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Hockey (too) specific training?

The term ‘hockey specific training’ gets thrown around a lot in the hockey world, and parents are all too eager to sign their kids up for summer camps and weekly hockey lessons to help shape their budding child into the best player they can be. Is making kids play exclusively hockey, and spend hours on the rink per week the right method to develop an athlete?

A lot of professionals don’t think so.

It’s been made very public that National Hockey League coaches and scouts can tell when a prospect played multiple sports as a kid, and a prospect who only played hockey. Players who only play hockey while growing up tend not to develop properly as a hockey player, and although the skill is there, the athleticism and core strength is below average. On the other hand, prospects who played football, basketball or other sports while growing up develop into all-around better athletes, which in turn makes becoming an elite athlete easier.

Where is the balance between simply playing sports and focusing on hockey, and when should young athletes focus specifically on a single sport?

I spoke with Adam Nugent-Hopkins, a strength and conditioning coach for elite athletes in British Columbia. Adam has started his own company, ANH Strength Performance, and he is recognized as one of the top young sports performance coaches for hockey Canada. He studied Execise Sciences at Concordia University last year, and he played for the Varsity team, the Concordia Stingers. His brother is also Edmonton Oilers superstar center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Brothers Ryan and Adam Nugent-Hopkins. Both played several sports while growing up, yet both have excelled at hockey. (Photo, David S. Landsman

Brothers Ryan and Adam Nugent-Hopkins. Both played several sports while growing up, yet both have excelled at hockey. (Photo, David S. Landsman

Adam believes that parents and kids are being sucked in to the fad known as hockey specific training.

“The term hockey specific is thrown around very loosely these days for more reasons than one, but I find the biggest reason is that it’s a good market tool to sucker and lure kids and parents into spending money and taking part in the services offered.”

Adam does not deny that practicing hockey is important to developing skill, but it isn’t the only aspect which needs to be focused on.

“Being someone who does only off-ice training, I do believe that there are things we can do to transfer over to hockey specifically, but my philosophy is more about improving overall athletics.”

Hockey is a sport that requires a lot of skill, be it skating, stickhandling, checking or shooting. However, Adam truly believes that training the body and mind into one of an athlete is the building blocks for success in any sports.

“I do believe that kids need to develop hockey specific skills, but not at the rate they do today. I’ve heard of some kids being on the ice for 10-15 hours per week. That’s ridiculous, and what’s not being understood is how to train the athlete’s central nervous system, and allow for essential growth and development.”

If you need living proof, look no further than his brother Ryan, who is already leaving a mark in the National Hockey League as a super star.

“Both Ryan and I spend time away from the rinks for much of the summer, playing other sports such as basketball, track & field and the casual game of football. Ryan didn’t even play his second year of Peewee hockey. He spent time in the weight room and skated maybe once a week.”

He said parents who want their children’s dreams of becoming a hockey star to come true must realize that playing one sport is not the way to develop an athlete. Focus on becoming an elite athlete before deciding what sport to play. Just playing hockey day-in and day-out won’t turn someone into an elite athlete.

“Everyone wants their kid to play in the NHL, but there’s a lot of trends out there that just won’t be effective in the long run.”

If you want your kid to develop into the best athlete that they can, make sure they don’t play one single sport. Play summer sports in the summer, winter sports in the winter, and develop into an all-around athlete. Playing hockey year round may make them the best player on the local rink, but in the long run it will hinder their chances of developing into elite athletes.

(Assistant) Coach’s Corner, Part 2 – The wrath of crazy hockey parents

If you haven’t read Part 1 of my experiences as a minor hockey assistant coach, you can find it HERE.

Up until this point of my young coaching career, things had gone fairly smoothly. Even if the team wasn’t winning every game, we were at least playing to win. We weren’t losing because we weren’t skating hard enough or not giving 100%, but because of breakdowns or forgivable mistakes. The kids were still having a lot of fun, which in the end is all that matters.

I was finally able to coach both goalies at the same time in practice! Given the large amount of teams in the region, the demand for ice time is incredibly high. A team is supposed to have two ice sessions per week at the Midget B level, which is often 1 game and 1 practice. If you have 2 games in one week, it’s rare you get a practice scheduled. You can of course purchase ice time, but it’s expensive. At the Midget B level, the kids are just there to have fun. They, or rather their parents, are not willing to pay huge sums of money for more practice time, in the hopes that it will somehow make their child a superstar. So we are lucky to get one practice a week, but I can only imagine what a nightmare it must be for the association to try and schedule practices for all the teams. It’s done mostly by volunteers, and it must be difficult having to schedule around games or other scheduled events. I don’t envy those administrators!

I’m very fortunate to be coaching two young goalies who want to be coached, and who want to get better. They both have different strengths and weaknesses, but both are very eager to learn. That week, we focused on repositioning after a save, emphasizing the need to be quick, aggressive, and to be square to the puck. It went really well.

