Age appropriate off-ice activities can help a child to grow and develop their on-ice skills but knowing the right skills to teach and train is the name of the game. It is important for coaches and parents to gain an understanding of how children learn and how sports skills will relate to their interpersonal life skills. These strategies are often based on how adults learn and train but is that the right teaching mechanism for our youth?
Mark Fitzgerald is the owner of Elite Training Systems in Whitby and has been in the field of strength and conditioning for over 10 years. He is the training and nutritional consultant for the Ontario Hockey League, head of the Canadian Hockey League combines and lead training consultant for Under Armour Canada. This year will be his second season as strength and conditioning coach with the Anaheim Ducks.
According to Fitzgerald, the right combination of physical and mental maturity needs to be present before an athlete can consider participating in serious off-ice training. Players should have the necessary focus to realize why they are in the gym and know that it is work first and fun second.
Fitzgerald also recommends that players are active in more than one sport. The benefits of learning skills from other activities that transfer to hockey help build a more complete athlete.
“I don’t know a better sport than a sport like basketball. That’s going to help with jumping, sprinting, hand-eye coordination, conditioning for hockey,” said Fitzgerald. “Lacrosse, another good one. There’s a lot of examples of pro hockey players who played lacrosse at a high level. Hand-eye coordination, conditioning, body awareness, the ability to elude people, that is a direct transfer to ice hockey.”
The OMHA Players Club offers the 30/30 Challenge which features two age-appropriate programs to build agility, balance and coordination. This program was created as a development opportunity for hockey players to develop physical literacy skills and introduce them to an age-appropriate at-home dryland program.
There can be a misunderstanding when it comes to the idea of playing other sports. Fitzgerald says something as simple as setting up a basketball net in the driveway can serve its purpose to build movement skills and signing up for a league or team isn’t required.
“Better athletes make better hockey players. Does that mean they’re in a strength and conditioning program? It could very well be. It could also mean that they’re just athletically active. They play basketball at school, they play pickup ultimate Frisbee in the park. They play football, they play lacrosse in the summer time.”
It all comes back to the dangers of specializing in one sport too early. Using different muscles during different activities can help prevent over-use injuries and builds a strong overall core.
“(Specialization) is detrimental activity to their overall development, which is unfortunate because they eventually peter out and either injuries come in to play or mental fatigue comes into play because there’s no real break.”
Fitzgerald can sum up off-ice training in a simple message and urges coaches and parents to adjust their expectations.
“Training is a journey… it’s not one summer. It’s years.”
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