Spend enough time in the game of hockey and you're likely to hear a few. I've come across so many over the years that I couldn't even fit them all into one article! In "Hockey Mythbusters" I'll be taking a look at (and doing my best to debunk) every hockey training myth, rumor and canard that gets foisted upon unsuspecting players and parents. I'll do my best to back it up with research, facts and data to help you become a more informed consumer of hockey training advice. If you come across some dubious guidance that you would like analyzed in a future article, be sure to send me an email at brandon@BRSHockey.com. I'll try to break it down in a way that is useful, informative, evidence-based and that actually helps you improve your performance!
Side Note: At times in my own coaching career, I may have been guilty of buying into some of these myths. I am constantly trying to grow as a coach, improving my skills and educating myself on science-based and evidence-based best practices for improving in-game hockey performance. As I have learned more and more, I have changed and improved the programming that I can offer to players. This is a never-ending process. Coaching is a skill like any other, it takes time, engagement, passion and purposeful practice to develop and development should never stop. One of the only ways to do this as a coach is to constantly question previous assumptions, not do things just because “I was taught that way” and seek out best practices that are based on science, evidence and data rather than opinion, inuendo and assumption. My goal here is not to chide or castigate anyone but, rather, to (1) provide a meaningful discussion on best-practices for improving hockey performance that can help coaches do a better job of designing performance-improvement programs that actually help players reach their goals and play better in real hockey games and (2) give parents and athletes the best information possible to make good decisions about their own training.
Glossary of Key Terms
Alignment: Describes a state in which a training environment is similar to the environment experienced in a game/competition/performance. In order for training to transfer to performance, the training environment must be aligned with the performance environment. An example of a properly “aligned” training/practice environment would be a small area game that is simplified to increase the probability of success, shaped to emphasize a specific learning outcome, focused to make sure players understand what they’re working on and enhanced in some way (could be done by introducing obstacles or creating odd-number situations) to ensure fun and engagement, illustrate a point (the ABS-pipe hurdles I use help illustrate the point of spotting pucks to open ice) or increase the challenge of a task.
False Environment: A practice environment which is not similar to the environment experienced in a game. Training done in a false environment is unlikely to transfer to improved performance. An example of a “false environment” would be having players stand in lines and do figure skating drills from goal line to goal line.
Mechanical Advantage: A term from physics which refers to the ability of a lever to transfer a maximum amount of force with a minimal amount of effort. A couple examples of mechanical advantages would include (1) using a wheelbarrow to lift and move a load of bricks with minimal effort rather than carrying the bricks in your arms or (2) beginning the push-phase of a forward stride from directly under the hip rather than from the mid-line of the body.
Transfer of Training: Refers to the application of knowledge and skills developed/acquired in a training/practice environment to accomplish a task in a performance/work environment. Training can have positive transfer (training improves performance), negative transfer (training decreases performance) or zero transfer (training has no impact on performance). Positive transfer of training is influenced by (1) the characteristics that the trainee brings to training and (2) the level of alignment between the training environment and the performance environment.
Common Myths in Hockey
"Hockey is a 1-leg sport"
Hockey is, in fact, played mostly on 2 feet with very, very little time spent balancing on 1 leg. Hockey is a sport in which athletes PRODUCE force with one limb at a time, however.
Few sports (other than jumping sports like basketball or volleyball) involve pushing with both legs at the same time (bilateral pushing), so there is some truth to the need for unilateral (1-leg) strength/power training for most sports (and even basketball/volleyball have a lot of 1-leg jumping too). The problem is mis-applying this line of thinking to skill development. Hockey players do not balance on 1 leg in a game. They push with 1 leg while the other leg provides support. Some unilateral (1-leg) and contralateral (IE, 1-leg and 1-opposite-side-arm are active at the same time; click here for an example) strength training is useful for improving unilateral force production.
