Revisiting skill-based coaching methods for optimal development and performance

USA Hockey

Malcolm Sutherland

Malcolm Sutherland is a coach, physical educator, sport pedagogist, and SME in sports development, sports safety and injury prevention. As an athlete and player safety expert Malcolm has developed prevention tools and a program to control serious injury in sport.

He is a Chartered Professional Coach holding designation with Coaches of Canada. In hockey specifically, Malcolm is now active as a sought after development coach working internationally and nationally. Malcolm has coached at every level from professional minor leagues, varsity as well as junior and AAA levels of minor hockey.

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Are our coaching methods cutting edge, or are they status quo?

The pandemic and the “pause in play” have given us coaches time. Time to self-reflect on our coaching methods, and time for us to critically evaluate how we are coaching, training, and teaching.

Are we using the best techniques possible as coaches required for the modern game and contemporary player/athlete?

Are our coaching methods at or near the cutting edge, or are they status quo, or just borrowed from what we remember when we played?

Is our coaching process matched to the best possible quality outcomes for the player and the game?

We will all have a plus/minus when it comes to these questions. But, I think the exciting thing is the self-analysis.

Critical reviews of ice hockey coaching methods suggest that most coaches tend to instruct, teach and lead using antiquated methods. This coaching lags at least a decade behind current methods and the techniques and approaches utilized are neither progressive nor particularly linked to athlete needs and the modern athlete. Furthermore, the methods most frequently used appear to be rarely associated with advancements in sports science. The incredible advancements over the last decade in the fields of learning, motor development, skill acquisition/mastery, as well as innovations in equipment, technology, and exercise physiology have been incredible. To miss the application of these innovations is an incredible oversight in coaching.

A deep(er) dive into how and what we coach, in terms of biomechanics and skill development, suggests ice hockey coaches regularly undervalue work with the general basic movement skills of their athletes. Instead, we favour the more complex and distinct or sport-specific tactical practice. We also choose to rush into performance “outcomes” rather than get into the dirty areas concerning basic movement skills and movement efficiency.

The results are clear. Players that are observably physically illiterate and suited to role-playing and inevitable performance ceilings. These players are not good movers and struggle to be adaptable and versatile. Especially as their role assignment changes as they age or as they face reclassification because a talented rookie is just a bit better.

In other critical analysis, we coaches, strength trainers and development coaches may also be letting players off easy. Scientific data provide examples of comparisons between ice hockey players and other high-performance athletes. Ice hockey’s performance measures fail to measure up in terms of relative and absolute strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness and even mobility. So in our attempts to compete, when we coaches ask for high-level performance capacity we don’t have a lot of horsepower to work with.

Cutting-edge sports science is pointing us to the fact that “…a good mover (with good capacity) is a good player.” And just as this precept suggests, we need to establish, practice and refine applicable basic movement and fitness skills as a priority in player development. In fact, the science tells us that as players establish basic movement skills they more efficiently and comfortably advance into less error-laden sport-specific actions. And they have the ability for more consistent, reliable and stable performance. Evidence from this body of science also suggests that when basic movement skills and coordinated or linked segmental movement abilities are nurtured – in practice and training; and when they are rehearsed and acquired foundational sport-specific skills and their tactics can become automated and adaptable. For example, complex techniques and tactics like linear and asymmetrical skating, puck control and protection and pressure checking skills display a natural quality and appear instinctive…at least to the layman’s eye.

Off ice, basic movement skills and coordinated movements and abilities can be discovered and trained using “functional strength training” routines and/or “flow-type training”. This modality of training is characterized by callisthenics exercises performed in a variety of postures and planes of movement. Don’t be fooled these exercises stress the player’s mind and body influencing proprioception while providing a significant conditioning effect. These movements build muscular strength (relative strength and power), muscular endurance, flexibility/mobility, and stability. Attention and concentration and the mental aspect of this training will also hold your athlete’s interest. Players practicing these movements and exercises report noteworthy improvements and direct application to sport-specific abilities and game performances. They report feeling better, stronger, faster and more integrated or connected on the ice.

My prescription for your players, regardless of level, is to work on as many as possible “animal walks” and to integrate functional training into your seasonal training plan. Establish training sessions that involve crawling, hopping, scrambling both forwards, sideways and backwards. These ambulations should progress to movements that include accelerations and decelerations and varied terrains and elevations as progressions to this already difficult training. Also, seek movement challenges that stress and work on balance, stability and dealing with unbalanced forces. These activities will create the need to roll, tumble, glide, stabilize, rotate and even jump. And don’t forget to provide environments for your players to become comfortable with falling and recovery. Re-establishing fully balanced and ideal athletic postures and understanding the centre of balance/mass are takeaways that will pay dividends on the ice. Please note that these activities can be trained off the ice and then re-established on ice.

Plan for time in practice for players to develop and train agility, balance, stability and the coordinated use of the above-noted abilities. Basic movement training should also include pushing, pulling, loading and unloading (bilateral emphasis and unilateral emphasis) training. Opportunities to brace, lean and couple can be found in many compete-type drills and/or in many small area games. The outcome…application, in multiple game situations (offence and defence) like when competing for pucks, checking and creating time, space and scoring chances.

This physical literacy is best acquired or learned by players when it is implicitly learned and (seemingly) spontaneously applied. For example in a small area even-strength low corner 3v2 or 4v3 game; because of the limited space, players must find methods to use their bodies to protect the puck. These provided practice situations include the use of static and dynamic balance and advanced methods of recovery from unbalancing forces. Picture when offensive players encounter collisions, body contact and checking in these simulations. Not to mention the multitude of skating and puck skills tactically applied in a simple game.

So-called “donor sports” can also be utilized by coaches to establish basic movement skills for ice hockey. These sports should not be underestimated because of the demand they place on participants. For example, in combative sports like judo and wrestling, the requirement to deal with internal and external loads and the need to use techniques like guarding, close contact and movement in relation to others can be taken and applied to hockey. In addition, tactics including leading (creative/offensive actions) and in reaction (reactive/defensive actions) are also valuable teachables for ice hockey. The opportunity to discover and then apply these skills to hockey is immense and the advantage for application to individual, group and team tactics is profound.

Explore and plan for the use of these modern methods of teaching and coaching for when we can get back into rinks and gyms with players. Apply them frequently throughout the season. You and your athletes’ benefit is assured.

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