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The Big 3: How to improve skating and reduce injuries

By Dave Pond, 10/15/18, 8:45AM MDT

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Tips from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program's Skating Coach

As the action heats up in rinks around the country, so does the risk of injury as players hit the ice with hopes of scoring the game-winner, capturing a championship, stopping pucks in the net, or just having some fun with friends.

Unfortunately, the rate of injury increases for those new to competitive hockey.

“The majority of beginners’ injuries stem from a lack of balance,” said Carrie Keil, skating coach for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. “Players who skate too upright with straight legs are going to fall hard.”

Having coached skaters for almost 40 years, Keil offered some tips to improve skating skills while reducing your chances of injury.

“Like all human movement, skating well is all about understanding the laws of physics as they apply to movement on a frictionless surface like ice,” Keil said. “The ‘big three,’ as I like to call them, are deep knee and hip flexion, keeping your head and chest up, and correct arm movement.”

So, when trying to increase speed and power on the ice, it all boils down to biomechanics. Here are a few drills Keil recommends to improve your game this year:

Deep knee/hip flexion

This is the most important aspect of being a good skater, Keil says. The deep knee bend seems to be the hardest thing for adults to work on, but bending the knees actually gives you a longer stride, which equals more speed.

It also means that your center of gravity is closer to the ice, which significantly increases your balance and stability. That means less falls, and it makes you harder to take off the puck.

Squat and glide

  • From the goal line, begin skating to generate speed.
  • When you reach the closest blue line, try to hold a squat until you reach the far blue line. Go as low as you can – ideally, your butt should be only a few inches off of the ice.
  • Repeat while skating backward – it’s actually easier!

Russian knee

  • From the goal line, begin skating to generate speed.
  • When you reach the closest blue line, alternate knee taps on the ice until you reach the other blue line. The idea is to be able to switch back and forth between your right and left knee without having to stand up between taps.

Crossover knee touch

  • While performing crossovers around the circle, tap your inside knee down every few crossovers, maybe three or four times during each lap. This will require core strength as well as flexibility.  
  • For an advanced exercise, complete this drill with a puck on your stick.

Head and chest up

Having your upper body properly aligned over your hips and skates is crucial for speed generation and balance, says Keil. Basically we’re talking about core strength here – sure, most beginning skaters lean forward way too much because they don't bend their knees enough, but an overlooked part of the reason is that adult hockey players often lack core strength, which comes from all the muscles from the hips to the shoulders, front and back. A six-pack will only get you so far.

Pivoting 

  • Whether you’re going from forward to backward or backward to forward, pivoting requires you to engage your core in order to handle the rotational forces involved in turning.
  • Beginners can practice pivoting on two feet, while more experienced skaters can practice pivoting using a mohawk (the ‘2 and 10’ style).  
  • Advanced skaters can try performing consecutive pivots around the circles, where you’re only on one foot at any given moment.

Stick jump

  • Spread some hockey sticks out across the ice approximately 10-15 feet apart.  
  • Begin skating to generate speed, then see if you can perform a two-foot hop over each stick. This will require that you bend your knees to jump and bend them to land. If you fail to bend your knees when you land, you’re almost guaranteed to fall.

Lateral walk/jog

  • Try walking laterally down the blue line by crossing one foot over the other until you’ve reached the opposite side of the rink.
  • As you become more comfortable with this drill, speed up so that you’re jogging laterally.

Correct arm movement

Most beginner skaters tend to swing their arms from side to side. Not only does this not help you generate speed, it also doesn’t allow you to keep the blade of your stick in contact with the ice when you’re skating. These drills can help you learn to move your arms forward and backward, like a sprinter.

One-leg/arm thrusts

  • Start on the goal line with your left arm forward and your right arm back.  
  • Push with your right leg and simultaneously drive your right arm forward and your left arm back. Skate the length of the rink while keeping your stick on the ice at all times.  
  • Repeat using your left leg to push while driving your left arm forward and your right arm back.

Toy soldier shuffle

  • Take advantage of the frictionless nature of ice by standing in one spot and scissoring your feet back and forth.
  • If you relax your arms, they’ll naturally start to swing forward and back. This is how your arms already move when you walk and run, so make sure they do this when you skate.

Advanced lateral push

  • Start on one blue line facing the bench (or bleachers). Put your left arm in front and your right arm in back (as you did in the one-leg/arm thrusts drill).  
  • Using your right leg, drive This means sliding (like a hockey stop) on your left foot, making sure that your right arm swings forward and your left arm swings back.  
  • Repeat all the way to the far blue line, then return to where you started. This time, driving with the left leg, sliding on the right, and swinging your left arm forward.

Keil also recommends working out one or two times a week and focusing on functional strength training. This includes a combination of stretching, weight lifting and body-weight exercises, where the focus is on overall body strengthening – head-to-toe, left-to-right, upper body-to-lower body, and front-to-back. 

“Workouts that leave no stone unturned are your best friend when it comes to injury prevention,” Keil said.

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