I have coached hockey players from pros all the way down to 8-year-olds.
While I currently work mostly with high school, college and men’s players, what happens at the youth level ripples into my gym, as well.
Because many of the youth hockey players of today will enter my weight room in just a few years. And if what they’re doing off the ice now doesn’t set them up for training success later, we must dedicate a significant amount of time to getting them caught up.
I’d much rather use that time to make them stronger and faster rather than use it to address faulty training habits that could’ve been fixed years ago.
With that in mind, these four insights will help young hockey players and their coaches develop better athletes off the ice.
1. Quality of Execution Matters More Than Loading
Young athletes will proudly tell you that they can perform a high number of Chin-Ups or Squat X amount of weight.
When you watch them perform these exercises, it becomes obvious their numbers are highly exaggerated. Chin-Ups are done with bent elbows or legs kicking (often both). You’ll see so many lordotic backs on Push-Ups you’d think you were at a Kim Kardashian photoshoot. Supposedly full Squats are usually of the half- and quarter-squat variety.
Coaches who allow this nonsense on their watch don’t deserve to be called coaches. Anyone can write a random collection of exercises, sets and reps on a whiteboard. That takes no special skill. But what truly sets a great youth off-ice training program apart is how well athletes are taught movement quality.
When dealing with young athletes, successful training involves establishing what solid movement patterns look and feel like, then executing them correctly. Loading or chasing performance numbers comes as a distant second. Without guidance, kids are going to prioritize high numbers and heavy weights because they think it’s cool. It’s your job to make them care about good form and proper movement!
2. Don’t Overdo the Jogging
Every summer near my local hockey arena I see a bunch of athletes, some as young as 12, pounding the pavement while their hockey coaches sit inside the rink with a steamy cup of coffee in hand.
It’s a sad sight to see.
Way too many players and coaches still cling to the notion that traditional endurance training (e.g., jogging) is mandatory to get into hockey shape. That’s not the case. In fact, excessive jogging can be downright detrimental to a player’s performance in the long-term.
In his 1997 book Training for Speed, famed Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis had this to say on the topic of too much endurance training early in an athlete’s career: “Endurance work must be carefully limited to light-light/medium volumes to prevent the conversion of transitional or intermediate muscle fiber to red, endurance muscle fiber.”
While Francis was talking in the context of developing young sprinters, his ideas apply to young hockey players, as well. After all, there’s no such thing as being too fast on the ice. But there’s an abundance of players who can skate on third gear all game long but then can’t turn on the turbo when needed.
Simply put, if you’re trying to develop into a faster and more explosive athlete, the worst thing you can do is perform a ton of slow, long-distance “road work.”
This doesn’t mean young athletes should not develop their aerobic system. It’s just that there are several better ways (such as tempo runs, hill sprints, sled walks and strongman training) that increase your conditioning without having to worry about converting transitional muscle fibers into the slower, endurance type.
3. Prioritize Developing Speed and Power, Not Getting Tired
Following along the previous point, I often hear youth hockey coaches bemoan the lack of speed among their players. Well if a young player needs to get faster, shouldn’t their dry land training reflect this?
Why is the coach making that same athlete sprint 50 yards with 30-second rest periods during training, or having them perform five sets of 20 Box Jumps?
That’s great training if the coach wants to ensure his players won’t gain the speed and power he claims they need!
The first step toward building faster and more explosive athletes is understanding you must train these abilities to improve them. If your athlete is dead tired when they’re running sprints, they’re not going to be running very fast, are they? So they’re not really working on speed, then.
To get the most out of your speed and power training, volume must remain on the lower side. You also must use appropriate rest periods between efforts to maximize the training effect. If your sprint/jump workout leaves you feeling tired, you’re doing it wrong.
4. Play Games
Regardless of age, athletes are competitive by nature. And what better way is there to bring out that competitiveness than playing a game?
Whenever we set up a game of soccer in our warm-up to kick off an offseason training session, you can see even our college and pro players’ eyes light up.
They love to play. It’s fun. And having fun should be one of the main elements of youth training.
The positive effects of playing various games spill over to athletic performance as well.
Being agile, reacting to an external stimulus and having the ability to make quick decisions are all a big part of hockey (or any other team sport, for that matter). I believe these qualities are best developed in situations where athletes are forced to display them.
What activity combines all of them?
You guessed it. Games.
I’ve found playing or borrowing elements and rules from games like soccer, handball or basketball always makes for great small area games. Integrating tag-style rules can also make for an entertaining and effective game. This creates a fun atmosphere while also improving athletic ability. That’s what I call a win-win situation.
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