However, 1-leg skating work on the ice is unlikely to transfer to higher levels of hockey performance because this is not how players actually skate in a game. This training technique is often promulgated by figure skating coaches who do not understand the actual demands of a hockey game. In fact, the ability to transfer force into the ice and maintain puck possession with 2 feet on the ice is a key skill that is used all the time by elite hockey players, but is often ignored by coaches. Skills such as the shuffle stride, Mohawk, reverse Mohawk and power-heel-push are executed with both feet on the ice and are highly relevant to game performance yet they are some of the most under-taught and under-appreciated skills in most coaches’ training programs. Instead of working on these skills that actually appear in real games, coaches waste lots of time doing 1-leg half-moon edge drills that originally come from figure skating and are never used in a hockey game because these coaches have bought into the “1-leg” myth. A better use of time would be to focus on shifting from the commonly-used 2-leg base position to other skills (IE, strides, turns, crossovers, etc.) and then back to this 2-leg base position. This is how players actually play in a game. They glide-shuffle-stride-crossover-turn-glide (constantly applying new skills to meet new game demands), they don’t glide around on 1 foot like figure skaters.
In a number of studies conducted on this very topic, it was determined that players spend just .26 of a second balancing on a single foot during high-intensity skating. The studies were only able to find one player who balanced on 1-foot for more than a second during a real game. (Click here and here for more.)
Take a look at the 1-leg figure skating techniques in the video above. Then watch the 2-leg skating that Crosby uses in the video below. Which one do you think is more likely to help your performance in a hockey game?
“Stretching before practice is a good way to warm up.”
The research on static stretching’s deleterious effects on subsequent force production has been well established for over 20 years. Yet, somehow, you still see teams wasting their ice time with a static stretching session around the center ice circle during the first 5-10 minutes of practice. (Click here for more on the research into static stretching and performance.)
For some reason, my personal observation is that this faulty training technique seems most prevalent among high school teams (I’m not sure why that’s the case). Most likely, this comes from the coach’s mentality of “well, this is how we did it back in my day.” The problem with that mentality is that research that’s come out since “back in my day” shows it to be DEAD WRONG for improving performance and preventing injury. Research has shown that static stretching before practice does little to reduce injury or prepare players for subsequent performance while also activating the parasympathetic nervous system (IE, the rest and digest nervous system; something you might want to activate before bed, but certainly not before a game or training session) and limiting the players’ ability to produce force for the next hour. It’s also a complete waste of ice time, time that could be better used to develop game-relevant tactics and skills.
Dynamic and movement-based (rather than static) warm-ups which RAMP (raise body temp, activate the sympathetic nervous system, mobilize joints and potentiate muscle contraction) are very useful in improving an athlete’s subsequent performance, but they can be easily done off-ice before practice in order to avoid wasting valuable and expensive ice time. I’m not saying that static stretching is entirely bad. It can be a useful way to wind down before bed and prepare the body for sleep. It can have some impact on flexibility when done as its own session separate from training or games (although the importance of “flexibility” is often overstated in hockey, a sport in which strength and dynamic mobility are probably much more important than static flexibility).
The key takeaway here is that, when planning a training regimen, you have to start with “WHY?” Why are we doing this? If the only “why” you can come up with is “we did it this way in my day,” you need to rethink what you’re doing and come up with a “why” that sounds more like “objective evidence shows that this will meaningfully improve performance.”
Use an off-ice dynamic warm-up, like the one in this video, to prepare for games and training sessions. Leave the static stretching for your pre-bedtime routine.
"Fast skaters recover their feet under the mid-line of the body."
Maximum force is produced when the feet are in line with the knees/hips/shoulders at the beginning of the push-phase.
Think about a squat or deadlift position, you perform these exercises with your feet at hip width or slightly wider because this position provides the most advantageous position to transfer force into the ground. Imagine trying to perform a heavy squat or deadlift with your feet right next to each other. Unfortunately, these faulty biomechanics are often taught by skating coaches who promulgate the myth of “long strides.” What is important isn’t just the total length of the stride, but starting the stride from a mechanically advantageous position and transferring maximal force to the ice. The more force that is transferred to the ice, the farther the skater will go as a result of the stride. Force transfer is a product of muscular contraction combined with efficient mechanics (including recovering the skate directly under the hip and pushing to the side while swinging the arm to the opposite side).
