As a coach, my teams are veterans of road trips. It seems like each year there are a number of three to five hour bus trips - and even the odd seven or eight hour trip. It is exhausting sitting on a bus (or in a car) for that long and I find it difficult to get players ready to play after such long trips - often when leaving a day early is not an option.
Traditionally, going for a walk when we get to the rink or doing a workout was the best method of getting rid of “bus legs”. But, the issue is not always just bus legs but “bus brain”. Teams that travel typically make fundamental mistakes in the first period that they wouldn’t usually make at home or on short trips and they often don’t play with any urgency. There is a lackluster effort and this usually translates into a deficit on the scoreboard through the first period.
Before I outline a three pronged attack on the dreaded bus legs, here is a quick, relevant story from my time coaching in the CWHL with the Brampton Thunder. We had a road game against the Boston Blades at Yale University. Somehow we got lost on the way down and had been on the bus for the better part of the day (even though we had a stop overnight in Syracuse). We arrived at the rink 20 minutes before warm up and had to scramble to get ready to get on the ice. We gave up a quick goal in the first four minutes of the game and then settled in to play the best hockey of our season - winning the game 2-1.
It made no sense that we should play well after what I would have thought was the worst case of bus legs in the history of hockey. But it wasn’t about bus legs, it was that with the panic of having to dress and get ready quickly, the team had a collective adrenaline rush which I am convinced contributed to our good play that night.
So, there are three things players have to do after a long road trip.
First, players have to get their body moving. Have a good warm up and activate all the muscle groups.
Second, players have to get their brain going. Do some Sudoku on the bus. Play trivia against teammates. Go over systems that you will be playing in the game. Something other than watching a movie on a small screen.
Third, players have to get their adrenaline pumping. It could be watching motivating video on an iPad (a montage of great goals). Maybe do some visualization exercises of battle situations in the game. Players can compete with teammates at foot races, arm wrestling, anything that will get the competitive juices flowing.
I will add that the first two shifts for each player can set the tone quickly for the rest of the game. In my eyes, nothing gets players and a team going more than good forechecking and pressuring the puck. I will often instruct my players that, unless they are on a breakaway, for the first five minutes of the game they have to dump the puck in and forecheck. This is absolutely not the way I like my teams to play but it is a terrific way to get players into the game quickly after a long trip.
So, it’s not just the legs that need help when you get off the bus, brains and your desire need to be ready to go too when the puck is dropped.