What We’re Doing this Summer with Our Hockey Player and Why

Yesterday, I volunteered at my old high school to instruct some PE classes. Then I went to the gym and instructed our elite hockey players.

In both situations, I found myself explaining the same thing: cardio and interval training does not improve strength & power.

I found this odd. In my mind, it is ridiculously obvious that fatiguing your body is not the best way to increase speed and power. But obviously there is a disconnect between what I think is obvious, and what a younger generation thinks is obvious. This post is to address that disconnect:

The Path

In my mind, I have constructed a logic chain on how to develop strength and power that looks something like this:

  1. Teach athletes to move with proper movement patterns. These proper movement patterns should:
  2. Teach the athlete to be able to handle more load with proper movement patterns
  3. Teach athletes to move loads at higher speed, maintaining correct movement patterns
  4. Develop an athlete’s capacity to handle high loads, at high speed, while under fatigue

I find that athletes and parents associate fatigue, intensity and volume with workout value. Here’s the thing: anybody who can yell at athletes is capable of making people fatigued and sweaty. And yes, there is a chance that said person is going to develop the strength and power of their athlete. If they are really lucky, they’ll inherit an athlete with great movement mechanics and great work capacity, and that athlete will respond to that training, and will then go on to do well in fitness testing…thus “proving” the efficacy of the fatiguing, high intensity workout. The huge problem with this (and I know, because I’ve previously been the coach to prescribe high-intensity, fatiguing workout after high-intensity, fatiguing workout), is that the players who don’t move well and are not able to adapt to the increased workload, well, they get left behind. They just “aren’t working as hard as those other guys”.

If we go back and look at point #1 (Teach athletes to move with proper movement patterns), there is a new challenge for coaches with today’s athletes. I have noticed that there are less and less multi-sport, natural athletes. As a result, I’m inheriting athletes who might be excellent hockey players, but lack BASIC HUMAN MOVEMENT. The main problems I see with young hockey players is that their hips are so tight, that they have to their knees and spine to generate their movement. Of course, the hips are capable of generating much more power than both the knee joint and the spinal muscles combined, so players with tight hips are leaving a lot of strength and power generation on the table if they are not correctly moving their hips. And simply put, we cannot train the athletes to properly move their hips if they do not have the mobility to do so.

Someone might tell me that by doing squats, deadlifts and lunges you can fix this problem. I’d agree, but only if the athletes are doing squats, deadlifts and lunges like they are meant to be performed by the body. Again, the tight hips often prevent squats, deadlifts and lunges from being performed properly, so the body learns and reinforces sloppy movement mechanics. Under fatigue, this problem gets even worse because the body is already not using its most effective and efficient muscles, so now those muscles start failing and recruiting even less effective and efficient muscles.

For me, I cannot in any sort of good faith condone or prescribe consistent workouts that do not first address movement quality. I believe it would be negligent of me to do so. Of course, I do not believe that athletes should not be placed in challenging and fatiguing situations to prepare them for camps. But this type of work should be done with conscious attention towards minimizing risk, and it does not need to be done all the time. Furthermore, I of course believe in developing a high aerobic and anaerobic capacity in our athletes, but there are more effective ways of improving that specific capacity than running them into the ground every day.

Measurement and Value

Like I mentioned, fatigue is often associated with the value of a workout. Let’s please change that.

I can understand that void of any other metric, valuing a workout by the amount of fatigue it generates is a very reasonable thing to do. And I can also imagine that if a trainer is not actually wanting to put a lot of thought into how their workouts make on ice contributions, then they’ll want you to think that fatigue is a useful value measuring stick.

What metrics actually matter? Some will say that a strength and conditioning coach should only worry about the fitness variables they can effect. So they will tell you they have improved the athlete if they improved their squat weight, their bench weight, their clean weight, their broad jump, and some measure of aerobic capacity. Others use those metrics as well, but also consider their role to be to help the athlete in their sport. They may take a bit of emphasis off of the bench, squat, clean, jump and VO2, and spend a bit more time and effort trying to translate or transfer the skills to the sport.

