What time of year should hockey players focus on getting better?
Here at about the mid-point of the season, most players may be entering the hockey equivalent of baseball’s “dog days of summer.” The end of the season still seems far off and players may be settling into established roles on a team. Whether you’re a top line scorer or more of a grinder, you probably know your role by this point in the season. For all players, this established routine and pecking order can lead to feelings of stagnation and boredom. Players may find themselves looking ahead to breaks and letting an important phase in their development slip by without maximizing their time on the ice and in the weight room. It is important for players to understand what qualities can be best developed at different dates on the training calendar and how to get the most out of each season.
I’d like for you to think of player development as similar to an agricultural harvest. Different plants bear fruit at different times of year. You want to harvest the produce that is at its best during that particular season (because it probably won’t be at its best at another time of year). Just as apples are at their best in the fall, strawberries are at their best in summer and asparagus is at its best in spring, different athletic qualities are at their most trainable at different times of the year.
Fall & Winter: Preparation, competitiveness, hockey IQ
— The competitive season is the best time of year for players to learn the type of mental and physical preparation it takes to be successful. The environment in the locker room before a meaningful game is something that cannot be replicated in the off-season. —
What are the main fruits that we can “harvest” during the regular season and not at other times of year? Think about what players get out of playing competitive games and participating in practices with teammates (things they can’t really get in the off-season). This is the time of year when players can improve on competitiveness, hockey IQ, mental and physical preparation, reacting under pressure, etc.
— Make no mistake, players can develop in games too. However, they need to be meaningful and competitive games where players are forced out of their comfort zone. —
Spring: Multi-sport athleticism
The season is over and the body is drained. Players have spent the last six months in skates and at the rink. I would argue that this is probably not the best time to focus on more hockey, but that doesn’t mean that players should spend the time sitting on the couch eating Funyuns either. This is the time of year to get out of the rink and into another sport and harvest the fruit known as “athleticism.” It could be lacrosse, soccer, baseball, basketball, tennis, anything active and competitive. During the spring, focus on getting out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself to move in new ways. The younger you are, the more you should focus on playing a wide variety of sports. Remember, athletes with large movement libraries and lots of multi-sport experience have a higher ceiling when they choose to specialize in any given sport.
Summer: Skills and strength & conditioning
— The summer training season is a time of year when players’ schedules are open and they are not over-stressed by school or a competitive game schedule. In addition, ice for skill development is widely available. It is the best time of year for players to improve their skills. —
If I had to give you one season out of the year for a hockey player to improve his or her game, it would be the summer. Bar none. First of all, I’d like you to consider this from a skills coach’s perspective. Ice time for private lessons or skills clinics is extremely hard to come by during the season. Couple this with the fact that players are in school for most of the week and are already loaded with a fairly substantial schedule for their team, and you can see how hard it is for players to get individualized skills coaching sessions in (or make the most out of them if they do).
Compare this to the summer when players are off school and not playing on a travel hockey team, meaning that their schedules are wide open and they are more rested and receptive to training. Couple this with a huge increase in available coach’s ice and you can see just how much more opportunity there is for skills development in the summer when compared to the regular season.
This is true for improvements in the weight room as well. Players (especially those 14 and up) should be looking to seriously improve their game through strength & conditioning over the summer, while using their off-ice training during the regular season for maintenance, recovery and injury prevention.
For more on the importance of summer training, I went to an expert. “Trainers must consistently consider all aspects of stress,” says Matthew Van Dyke, Associate Director of Applied Sports Science at The University of Texas, where he oversees the football team. “This includes the stress an athlete has experienced in the past, is currently experiencing in the present, as well as what they will be required to endure in the future. For this reason, training throughout the off-season, and particularly in the summer is of the upmost importance.”
Remember, the regular season already places a great deal of stress on players. Between demands at school, lack of sleep, a steady diet of games and practices and (let’s face it) a greater likelihood of getting sick, players just don’t have as much in the tank as they do in the summer.
Van Dyke, former Associate Director of Sports Performance at the University of Denver and a wide receiver for Iowa State football from 2009-2012, goes on to say of the summer training season, “It is during this time that every athlete must prepare their body (energy systems to reduce fatigue, muscles used for powerful skating, etc.) for the rigors of the upcoming season. Consider your body as a bank account. Every training session requires a ‘withdrawal’ from that account, but proper training, combined with appropriate recovery, leads to an improvement or ‘deposit’ into that account. Once the in-season phase has started, the time to dramatically increase fitness/strength, or continue to make these ‘deposits’ has ended. At this time the focus shifts to ensuring that too many ‘withdrawals’ (due to increased demands from practice and games) do not occur. Without taking the time to increase their account balance through appropriate training in the off-season, many athletes are not prepared for the stressors or ‘withdrawals’ that come with the in-season and end up ‘going broke.’ This ultimately leads to increased injury likelihood, reduced performance, or some combination of the two.”
“Training throughout the off-season, and particularly in the summer is of the upmost importance…Once the in-season phase has started, the time to dramatically increase fitness/strength…has ended.” – Matthew Van Dyke, Associate Director of Applied Sports Science at The University of Texas
While serious athletes should focus on getting better 365 days per year, this means different things at different points on the training calendar. While the regular season is about getting game experience, developing competitiveness and performing at your peak, it is not the time to make the most significant improvements. When it comes to working on your skills or improving your strength & conditioning, there is no time like the summer for a hockey player. You can take that to the bank.
If you’re looking to make the most of the upcoming summer training season, check out our Summer Skills Academy: https://www.brshockey.com/summer-skills-academy/
Note: This article first appeared in a Coach’s Corner for Moving Forward Performance and Fitness who can be found on the web at https://www.movingforwardperformance.com/