Remember, efficient movement is also related to the ways in which a given sport's equipment interacts with the playing surface. The myth that hockey skaters should recover under the mid-line may come from watching long-track speed skating and making the facile assumption that this is how all ice athletes should skate. However, this ignores an extremely important difference between the two sports: speed skates do not have a hollow in the blade. A speed skate is completely flat on the bottom to increase glide and limit the amount that the blade digs into the ice (source, source). Hockey skates have a hollow between the inside and outside edge to improve cutting and cornering ability (the equipment follows the performance demands of the sport). While a mid-line or (or beyond mid-line) recovery may work for speed skaters with flat blades on the bottom of their feet, this is an inefficient movement pattern for hockey skaters which would force them to begin the push-phase of the stride on the outside edge and then switch to pushing with the inside edge. Hockey skaters are more efficient when the entire push-phase is completed with the inside edge.
Coaches who wish to design programs which actually improve player performance would do well to (1) understand the biomechanics which actually contribute to efficient movement in their specific sport and (2) consider all of these factors (including the strength/power element) rather than just focusing on recovery/extension. Training programs should be designed to allow players to get game-realistic reps using these techniques with very precise language and cues from their coaches. Too often have I heard coaches yell at players “lengthen your stride” or “bend your knees” without giving any specific advice on how to actually do this. Imagine how frustrating that kind of mushy, imprecise language must be for the player to hear.
Watch McDavid in the straightaways here. He is recovering his feet under his hips. He is NOT recovering back to the mid-line of his body. Other keys to pay attention to: both players are swinging their arms side-to-side and leaning forward with their heads angled down. Coaches who preach mid-line recovery, forward-to-back arm swing and "keep the head up all the time" are directly contradicting what the most elite hockey skaters in the world actually do.
The lines on this picture of Kendall Coyne competing in the NHL Fastest Skater competition illustrate two key points. (1) Her foot is recovering directly in line with her knee/hip/shoulder. (2) Her arms are swinging across the mid-line of her body (equal to and opposite from her pushing leg). (Note: I used the "S" in "USA" on her jersey to identify the body's mid-line because the center of the jersey is, in my opinion, the most reliable indicator.)
"The fastest skaters have the longest strides."
Fast skaters do NOT have longer strides, they have WIDER strides. There is a key difference.
This is related to the “midline recovery” myth debunked above. Skating fast is not about total stride length (IE, bringing the feet back together which actually decreases performance). It’s about planting the foot directly under the hip/shoulders to allow a mechanically advantageous position for the player to transfer maximal force into the ice. Faster skaters DO push farther to the side than slower skaters, but they do not often reach full 180-degree extension at the knee (as is so often preached by coaches). According to the article "Biomechanics Powers Ice Hockey Performance" by Dr. Mike Bracko in the September 2004 edition of BioMechanics, the following differences in stride width were found when comparing fast skaters to slow skaters:
- Fast Skater Width Between Strides (IE, Distance between the feet at the beginning of the push-phase): 21.21 inches
- Slow Skater Width Between Strides (IE, Distance between the feet at the beginning of the push-phase): 17.76 inches
Bracko also identified the following key differences between the mechanics of fast and slow skaters: fast skaters pushed farther to the side, fast skaters took less time to recover their foot back under the hip before beginning the next push-phase, fast skaters had more knee flexion (IE, deeper knee bend) and fast skaters had more forward trunk lean (IE, they were leaning forward rather than staying upright while skating).
