory parameters, using an electronically braked bicycle that increased the workload 12.5 watts every 30 seconds until subjects could not continue. Heart rate was monitored by EKG, and expired air was analyzed instantaneously. After six weeks, aerobic capacity had improved significantly (Vo2 max improved 6 percent, Anaerobic threshold increased 19 percent). 

There is always a little subjectivity in identifying these respiratory measures, but there is no mistaking the improvements in cardiovascular performance.  At rest and at each workload, post-training heart rates were significantly lower. This indicates the cardiovascular system was more efficient than six weeks earlier, but we saw even more dramatic improvements when we analyzed the data more closely.

We looked at the amount of work accomplished before heart rates reached 85 percent of their maximum, because HR’s are at this level or higher during an intense shift in a college hockey game. After the six-week training program, players did 41 percent more work before stressing the heart to the same 85 percent level as six weeks before. This is certainly a major factor in what is meant by “hockey shape” or “game shape.”

This is clear evidence that training for quickness, speed and explosive strength can also improve cardiovascular fitness if the intervals are well-planned. By the way, the only distances run that fall were two 5k tests (before and after training six weeks). Times improved 6 percent. In other words, “anaerobic interval training is highly aerobic,” and this is a message every youth coach must consider. The other three out of four kids who are couch potatoes need a good kick in the butt…toward the door, hopefully, so they can go jogging


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Practicing with or without a purpose

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Two similar on-ice drills below illustrate how important it is for coaches to meet as a group before practice and define clearly what is to be taught in each drill. It is not sufficient — and can be counterproductive — to simply pick drills out of a book, lean on the boards and let the drill proceed.

Unfocused busy work: A few years ago I watched a Bantam practice, because the coaches were obviously skillful former players and seemed eager to make the hour challenging and fun. Kids did have fun and coaches had creative drills, but creative and fun is not enough. 

One drill in particular illustrated how practice can be counterproductive without a clear focus on the lessons to be learned by a particular drill. A full-ice 1-on-1 began at one end where the forwards and D were involved in a complicated shooting/rebound drill. Then, on the whistle, the coach gave an outlet pass to the forward, starting the 1-on-1 rush toward the other end, and this is where things deteriorated.

All three coaches were busy at the complex start of the drill, and no one coached the 1-on-1 competition. As you’d expect, forwards gave up when they lost the puck or after a shot. There was no second effort to get a rebound. Defensemen gave up when the forward made a good move and faked them out. They didn’t double their effort after a mistake, so they never learned that a late effort might prevent goals. They just skated to the next line.

Over and over, the same message was repeated for 30 minutes, “If things don’t go smoothly, just give up.” Every positive thing in that practice was not worth reinforcing the message, “It’s OK to quit when you’re frustrated.”

Practicing with a purpose: I saw a similar drill during a Russian youth practice, where the lessons were obvious: use creativity and second effort on the attack, always working to get a shot and rebounds — not necessarily cool moves to beat the D. It’s obvious why the top Russian forwards in the NHL are the best in the world at getting shots off in uncomfortable, competitive situations. They practice this by the hour, learning a lesson we seldom teach in Minnesota, “If you want to score goals on even-man rushes, be creative, tenacious and smart, use your teammates to create shooting opporutnities when other players would simply dump the puck.” 

This was a full-ice 2-on-2 drill that started at one end with two defensemen shooting and two forwards deflecting and getting rebounds. On the whistle the coach passed to a forward, and the attack started toward the other end. Forwards were encouraged to criss-cross and be creative — anything to get shots off and attack the net for a rebound.

No one EVER stopped until the coaches were satisfied with second and third efforts by goalies, defensemen and forwards. Then they blew a whistle, and all four players sprinted to the penalty box area in the neutral zone to discuss with a coach the lessons from that rush. There were three coaches, and two were the rotating teachers on the attack end of the ice. This kept the groups of four moving while still providing time to meet with coaches after each rush.

These are two very similar drills, one benefiting from a clear statement of purpose; the other getting “style points” but failing miserably to teach players what it takes to win. If I were the parent of a Bantam who had practices like the unfocused one, I’d ask for 100 games and scrimmages…and NO practices.


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Skills in the heat of battle

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

You’ve probably seen the YouTube video of Oliver Wahlstrom, the nine-year-old making a fantastic move to score in a shootout (www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-DTZMQhizk). I call it “fantastic” because personally, I had a hard time getting my stick to cooperate with the puck on any skill. Maybe it was those old wooden sticks that didn’t have a curve; or (sigh) maybe it wasn’t the stick.

