I can’t count how many articles I have read over the past few weeks encouraging young hockey players to play other sports. Soccer, lacrosse, baseball, tennis, basketball, volleyball, golf - they say play anything instead of continuing to be on the ice all year with spring teams then summer teams then pre-season teams. Pro athletes talk about how they were ALL multi-sport athletes. That is simply the norm in pro sports. And, that makes a lot of sense, the best athletes should be the ones who should be most qualified to play pro sports.
One of my favorite television series is ESPN’s 30 for 30. What started out as 30 documentaries to celebrate ESPN’s 30th anniversary, the series still runs today with famous documentarians telling great sports stories. There are 97 episodes in total to date and if you aren’t acquainted with the show you need to take a look.
One of the best episodes was aired in 2012 called “You Don’t Know Bo”. This was a profile of Bo Jackson who, as maybe the greatest multi-sport athletes of all time, was accomplished enough to play in both the NFL Pro-Bowl and MLB all-star game. Best way to describe the incredible athleticism of Bo Jackson is to watch. Here is the intro from the documentary:
(If you are intrigued, watch some of the other shorts YouTube video on Bo that are available.)
Now, it is not lost on me that Bo is the exception but clearly, athleticism is an important part of success in sport. (As I type that it sounds a little silly that I have to say it!)
So, my “mini” epiphany this week has me asking rhetorically, “We spend so much time with our hockey teams improving strength and conditioning, why aren’t we spending more time improving athleticism?”
This was my V-8 moment of the week! (YouTube “Wow, I could have had a V-8” for that cultural reference)
How do we develop athleticism? Mostly, by playing different sports, by climbing the monkey bars, by learning how to juggle, by doing a yoga class, by learning how to catch a ground ball and throw it first base, by playing Frisbee football, by going to the rock-climbing gym - by doing ANYTHING but the same old passing-shooting-skating drills on the ice and then going to the gym to lift weights for an hour.
A coaching colleague of mine was telling me about her 14 year old’s ‘A’ level hockey team. The team was extremely well run and very well coached. Great technical practices, a nicely bound 126 page playbook with all the systems the team was going to employ for the season, video clips to watch as homework between games, a strength and conditioning coach that worked with the players two or three times a week - everything a hockey team needed to develop players to move on to the NHL (Olympic team). Except, it was ‘A’ hockey and frankly, not to dash anyone’s dreams but, no one was going to the NHL (or the Olympic team)! My coaching colleague simply commented “the players aren’t having a lot of fun. They just want to play hockey!”
So, two things that often need to be accomplished more with our teams: developing athleticism and having more fun.
Let’s start with running and wind sprints, and lifting weights in the gym. Really, although both can help develop a more complete hockey player, neither develops athleticism and, in my estimation, neither score very high on the Fun-O-Meter. Now, there are certainly some athletes that find doing these two things fun and, for elite hockey players, they are crucial to developing cardiovascular fitness and strength. But I will go out on a limb and say it doesn’t fit into the “They just want to play hockey” realm for most hockey players.
But, how about we take our 16 players out to the field, pick two teams of 8, mark two end zones, toss in a Frisbee and play Ultimate (Frisbee football) for 50 minutes while keeping score and making it competitive. Here’s what gets accomplished:
1) 50 minutes of cardio - everyone is running 2) Improved footspeed - there will be sprints after the Frisbee 3) Improved hand-eye coordination 4) Better tracking and anticipation of a moving object (will translate to the puck) 5) Developing general fitness and athletic ability - jumping, turning, footwork, stopping, starting, catching, throwing 6) Opportunity to “Figure It Out” - as the game goes on players will undoubtedly start developing skills, individual tactics, team tactics and some rudimentary systems all on their own 7) Team bonding in a non-hockey setting (coaches can join in too!) 8) Confidence building opportunity for your weaker players (a third line player might be the best Frisbee thrower) 9) Developing compete level - keeping score and having something to play for mimics your hockey games 10) HAVING FUN!
Coaches, time to start thinking out of the box and stop doing the things that we have always done. Don’t just send your players to the weight room and expect magic to happen. Don’t just send them out the rink door for a warm-up run around the block. Develop the overall athleticism in your hockey players and make coming to all team functions fun and the best part of your athlete’s day. They will be better hockey players for it and ultimately find more success in the season.