Some other characteristics that separate fast skaters are: more strength/power, skate recovery under the hip (not under the mid-line), pushing directly to the side once they are at high/top speed, rotating the arms side-to-side (equal to and opposite of the pushing leg), recovering their skate low to the ice (rather than kicking it up in the air) and more total strides. The myth that fast hockey skaters have long, gliding strides (and use less strides over the same distance as other players) likely comes from watching long distance speedskating (a sport that has little to do with any of the performance demands of hockey). Hockey players do not skate forward for that long without having to stop, transition or escape. Given the restrictions of the boards, the nets and all of the other players and officials on the ice, fast hockey skaters are characterized more by their ability to accelerate/decelerate and change direction combined with the hockey-specific skating mechanics named above.
"Players should focus on 'flicking their toe' at the end of the stride."
Ankle-extension/plantar-flexion (aka “flicking the toe”) is highly over-emphasized by many skating coaches as this action does not produce nearly as much force as hip and knee extension (this makes sense intuitively, as the muscles that drive hip/knee extension are much larger than the muscles that drive ankle extension).
While ankle-extension/plantar-flexion does have some implication for efficient skating mechanics, its contribution is minimal when compared to that of hip/knee extension (especially at full speed). Players should focus more on improving speed in the forward stride through proper pushing angles, increased forward lean and swinging the arms side to side (equal to and opposite of the pushing leg). Working on flicking the toe (including silly drills such as the “drag touch” in which players stride and recover by dragging the toe of their blade on the ice and clicking the heels in the middle) results in little positive transfer of training and is a waste of valuable ice time that could be better spent working on things that actually make players faster. Furthermore, the "toe flick" is not used at all in important 2-foot skating skills such as the shuffle stride. It's just one highly over-emphasized component of the forward stride (one of the most over-emphasized skills in hockey coaching circles).
How much linear forward striding do you see McDavid do in these clips? Most of what he's doing is either linear crossovers or 2-foot skating. "Fast" skating in real hockey games has very little to do with the forward stride.
"Hockey players need lots of 'edge work' to improve balance on their edges and become more efficient."
Hockey players DO NOT balance on their edges, they TRANSFER FORCE through their edges and "edge work" as it is commonly applied by many coaches is one of the most INEFFICIENT ways to train the skill of transferring force through the edges.
Unfortunately, “edge work” is one of the most misunderstood and over-used buzz-phrases in all of hockey and usually implies doing lots of figure skating exercises up and down the ice with no pressure (a “false environment” that teaches players to be good at figure skating drills, but has nothing to do with the demands placed on players in real games). Coaches who are interested in improving their players’ performance should focus on teaching skating skills that are actually used in hockey games and having players repeat these skills in the areas of the ice where they are likely to happen in a game (IE, jab step just inside the offensive blue line or Mohawk below the offensive goal line) and introducing realistic pressure that players are likely to face in a game.
Hockey players DO NOT balance on their edges, they PRODUCE FORCE by contracting key muscle groups and they TRANSFER THIS FORCE through their edges into the ice in order to propel themselves where they want to go. The goal is NOT to balance on an edge for as long as possible; the goal is to get from the edge on one foot to the edge on the other foot as fast as possible while transferring as much force into the ice as possible through that edge. Furthermore, hockey players do not “get on their edges” by inverting/everting at the ankles, they “get on their edges” by shifting their body weight. This body weight shift creates an “advantageous imbalance,” which propels the skater onto the next edge and the next edge and so on. Spending lots of time doing inside/outside edge balance drills (which were originally designed to improve figure skating performance NOT hockey performance) has nothing to do with the real “edge work” that players do in a game.
Dr. Mike Bracko at The Institute for Hockey Research has a few very interesting points about "edge work" in this short article.
Yes, the player in the image above is on his outside edge. But he is not balancing on his edge. He is pushing through that edge in order to propel himself forward and to the side. He is not inverting/everting at the ankle to get on the edge, he is shifting his weight to get on the edge. The skill that this player is executing involves only a very brief period of balance on his outside edge. Single-leg half-moon outside-edge drills (typical "edge work") are NOT aligned with this skill as it is applied in games even though both involve the outside edge. High performance execution of the skill depicted in the photograph involves shifting body weight and transferring force as quickly as possible into the ice through the edge; it does not involve lengthy periods of balance on the edge.