I will now get to the interesting part of this story. That same weekend, we were facing a team from a town that has a certain…reputation, when it comes to the parents of minor hockey players. They are considered some of the most vocal, intense, and aggressive parents in the region. Although I had never faced a team from this town, even when I was playing, I was still very aware of their reputation.

The game started out smoothly enough. It was a fast game, and both teams were playing hard for the first goal. Obviously there was a bit of pushing and shoving here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Then on of their players “snowed” our goalie, stopping just inches away from her and showering her in snow.

This led to a big scrum behind the net, with players shoving their gloves into each other’s cages and putting one another in headlocks. One of our players was ejected from the game (with another one soon after), and the player who snowed our goalie got a 2 minute penalty for unsportmanlike conduct. Personally, I thought he should have been ejected with our player, as he was just as rough (not to mention he started the whole thing).

Things could have ended there. However, the parents of the other team decided to take the hostility to an entirely unnecessary level. They started yelling at the ref, our players, our coaches, and they would not let up. The vulgarity coming out of these parent’s mouths was disgraceful. When one of our ejected players finished getting changed and returned to the stands, some parents from the other team were waiting for him. Our team had scored since then, and the parents started chirping the 15 year old, saying “Your team’s a lot better when you’re not playing, eh loser?”, and other completely unnecessary comments. One of the parents came to our side of the rink and stood there, yelling obsenities at our coaches and players for the rest of the game. As much as you try to tune it out and carry one playing the game, it’s not easy.

I’ve written previously about parents and their unnacceptable conduct when it comes to hockey (link HERE). I think parents forget that these are kids playing hockey for fun. Those are two key words in that sentence: KIDS, and FUN. Obviously it’s natural for parents to be engaged in the game, and showing passion in a positive way is always encouraged. But this was, in no way, positive. It was ruthless. I know the kids on our team didn’t have a lot of fun that game, and I’m willing to bet money that the other team didn’t have the greatest of times either. It was hostile for everyone, and you could feel the tension in the stands. It was more aggressive in the stands with the parents than it was with the kids on the ice. The kids just wanted to play hockey.

The problem is that the unruly parents get away with it. No one wants to approach a fellow parent who is acting unreasonably and tell them off like a small child, thus inviting their wrath of anger onto you. But besides having league-appointed ushers at each game to keep parents in order, there is no other way to discipline parents besides self-policing. It’s up to fellow parents and the coaches to make sure all the parents act in a civil and respectable manner. Often coaches set out clear rules for parents at a parent meeting at the beginning of the season, as our head coach did. I’m not saying this is in any way an easy task, but it’s necessary. No one benefits from verbal abuse, and the ones who really suffer are the kids. Being yelled at by an adult is extremely intimidating for kids, and there’s no excuse for doing it, ever.

We ended up losing that game. The parents on the other side were thrilled, and made it very clear how they flet about us “losers”. Their hostility was contagious for the other team, and they didn’t even line up to do the customary handshake after the game. I would bet money that if the parents had been respectful and calm all game, the teams would have shook hands after the game. It’s the parents that caused it to escalate to the extent that it did.

After a 2 week hiatus for Christmas and New Years, we were back at it the day before school started. We got a convincing 7-0 win against a very good team, so for the time being the team is flying high. As the coach that works with the goalies in practices, getting a shutout is always a good feeling!

We have no practices this week, but we do have a game on Saturday. We haven’t had a practice in over a month, due to bad weather, unfortunate scheduling, and the winter break. Who knows, maybe we’ll get a practice in next week! I’ll keep you all posted.

(Assistant) Coach’s Corner, Part 1 – My coaching debut

Coaching hockey is something I have always been interested in, and I have been thinking about getting involved with my local hockey association for several years. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I think coaching in minor hockey is a very important and undervalued role in the development of youngsters. A good coach can teach a lot of life skills to be used on and off the ice, such as hard work, determination, loyalty, and the value of teamwork. A good coach also helps players develop their hockey skills in a fun, healthy environment.

After a few of years of thinking passively about coaching, I finally decided to be proactive and go through with it. I did all the necessary pre-requisite courses, which were “Health and Safety” and “Respect in sports”, and I signed up for a weekend coaching clinic to become a certified coach. The clinic involved both on and off ice lessons, and it was a great experience. After about six hours of coaching, I left the arena a certified coach.

The next step was to actually find a team to help coach. I don’t have any kids, and I don’t know anybody currently in minor hockey. I did what any normal person with a lot of time on their hands would do: I went through all the teams in my region to see which ones had the least amount of coaches. I was interested in coaching the older age groups, as I had already been an assistant coach for a pre-novice team two years ago. Although it is a lot of fun to teach individual skills to eager youngsters, I wanted to focus on team skills and systems, while not completely forgetting about individual skill.

