Three rows from the glass, on your leather couch, or in your favourite sports bars is where you watch your team play their rivals and your favourite players perform at the highest levels. What you don’t see is the time and preparation those same players put in off-ice and just a few meters inside that tunnel where young kids are yelling for pucks and autographs. Behind closed doors and before the clear tape hits the shin pads is where athletes of all levels get their body primed and ready to compete before every game day.
What is Off-Ice Preparation?
Off-ice preparation simply put is a warm-up. What isn’t simple is the demands of ice-hockey and the sport in general. You have 12 players at any given time locked in a box, skating fast on hollowed steel blades on a surface with zero friction, wearing full armor, and body checking or fist fighting to get the crowd out of their seats. Hockey is not a sport for the faint of heart.
What can we take away from this? We need our players to be mobile, move efficiently in all three planes of motion, get going fast, stop fast, give a hit, and absorb a hit.
Where Do We Start?
We break it down to the basics. For us, that’s the joint by joint approach. The idea behind this is that the joints of the human body are stacked based on their role to the whole system, either for mobility or stability. In hockey we have a huge dilemma: the skate, arguably the only piece of equipment you cannot play the game without. For anyone that has never worn a skate, it is a rigid boot that locks your foot and ankle into place. This is our problem.
The body is supposed to work in unison. In the joint by joint concept the ankle is supposed to be a “mobile” joint, but locked into place by a hockey skate it is now a “stable” joint. Seemingly not a big problem for the average person, but for high level hockey players, this becomes a great one. The body starts to look for mobility in other areas, usually the joint above: the knee. So now your knees are doing double duty because of your skates.
But wait, there is more. The joint above the knee is another trouble area for hockey players: the hips. The hips, in this model, are also supposed to be a “mobile” joint, but with the demands of the sport and the unnatural motion of the skating stride, they are for the most part “stable” or restricted. If you didn’t feel bad for the knees of your favorite hockey player before, you should now. Their knees are now taking the brunt of the work for their locked-up ankle and hips. This is where we start out with off-ice preparation.
Mobilize and Activate
Now that we know where to start, we get after it. Our off-ice preparation starts with mobilizing these “stuck” structures to try and give our “stable” joints a breather; we target our rigid ankles, tight hips, locked middle back, and all the soft tissue around them causing the problems. We commonly use lacrosse balls and foam rollers to work directly on the soft tissue. We will also use “mobility peanuts” and power bands to open some joint space, help guide joint accessory movements, and decompress and mobilize boney structures and deeper tissues.
Once we gain some range of motion (ROM) and joint freedom we have to lock it in.
ROM > Strength = Injury
ROM < Strength = Injury
ROM = Strength = decreased Injury
Too much of a good thing, can be bad. This is where we grab our mini bands, sliders, power bands, and weights and start activating the muscles around the joints we just opened-up. We freed up all this real estate in our joints, now we must teach our brain to use it and control it. For example, we would do a band distracted pigeon, groin stretch, and then do some mini band and slider work in all three planes of movement to lock in the ROM we just gained.
Now we move on to our core activation work to bring it all together. Here we focus on anti-rotation and anti-extension to help our players “give a hit and take a hit” or produce and absorb force.
Now Let’s Get Moving
Everyone is moving better and muscles are firing, so what’s next? This is our opportunity to get moving, increase our core temperature and turn on our nervous system for game-time. Get the brain and the body working together; it’s dynamic warm-up time.
Just like our mobility and activation preparation we are starting with the basics. In ice-hockey you perform in all three planes of motion: the sagittal (forward and backwards), the frontal (lateral movement) and the transverse plane (rotational movements), so we warm up in all three planes too.
We get started with your typical dynamic warm up or stretching through movement. Working on lower body flexibility in all planes, while incorporating upper body rotation and balance drills through movement. Just like anything in life, start slow and speed it up. Everyone loves to jump, but landing is just as crucial. This is what we work on next. Like I said before hockey players need to be able to stop fast too.
Now we prime our players to “absorb” force through plyometrics. We introduce multi-planar (moving in multiple planes of motion) variations of plyometrics but the emphasis is on “sticking” the landing and pausing before they jump again.
Now that we know the brakes are working, we can start bounding and really start waking up our nervous system. Here we incorporate continuous bounding variations in all three planes to mimic their on-ice push-off and recovery-phase of the skating stride. Bounding gets their bodies primed and ready to absorb and create force quickly, which translates to being that much faster on the ice.
We have to be done now right? In the change room ready to hit the ice. But our last step is to bring it all together and really lock it down with some sprint variations. We’ve put air in our tires, checked the brakes, put premium gas in the car, and now we have to see how it runs. Our focus here is acceleration and deceleration. Getting up to speed fast and slowing down fast. We will go through a group of different sprint variations in all three planes of movement. For example, starting from a low split squat, crossing over, and going right into a sprint or lateral bound and transitioning into a sprint. We take three or four fast strides to build up speed and then hit the brakes, to really fire up our nervous systems for our 60-minute bout with the other team.
The Whole Picture
Your body works as one large system, from your big toe to your head. Everything is connected.
Just like anything, preparing for your sport starts with the basics. Knowing what you do on the field/ice and understanding your sport is the first step. Building your preparation routine from there is the easy part. Listen to your body and work where you’re restricted, but also let your body know it’s safe to be there and add some strength to it. Move in all directions like your body was meant to move. Remember, you need to crawl and land before you jump or sprint. Move fast and stop deliberately. And once you’re done all that, go and get the W.