"Hockey players should work with figure skating coaches to become better skaters."
The demands of the two sports are completely different and high-performing athletes in each sport skate differently. The ability to coach an athlete effectively in one of these sports DOES NOT necessarily qualify someone to coach athletes in the other.
Just watch competitive figure skating next to competitive hockey and the vast differences between these two sports and the demands they place on athletes should be clear. Figure skaters do not need to be evasive or deceptive, do not need to stop or start or have agility in traffic. Figure skating coaches who try to work with hockey players often do not teach these players how to “map” a skill in the right part of the ice nor do they know how to introduce opponent-stress/pressure in the practice-environment that replicates what will be experienced in the game-environment. This lack of tactical skill coaching on the part of figure skating coaches makes sense because figure skaters don't have to deal with things like opponents trying to stop them from performing their routine!
Many figure skating drills applied to hockey players are either ineffective for improving hockey performance or can have a negative impact as these drills do not align with the actual demands placed on a hockey player in a real game. Figure skating is a sport based on aesthetics in which athletes execute a pre-determined performance to satisfy a judging panel; hockey is a sport based on reading a constantly changing game environment and making split-second decisions in response to opponents and teammates. None of this is to say that figure skating is “bad,” it’s just a completely different sport and the best practices for designing a program to enhance figure skating performance are completely different from the best practices for designing a program to enhance hockey performance.
If you wanted to be a be a high level basketball player, you wouldn’t go to a gymnastics coach or a dance instructor to improve your basketball skills (even though they all involve ground-based movements); so why would a hockey player go to a figure skating coach to improve hockey skills just because they both involve ice-based movements? If you want to be a good hockey player, go to a hockey coach who knows how to teach hockey skills in a way that improves hockey game performance.
Above is a gold medal performance in figure skating. Below is a Stanley Cup winning performance in ice hockey. Both are examples of world-class performance. Both are executed by world-class athletes. I don't mean to take anything away from either one. However, a short glimpse at the videos in succession should clearly illustrate just how different these two sports really are and why hockey coaches should coach hockey players and figure skating coaches should coach figure skaters. Refer back to all of the differences I've illustrated throughout this article: 1-leg skating (figure skating) vs 2-leg skating (hockey), executing a pre-determined routine (figure skating) vs. reading/reacting/planning based on the movements of teammates and opponents (hockey), open ice surface (figure skating) vs crowded ice surface (hockey), curvilinear patterns of skating that are designed for aesthetics (figure skating) vs a combination of curvilinear and rectilinear skating patterns that are designed to produce tactical advantages over an opponent (hockey), rhythmic movements in sync with music (figure skating) vs sudden changes of direction (hockey).
This is just a small selection of the many examples of dubious training advice that I've heard throughout the years. Remember, the goal of any coach is to improve the in-game performance of the players in his/her charge. This doesn't happen just by looking up drills on the internet, copying what you were taught as a kid or going on instinct and intuition. Practice to game transfer happens when coaches apply scientific principles to training their athletes and constantly seek to know more about best-practices for skill development. If you're a hockey player or parent, don't let someone tell you "this is the right way" and just accept their word as gospel. Educate yourself, ask questions, learn about sport science and pedagogy. As you become a more informed consumer of training advice, you will be better positioned to take control over your own training, your own skill development and your own destiny.
Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading
Play Practice by Alan Launder
Dr. Mike Bracko and The Institute for Hockey Research
Transfer of Training in Sports by Anatoliy Bondarchuk
Shawn Allard of the Colorado Avalanche and Perfect Skating
"Arm Action in Hockey Skating - Is It Being Taught Corectly?" - University of Manitoba
"Biomechanics Powers Ice Hockey Performance" by Dr. Mike Bracko
NSCA's Guide to Program Design by National Strength & Conditioning Association
"Winter Olympics Science Notes: Skate Blades" by Inside Science