I found a team that was right in my comfort zone. A Midget B team with only three coaches seemed to be a perfect fit! I went to one of their practices, and spoke with the head coach afterwards. He said they’d be happy to have me, and introduced me to the assistants, the manager and a couple of parents. Coincidentally, one of the other assistant coaches was at the same certification clinic I attended the previous weekend!

Full disclosure, the team did not need another coach. If I had never shown up, the team would not have been suffering. I feel extremely lucky to be given the chance to try coaching, and even luckier to have picked a team with such great people on the team. The one attribute I really bring to the table is that I have experience as a goalie. With very limited practice time, it’s difficult to focus on all the players consistently. It’s even more difficult for head coaches to give goalies the training they so desperately need, especially since the position is so unique and personal. It takes a lot of hours to properly develop a goalie’s personal technique, something head coaches simply don’t have the time for.

In the first practice I participated in, I was in charge of coaching the goalies. I was excited, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend a good 2 or 3 hours beforehand coming up with drills and tips to work on. Only one of the two goalies showed up, so it ended up being an intense and hard workout for the poor lone goalie. I had a blast coaching, but it was also a little strange at first. The young goalie had skill, but knew she had weaknesses. We worked together for a good half hour, focusing on the butterfly slide, quickly recovering after the initial save, being square to the puck. She was open to all my tips and tricks, and when I spoke, she listened. I’m used to being the one listening, not talking.

So far, I have been behind the bench for three games. We’ve lost one 7-6, and won the other two both with a score of 7-2. My role is kind of a rover coach: the head coach covers everything, one assistant coach focuses on the defencemen while the other focuses on the forwards. That leaves me, the fourth coach, to speak with the goalie between periods and give advice wherever I see fit. I don’t mind it, because I am still very new to the coaching scene, and I am still getting comfortable with the role. What I enjoy is when I do have something to say, the players actually listen. I’ve never held this kind of respect and authority before, so I’ll try my best to make sure it doesn’t go to my head!

The team is a very close group of kids, many of whom have been playing together for at least a few years. There are some very talented players, and most of them work hard each shift. There are a couple of players with short tempers, with one player in particular seeming to come off of the ice angry after every shift! The head coach makes a point of trying to calm the young man down. All to often anger leads to retaliation, and retaliation leads to penalties. When things aren’t going their way, the players all suddenly become seasoned dockworkers, based on their colourful vocabulary! Besides that, they are a great group of youngsters, who support each other while not putting blame on each other’s shoulders. In my opinion, they are the type of players you want to coach. Talented individuals who play hard, but listen to advice and don’t get down on each other.

The team has some weaknesses, as all teams do. What the coaching staff has been trying to focus on is the ol’ dump and change to avoid players changing on the backcheck, a big no-no in the hockey world. We’ve also been emphasizing getting a player in front of the net, taking shots and pouncing on rebounds. Many of the goals we’ve scored have been rebounds from shots. The old cliché of getting more pucks on net is valid; when you shoot on goal, good things will happen!

Another issue we’ve been focusing is the forwards supporting the defencemen in their own zone. A few times, a defenceman would get the puck and have no one to pass to. The other team pounces on the opportunity, and ends up with a semi-decent scoring chance. We want the forwards to stay back and breakout as a team, not as an individual. As for the goalies, we’ve been focusing on being square to the puck, being aggressive in the crease and recovering quickly after the initial save.

We’re currently fifth in the league, but the season is still young! I’m looking forward to contributing more and more to the development of the team’s skills, while learning from the coaches. I’m already having a blast, and I’m sure that won’t change.

I will keep you all posted as the season progresses. We have a game and a practice coming up, so we’re going to be busy!

The 10 Commandments of being a hockey parent

These commandments shall be followed by all hockey parents, regardless of thy child’s age or skill level.

  1. Thou shalt encourage all players, even thy child’s opponents
  2. Thou shalt not use the ref’s name in vain
  3. Thou shalt get to games and practices on time
  4. Thou shalt inform thy coach when game and practices will be missed
  5. Thou shalt not demand more ice time for thy child
  6. Thou shalt not coach from thy bleachers
  7. Thou shalt not live thy dreams through thy child
  8. Thou shalt teach respect and good sportsmanship to thy child
  9. Thou shalt be unconditionally supportive
  10. Thou shalt remember that hockey is just a game

These commandments are basic rules that any hockey parent should follow, regardless of whether your child is in a competitive league or a casual one. Print these commandments out, and make them visible in your home. Have a copy pinned right above where your child keeps their hockey gear, so you see it before you leave for every practice and every game. Coaches, print these out and hand them out to parents. Great minor hockey teams and associations are created when parents and coaches are on the same page. It is important to remember that hockey is a game, and that minor hockey is there for the kids. A winning record does not necessarily equal success; seeing kids smiling and enjoying the game of hockey is the greatest victory a team can hope for.