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Hockey Sense - the great equalizer

By Ontario Minor Hockey Association, 11/19/15, 2:00PM EST

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When should you get serious about training the hockey brain?

“Hockey sense” is often considered a “great equalizer” in the sense that small players, or those who might be less physically gifted can make up ground by having great brains for the game. 

In the context of NHL future stars, Sam Reinhart is an oft-cited example of this phenomenon. The hockey sense players like Reinhart possess has typically been considered “innate.” 

Increasingly, however, the belief that Hockey I.Q. is trainable and can be developed is gaining traction. This is true even at youth levels. 

How young is too young to train the brain?

Hockey players, even at the Pee Wee level, are at the age where they are developing the cognitive ability to read situations, react to the play and make decisions on the ice. This is the age where the mental capabilities of the players are beginning to catch up to their physical abilities.

This matters immensely from a development perspective. It is incumbent upon coaches to ensure that proper aspects of younger players’ development are addressed at the appropriate times. Only this way will kids reach their full potential.

In other words, maximum hockey development occurs through age-appropriate structure and content. 

On ice drills to hone hockey sense

On ice, this can occur through small area games. These are perfectly appropriate for kids at the Pee Wee level. In these drills, players are forced to make a high number of quick decisions in a short amount of time and space. 

“With less time and space, Small area games require players to make quicker decisions. They provide a perfect opportunity to re-enforce skills and tactics taught in practice, in game-like situations. On top of all of that, players love the competition!” said Ian Taylor, Director of Development at the Ontario Minor Hockey Association.

What else can be done to train the brains of younger hockey players?

Off the ice, hockey sense can also be honed. There are several advantage to off ice cognitive training:

  • Off ice cognitive training is not limited by or subject to schedules and available ice time 
  • Likewise it is not limited by the opportunities presented to the player by coach, team and luck
  • It is tailored and optimized for the user 
  • It is much more condensed and requires far less time than on ice training

Regarding the efficacy of off ice cognitive training there’s proof in the proverbial pudding.  Hockey IntelliGym – a software-based cognitive training tool designed to create read-and-react scenarios that enhance on-ice decision-making – has been used by USA Hockey highly successful National Team Development Program, a host of CHL clubs and a number of active NHLers. The good news is, as with small area game, young kids can really benefit from this type of training. But when?

“By age 12, kids have sampled many activities and have a greater sense of what they like. This is not to suggest they should specialize in one sport - merely that there is a tendency to narrow focus from many to a few activities around age 12. This period is the optimal to begin cognitive training - a point supported by the fact that the skills of perception and awareness develop throughout childhood and seem to stabilize around the ages of 12-13.” said Dror Livnat, President of Applied Cognitive Engineering, who make the Hockey IntelliGym. 

For parents and coaches looking to give their young players an edge, working on the cognitive sides of the game may be the best way to get a leg up on the competition. Whether on ice or off ice honing hockey sense can be a major difference maker - even at the Pee Wee level.

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