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Off-Ice: The New Pre- and Post-Performance Imperative

By Mike Doyle, 09/07/16, 11:15AM MDT

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USA Hockey’s American Development Model practice plans are meant to maximize the amount of skill development time during on-ice sessions. However, a child’s athletic development shouldn’t be limited to the time spent on the ice.

For many coaches and parents, the idea of developing young hockey players begins and ends with on-ice practice. Mark Tabrum, director of USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program, believes that in order to make the best players, we must first make the best athletes. This includes age-specific, off-ice training. For many, this might represent an overhaul in traditional hockey training.

“In our culture, parents drop their child off 30 minutes before practice (at most),” Tabrum said. “They have their one-hour practice, and within 10, 15 minutes, kids are gone and out the door.”

Redefining “Hockey Practice”

At minimum, a dynamic warmup before hitting the ice and cool-down stretch after can be implemented at any age. In order to truly develop the best possible players, Tabrum thinks coaches, parents and players have to change their outlook towards the meaning of “hockey practice.” In order to get the best out of young athletes, he suggests making age-appropriate, off-ice training a part of a team’s practice plan – before hitting the ice.

“They’re not getting that physical literacy when they’re younger,” Tabrum said.

Physical literacy is the development of fundamental movement and sport skills. With budgets tightening in schools, funds that were once dedicated to physical education programs are getting cut. Formerly, kids would get fundamental sports development at school. Without the opportunity for children to build fundamental physical skills, they’re less likely to hit their full athletic potential later in life.

Tabrum saw the effects firsthand.

“At the beginning of the year, teams will get together at somebody’s house and have a barbecue so parents and kids get to know one another,” Tabrum said. “Because the weather is nice, [kids will] throw a football or a Frisbee – they’re doing these active things. Then you watch them and you realize they can’t throw or catch a ball. They haven’t developed those muscle groups or developed those skills.

“That’s where I noticed it big time.”

Specialization Inhibits Athleticism

A big culprit to the lag in overall athleticism is sports specialization – especially in hockey. Narrowing the scope at a young age hinders athleticism rather than building it.

“We need to develop the overall athlete,” Tabrum said. “How many three- or four-sport athletes [in high school] do you see? You don’t. It’s rare that you get a two-sport athlete because we’re specializing at an earlier age. Those kids aren’t developing the rest of their bodies and other muscle groups. Are they really becoming the best athletes they can be? The answer is no.”

Raising Athletes

Whether hockey coaches are prepared for it not, developing an overall athlete may fall on their shoulders. The mindset of training athletes, not just hockey players, might be outside of their comfort zone. But just like a coach utilizes over-speed training for players, they too need to embrace pushing themselves. For Tabrum, molding hockey players becomes secondary to raising athletes.

To enact real change is not easy. It is a labor of love. But in the end, putting our children in the best possible position to succeed is worth it.

“We’re in such a hurry to get to the wrong finish line; we’re worried about that 8- or 10-and-Under championship,” Tabrum said. “Does that really matter? Where will the player be when they’re 18 or 20? Let’s re-structure our development structure to focus on that finish line instead, because that’s when it really counts.” 

USA Hockey has an array of age-specific, off-ice training tools online and on its award-winning Mobile Coach App. It’s never been easier to pass on and gain knowledge. However, it is up to people at local associations to implement the mindset shift.

“It’s at the grassroots level that those changes need to be made,” Tabrum said. “If we’re changing the way we do business and we can change that one aspect – adding off-ice training – I think we’ll see noticeable gains in the very near future.”

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