As a member of an esteemed hockey family, Ben Eaves learned early on how important hard work and attention to detail can be when it comes to skill development and taking your game to the next level.
That experience helped Eaves as he enjoyed a prolific four years at Boston College, where he scored 53 goals and won an NCAA national title, as well as guided him through a nine-year professional hockey career.
Following his playing days, Eaves transitioned to coaching with a special focus on player development, recently serving as the human performance and wellness coach at Miami University and the head strength and conditioning coach and assistant hockey coach at St. Olaf College prior to that. This past season, he was the assistant hockey director and 18U head coach for the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets.
Eaves shared his thoughts on athlete development and the importance of players working just as hard off the ice as they do on it.
USA Hockey: What are some of the benefits of dryland training in hockey?
Ben Eaves: It’s all about physical literacy and teaching athletes how to move, accelerate, decelerate, control their bodies and learn how they can produce and absorb force. Even at younger ages, to do things like sprint, jump and squat is so important. The biggest factor might be injury prevention and making sure they are as strong at the end of the season as they were at the start.
USA Hockey: Are there any areas athletes can improve more rapidly because of the addition of off-ice training?
Ben Eaves: There’s a long list, but everything starts with relative and absolute strength. It’s the foundation through which everything else happens. If they don’t have strength to take a body check or win a puck battle, then their game suffers. Then there’s balance, coordination and the ability to produce power in small amounts of time.
USA Hockey: Clearly building strength is important for athletes. But what can younger players do when lifting weights may not be appropriate?
Ben Eaves: First, when trying to build strength, you want to make sure movements are sound. If there’s a faulty movement pattern you have to address that. Everything starts with body weight. When I was 13, we were doing overhead squats, hang cleans with a hockey stick in our hands, with no weight involved. It’s just about learning our bodies and how to produce force. Things like jumping and squats are great. The single leg squat is the king of all exercise. It translates to hockey as much as anything we do in the weight room. At some point, however, body weight won’t be enough of a stimulus for them. It could be anywhere from 12- or 14-years-old, where they’ll need to get a bar into their reps, or some dumbbells. Not a max strength type effort, but enough to feel some burn after it.
USA Hockey: What is a good way for players to improve their speed?
Ben Eaves: A lot of speed is derived from strength, producing force from the ground. There are different kinds of bounds, short sprints and simple explosive movements they can do. There’s a direct correlation between sprint speed and on-ice speed. Players can do a slow progression that can grow as years go on. It’s paramount to their development. That ability to accelerate will separate them from other players.
USA Hockey: How can players improve their balance?
Ben Eaves: There are exercises that transfer over that activate your core. I always enjoy doing single arm or single leg exercises. Standing on your right leg doing pulling or pushing with your left arm or diagonal swings. These are great exercises that I continue to use with younger players. On the ice you’ll find yourself in some awkward, uncomfortable positions. You have to be able to brace yourself and these exercises help a lot.
USA Hockey: What should coaches consider when putting together a dryland training plan for their team?
Ben Eaves: You always want to some kind of dynamic warm up to get the blood temp going. It could be a five-minute jog, then maybe some linear or lateral movements like high knees or lunging. After that, you’ll want to do some explosive work when the body is fresh: short accelerations, lateral bounds, jumps. Then get into your main work. You don’t need to be overly fancy, particularly in places where they might be limited to what they have to train with. As long as they’re doing some kind of push-pull or squatting motion, body weight exercises like push-ups or pull-ups, you’ve really covered your bases. Be sure to mix things up. At the younger ages, you want to keep things engaging and fun. It has to be something they look forward to doing.
USA Hockey: Should this type of off-ice training continue throughout the season or just offseason?
Ben Eaves: It’s a balance. You can continue it during the season but the volume and time spent would be minimal compared to the offseason (maybe twice a week for 25-30 minutes during the season). This is especially important at the younger ages where you may have a good hockey player but an average athlete. They can continue improving athleticism during the season which will help them on the ice as time goes on.
USA Hockey: Why is it so important for youth coaches to see the big picture in development and not just focus on wins and losses each season?
Ben Eaves: Winning and being competitive are a part of development, but we want them to
develop as players and athletes for the long-term. We can have a bigger perspective that it’s not about winning, it’s about our kids and putting them in positions to figure things out on the ice and become quality hockey players and young men and women at the same time.
USA Hockey: Do you think the American Development Model has made a strong, positive impact?
Ben Eaves: I definitely think it has. We want to engage kids as much as possible and we want the training to be age-appropriate. That means more small-area games, puck touches, increasing the number of decisions they have to make in a practice, moving more with less standing in a line waiting. We have to continue to educate and have conversations with parents and associations. Hopefully, we’ll continue to move forward because of programs like the ADM.