As he skates in on the goaltender, Oliver picks up the puck with his stick, spins around and whips the puck in from his backhand side. I’ve been told, “Oh, it’s not that difficult. What’s the big deal? Anyone can do that if they practice a few times.” Well…I know one old-time writer who can’t pick up the puck and keep it married to the stick while spinning 360 degrees; and if he spun that fast would be so dizzy he’d fall on his head.

However, evaluating the difficulty of the skill is missing the point. Competition is not determined simply by skills…or hustle and athleticism, for that matter. Certainly, they contribute, but the leaders are those few who have the passion and confidence to try their dream skills in the heat of battle. The NHL is loaded with skillful players who can do just about anything in practice.  When tested, they have incredible athleticism. And they really, really, REALLY hustle in games.

But I know one NHL’er who loves to be on stage — who has no doubt that if he tries his wildest skill in a game, he’ll make it work. He can’t shoot better than anyone else in practice, but he gets shots off and scores goals from every conceivable awkward position in games — even when he’s on his knees or sprawled on his back! Don’t bet against him if his team trails by a goal and he’s got the puck late in the game.

A YouTube video shows him on stage in front of hundreds of people. He acts like a rock star, and gets everyone dancing, singing and having a great time — and he’s never tried it before. He just knew he could.

There are hundreds of players with more skill than Alexander Ovechkin — in practice that is — but when it comes to scoring a unique goal in the heat of competition, there’s one Ovechkin. Alex has no doubt that if he tries something crazy it will work. Oliver, the nine-year-old may never get close to playing in the NHL; but if he does, he won’t be one of the many who can do anything in practice and not in games.

There’s a little Alex Ovechkin hidden within each youngster, and coaches play a huge role in determining the fate of that little performer. In a lifetime of super-important win/loss events, kids hear a million comments like, “You can’t try that in a big game. Who do you think you are…Wayne Gretzky? Bobby Orr?”

On TV, practically every commentator shows his cautious nature by second-guessing a failure of the Bobby Orr type, “No, no, no. Too fancy. Get the puck deep.” However, a quick check shows that while many of these second-guessers played in the NHL, they weren’t Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky or Alex Ovechkin.

Kids are like clay. They’ll turn out the way coaches shape them. I see far too many older ‘kids’ who have heard way too much, “No. No. No.”


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Legislating mediocrity

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Why is it that when someone gets a title they think there must be some new rules? Is it an attempt to “level the playing field?” Does someone think that rules will reduce the advantage of superior genetics or greater wealth? Or…if Roseau has more rinks per capita than any place on earth, and if kids can use the ice free, 24/7, should we level the playing field by making a rule they have to lock up the arena every other day?

This is what Herb Brooks called “legislating mediocrity” when he addressed the Minnesota State High School League about rules to restrict the development of hockey players in the state. “With all due respect,” he’d say. This was how he started a sentence when he was about to drop a nuclear bomb. The point he made was simple: When you try to level the playing field with rules, you restrict the creativity of those who are trying to achieve excellence.

USA Hockey and Minnesota Hockey have done their share of leveling over the years. After all, when you collect many millions of dollars in tax, there’s a tendency to justify your existence with new rules. Otherwise the constituency might get restless and start asking questions about where this money goes. Last year a local suburban hockey program sent $26,000 to the tax collectors, and never asked if it might be better spent at home, on their own kids.

American youth football doesn’t do this. They’ve decided it is possible to survive without fees and rules from a committee of experts. They keep their money for local projects, and hundreds of thousands of coaches are free to create. Last I checked, American football was doing OK.

I write – not because something terrible is happening – but to warn against the possibility of more rules. I get nervous whenever these “governing bodies” have meetings. Actually, I get nervous when they use the word “governing” in their mission statement. I don’t remember a big clamour among hockey folks, asking someone to govern them. 

A committee of Minnesota hockey experts believes you are playing too many games. In this case, these are truly experts; they know hockey, and they want you to have the best program possible. If I were you, I’d listen. But then I’d tell them, “Thanks for the advice, but we don’t need rules. We’d like to make our own decisions.”

The committee might be right. It may be advisable to have twice as many practices as games – or two and a half times – or some arbitrary ratio. Of course this depends on how productive the practices are. Does every coach run practices in a way that nurtures passion and excitement? Do they all keep things moving at a high pace so there are hundreds of repetitions of skills and competitive learning situations? If ice time is wasted while kids listen to lectures – if kids don’t come home and say, “Wow, when’s the next practice? I can’t wait.” – well, maybe in that case you’d prefer more games or scrimmages. 

