Playoff season, the beginning of the end, the culmination of all of the hard work. It is a valuable time to revisit the discussion regarding in-season training. This time, however, I am going to look at this discussion through a slightly different lens. Instead of looking in detail at the ideal programming and periodization for In-Season training, I want to acknowledge the balance of all of the aspects of life for an athlete, and open the discussion regarding what should or could be prioritized for development.
I do have some expertise on the subject of balancing the chaotic schedules of youth athletes these days – I am the trainer for the Minor Midget AAA Whitby Wildcats, and with that role comes some deep insight into the day to day, week to week, and month to month schedule for these young athletes. I should make a note, too, that the contents of this conversation hopefully can be applied to many different sports and athletes and situations. I am specifically referencing hockey because it is what I know. My final disclaimer, is that I am writing this piece from the perspective of a strength and conditioning coach (because that’s what I am). This means I will focus my comments on the off-ice training, but in doing that, I do not intend to detract from the importance and value of the other aspects of holistic development for a young athlete (on ice training, practices and games, nutrition, sleep, etc).
What I see in elite youth sport these days is a delicate balancing act between practice, game/competition, training, and other team activities. Being a part of a team was a key element of my development into the person I am now. I think the experiences provided are extremely valuable and should be taken advantage of and celebrated. But that doesn’t mean that sometimes they don’t become hard to balance. First, let’s talk priorities. It should go without saying that some key things that need to be prioritized like education, and family time. When we get to the level of the team activities – this is where it can get challenging. What should we prioritize? Practice and games are pretty non-negotiable. But it doesn’t just end there. Where does extra on ice training fit in? Extra off ice training? Mental Training? Days off? Time to be a kid?
Here are my two cents:
Off Ice Training is imperative to an athlete’s success. Often, the off season is spent focusing on this aspect, only for it to be somewhat neglected during the season. If an athlete is coming into the season in PEAK physical shape – strong, explosive, quick, and well-conditioned…they are setting themselves up for a great start. However, if they do not CONTINUE to work on these components, they will absolutely suffer detraining effects and as a result, they will find themselves weaker, less energetic, and more prone to injury later in the season.
One of the most valuable aspects of off-ice training, in my opinion, is the opportunity to give the most commonly used (and abused) movement patterns a BREAK, while still improving overall athleticism through the development of strength, power and speed. The muscular pattern of skating gets a TON of repetition through practice and other on ice sessions, and there is immense value in using OTHER patterns to strengthen the muscles and joints that contribute to the overall goal of being a faster, more explosive, more agile skater. It is common knowledge that hockey players generally have tight hips, and this is the major reason why. Off-ice sessions (good ones, at least) will often include elements of mobility – and this is a definite key for elite athletes who have busy schedules and are often quite “beat up”. An appropriate in-season off-ice session will take this into account, and have the athlete leave feeling mobile, loose, and energized. Sometimes, the best off-ice session is one that takes extra time for mobility work, and gets the athlete moving and sweating without overloading the body. Remember – range of motion that is BENEFICIAL, is range of motion that can be USED – it doesn’t only come from “stretching” – we have to load the joints through the achieved range in order to maintain it, and benefit from it.
Once the season is in full swing, the energy systems definitely get a lot of consistent work. Some may make the argument that extra conditioning is not “necessary” in season. While this may be accurate, I think it would be hard to find an athlete who would not benefit from it. This extra conditioning can be low-impact, and enjoyable for the athlete. And it can certainly give them an edge on the competition as the stakes get higher, and the volume gets higher later in the season.
It should go without saying, at this point, that the development of strength, power, quickness, and agility play a significant role in the development of an elite hockey player. These things require a foundation that is built OFF the ice. Practices and on ice development are the time to “bridge the gap” between the training and the sport specific demands, and games are the platform through which an athlete can showcase these skills. It is the off-ice training where they develop the foundation and the progression of these skills. Are there some athletes that are just naturally talented at their sport but look out of place in a training session? Yes. But, would every single athlete (even those “naturals” just mentioned) benefit from becoming a stronger, faster, quicker and an overall better mover? YEP!
Earlier in the article I referenced a couple other things that I believe are important – education, family time, time to be a kid and have a social life. These other aspects play a significant role in the development of the whole person, not just the athlete. So of course, I understand that they sometimes need to be put ahead of the sport-related activities. We are starting to hear more and more about how important the whole person is even in the realm of the sport. At the end of the day, many young athletes will NOT make a living playing their sport, but the characteristics and values they develop through being an elite athlete can go a long way for their holistic development. Hockey or no hockey, developing a passion for training and for being physically active is a value that should be supported and encouraged throughout their lives.
A lot of what I am trying to say can be summed up by three key concepts: longevity, injury prevention, and peak performance. These athletes want to be at their best at the peak of the season – for us, it’s playoffs, OMHAs, and hopefully the OHL cup. These events all come after a long, busy 6 months. The off-ice component can be key to having an athlete healthy, and operating at their top potential when performance is paramount. The overall goal is to create a plan and a schedule that allows each athlete to perform their best when their team needs them to be their best.
Kristin Smart BA Hons Kinesiology, MT, TSCC-Gold
Kristin is a veteran strength and conditioning coach at TWIST Performance and Wellness Centre in Whitby where she has coached athletes from a variety of sports and a variety of levels, as well as active adults and youth. She has been a member of the TWIST Fam for 8 years, and has a passion for continued education that keeps her motivated to learn more, and do more for her athletes. In addition to her role at Twist, Kristin is a professor in the Health and Fitness Promotion program and the Police Foundations program at Centennial College, where she teaches various fitness related subjects.