Over the past few years a disturbing trend has started to develop, young, developing hockey players using dryland as their only means of physical conditioning. I am not anti dryland, it does have a place and if done properly can be a valuable tool for building some aspects of hockey fitness but it can’t be the only tool. A well designed balanced program that includes strength training, aerobic training, hockey specific conditioning and dryland is the key to long term development. Dryland alone has some severe limitations that will prevent a young player form reaching their full potential.
Not Hockey Specific
Dryland is not hockey specific. If you watch a hockey dryland session and a football dryland and a baseball dryland they all look the same. In fact dryland was designed for and transfers over to field based sport performances much better than it does on ice performances. There have been studies that show improvements in on field performance tests in football and soccer following drland agility training because the exercises used are similar to movements used on the field. All the data available on hockey actually shows no improvement in on ice agility following dryland agility training because skating and running are too different.
Hockey is a speed and power sport but the structure of most dryland sessions may be making athletes slower. Most dryland sessions are set up so that the athletes are exhausted at the end, they are constantly moving for the whole session with very little rest. In many cases the parents are at fault for this because they don’t want to see the kids standing around. Humans have an innate pacing ability, when they know that they have to do something hard for a long period of time they naturally pace themselves. If an athlete knows they have to do 25 sprints they won’t go as fast as if they only have to do five. Developing speed requires maximum speed on each sprint . A couple of years ago an NHL team approached us to analyze their practices. The media had been going on about how the team was slow and needed to develop some speed. We knew from seeing the on ice sprint testing that the strength coach had done in camp that the team actually had some of the faster players in the league and on average was a much faster team than several others that the media said were faster. We shot video of the practice and analyzed it using biomechanics software to get skating speed during the different drills and then compared the practice speeds to the training camp testing speeds. At no point in the practice did the players skate at more than 80% of the peak speed. They paced themselves through the whole practice because the coach liked to run up tempo practices that tired the guys out. They learned to play slow because this is how they practiced, and they could not improve on ice speed because they never skated fast enough in practice. After adjusting the practices the team went on a winning streak and the media stated commenting on how much faster they were playing. Continuous motion dryland is only going to teach a player to pace themselves not build speed.
Elite athletes us individualized programs to address their weakness and build on their strengths to make them complete athletes. All the top NHL players hire strength coaches for personal training over the summer months. Every NHL team has a full time strength coach who is expected to individualize the programs for each player during the season. They make this investment because every athlete responds a little differently to training and has different needs depending on their age, fitness, position and role on the team. It is no different for a developing athlete, in fact it may be even more important for a developing athlete to get the individual attention.
Any good program starts with a detailed assessment of all aspects of hockey fitness and then uses that information to build the program that is specific to each athlete. Group fitness, yes dryland is group fitness, treats everyone the same way, they do the same workouts regardless of their fitness or individual needs.
Long Term Development
Development is a favourite word of hockey coaches and parents but few actually pay any attention to the principals of long term athlete development. Several years ago Sport Canada started investing money in the creation of a long term athlete development model. They brought in top experts on sport and child development from around the world. The results of this can be seen at www.ltad.ca. One of the key results of this work is that we now know that as kids grow and develop there are period s of time when different fitness qualities develop most effectively. For instance between the ages of 7-9 is period where kids are most adaptable to speed training, particularly hand and foot speed. Missing this period can affect speed later in life. Just going into the growth spurt is a period where aerobic fitness is most trainable and in the 12-18 months immediately following the growth spurt is a period where strength and muscle mass is most trainable. Dryland training alone does not and cannot address these key developmental points. Group programs don’t account for the individual maturation and development rates of each athlete in the way that an individualized program does. They are also not structured to effective develop strength and size. If an athlete is not in a proper strength program by the time they go through their growth spurt, they will have a much harder time developing the size and strength they need to play at the highest levels of hockey.
Dryland can be a valuable part of an athlete’s development but only if it is combined with an individually designed, testing based program that respect the principals of long term athlete development.