Oh yes, I forgot, there are rules about scrimmages in youth hockey, aren’t there? Once rules are enacted, it becomes difficult to remove them if they are not helpful. Why is there a rule about the number of scrimmages without scoreboards, referees and whistles? Because someone thought they needed to justify their existence on a committee.

Why is it that committees aren’t satisfied to simply give advice? Is it the frustration that some independent thinkers don’t follow their advice? I understand – like when I taught math and some students just ignored me. It’s frustrating. So I tried rules, and you know what? They still ignored me.

The more important lesson, however, is that some who ignored my advice really knew what they were doing. They were creative and found better ways.  Some have Ph.D.’s in nuclear physics; some became lawyers or doctors – or even mayors – and they ALL made more money. Funny what happens when you allow individual creativity, not rules, to shape your development.


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Turn off the scoreboard and furnace, and hide the trophies

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

During a PeeWee game a while back, I took video of a player with the poorest skills. I didn’t know him previously, but picked him out during warmup because he looked like me skating around out there, not quite sure if the stick works better right-handed or left. This wasn’t your usual highlight video, of course; it showed clearly why our so-called development programs do not develop anyone but the top players.

 Here’s the scene as I walked into the arena. It was a weekend tournament, and they were selling tickets at the door — nothing exorbitant — just enough to let you know this was a big-time event. Signs were taped to the glass supporting each team, featuring names of players, numbers and encouragement to win. Brownies and cookies were tempting at the bake sale, and hockey moms were handing out noisemakers. So, after picking up a chocolate chip cookie, I headed to the far end of the rink and pulled the stocking cap down over my ears.

This was a big deal, no doubt, because the trophies were displayed prominently to let everyone know that winning was the priority. Well, I take that back. You could get a trophy for losing, too, but it wasn’t so big.

This kid – the one with Blatherwick-like skills – got eight minutes of playing time, touched the puck seven times, and never took a shot. When I say “touched the puck” I mean he batted it north – had it on the stick for as long as two billiard balls are together in a collision. He got rid of the puck and headed to the players’ box before he could make a mistake. After all, this was a high-stakes tournament – much like the one last week and those in the next seven weeks.

I didn’t see anyone screaming negative comments when kids screwed up. No, it was all positive screaming. Cheerleaders (the moms) wore team colors and were all about winning. Dads, of course, tried to act like it didn’t matter, but everyone could tell it was life and death. Only a few of them yelled things like, “Hit him, John (that’s the kid who needs the most skill work). Hustle. Get up; don’t take that from him. Play the body. Move the puck (He did! Maybe he should try not moving it). Hit. Hustle. Good shift, son.”

Good shift? Let’s see: he skated south when he should have been going north – then back to the north a few strides, before dodging away from the puck, so he wouldn’t screw up. He batted it once, and got off quickly. Good shift?

Kids used to learn hockey by trial and error, most often in an environment without such high stakes. They weren’t aware that so many people cared. It was all about sticks, pucks, skates, ice and competition without trophies. You could try a new move without fear of eliminating your team from the top 20 in unofficial state rankings.

The best learning environment would replace fear of failure with hundreds of chances for trial and error. It features competitive large- and small-sided games that don’t count for anything – scrimmages without scoreboards. Skills are rehearsed over and over in practice, then tried again at high speed and in competition between team-mates.

But sadly, we have inflicted upon the average players, a ridiculous system of big events – games that are much more about extrinsic motivation than development. The very best players can do well in these artificial productions, because the coaches give them more ice time and more freedom to fail – and because they’re already good, they are rewarded for success more often. The weaker players have to settle for, “good hustle.”

The Minnesota State High School League – in their ongoing effort to fight hockey, now that Herb Brooks isn’t around to fight back – has reduced the ability for coaches to schedule scrimmages when and where it’s appropriate for development. Brilliant. Like…“Let’s not consult the experts (the coaches) on this. We’ll just take a vote and legislate mediocrity.” 

They must have been at the weekend PeeWee tournament and liked the trophies for seventh place. Or maybe they think of hockey in the same way they think of other educational wonders, like big-stakes tests as a way to improve poor performance on big-stakes tests.

I have a solution. It worked 40 years ago; it’ll work today. It’s simple: turn off the heat in the arenas. Cheerleaders will go to the gym to do aerobics. Dads will huddle around the heater in the lobby, out of sight, out of mind. Kids will forget how important this is to everyone, and administrators will take their trophies and go home. If I’m right about this, it leaves only kids, coaches, referees…and frozen whistles. That’s an added bonus, frozen whistles, because there are no breaks in the action. Kids just play hockey.

Now that’s a learning environment.


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