I fall into the second camp. Not radically so. I believe that improvements in athletic movement principles (needed for hockey) will manifest themselves in improved lifts, jumps, sprints, and aerobic tests. Therefore, those tests may provide an indicator as a proxy for improved sport performance. The reason that I fall into the second camp is because I am in (what I think is) a fairly unique position of having almost amassed my 10,000 coaching hours (I’ve been coaching for about the last 9 years consistently) and also having amassed my 10,000 hockey playing hours, meanwhile I’ve studied Kinesiology. Because I am also continuing to play while doing all this, I’d say that I am very in touch with the process of what it takes to get better. I’ve made committed almost every mistake by enthusiastically following every person who has a claim that they can help improve my game. I have ruthlessly thrown aside any and every method that does not provide immediate and lasting results. I’m also 100% in touch with the demands of the athlete, and the psychology of the athlete. So I remember the days when I crushed a fatiguing workout, went to the farm to work and pushed a lawn mower and carried a weed whacker and didn’t have time or energy to develop my skills. I remember dropping 400lbs on my back in a back squat with incorrectly adjusted spot arms and no spotter. I remember lunging around my backyard with a friend (who never worked out with me again), for 2 hours, and then not being able to walk for a week (my mom literally carried me up and down the stairs…embarrassing for a 12 year old).

After almost 20 years of hockey, I’ve realized that the most valuable physical skills I learned were actually very different than what a strength & conditioning coach might suggest. They are:

  • Not to tense up in pressure situations.
  • Not to “try” too hard. Give 100% intensity instead.
  • Not to tense muscles that are not immediately involved in performing the skill.
  • Generate and receive contact through the core.
  • Learn to generate elasticity through the core on shots and passes.
  • Don’t bend your knees too much, use your hips to generate power.
  • Under fatigue, stay calm, breathe deeply.
  • Correct posture (shoulders, pelvic alignment, ribcage alignment) matters as much to physical performance as it does to psychological performance.

All of these things are movement quality related. They were sprinkled throughout my career, with many of them only coming into crystal clear focus very recently. Disappointing, then, that all the fatiguing workouts I did never taught me those things. Some I learned when I used to play the violin, others I learned through martial arts, golf and soccer. A few teammates have given me pointers on others. The rest I learned by researching information  from the best minds in sports and strength and conditioning.

Of course, I’m now also blessed with great aerobic capacity, strength and power. While these occurred as a result of my training, I still believe that my training was not the most efficient way of improving all of those things. For example, I learned that I didn’t actually need to lift as much volume as I thought I did. I also wish I had adopted a different running style when I was back racing, as that would have made running so much more enjoyable. In any case, all of this was a valuable learning experience because I can now do a lot more with a lot less time and energy.

So what are we doing this summer? We are trying to boil down 20 years of my enthusiastic pursuit of excellence through training into one summer. We are drawing the straightest line through the sand. I’m hoping it can help everyone we are training get better faster.

Principles before Plays – My Philosophy of Learning, Teaching, Coaching

Specific plays, memorization for studying, adopting fads, copying people… these all have one thing in common, and I think it holds most people back.
In Joshua Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning”, he describes making smaller and smaller circles. This means that he would rather learn one skill deeply to internalize its principles, rather than learn many skills just to show off. Bruce Lee also said, “I fear not the man who practived 10,000 kicks, I fear the man who practiced 1 kick 10,000 times.” The idea behind these statements is that understanding principles trumps other types of learning.
My first foray into principles based learning was in my second semester of my second year at UBC. My first year, I followed my high school dogma that most of my fellow students also seemed to be following: memorize everything! The question always was: how am I supposed to know everything in this textbook for the final?? However the word “know” is most often thought of as “memorize”, so most students are really asking: how am I supposed to memorize everything in this textbook for the final. That semester, I took an economics course from a professor who was known to have very challenging exams. His exams were abstract, and he’d ask questions like, “Joe believes in the Sun God. Explain why Joe should not believe in the Sun God.” Then, he would provide a whole page for an answer. This proved very troublesome for a student who had memorized terms and graphs in order to study for the test. That was, until I went to look at an old midterm to see how it was marked. What I learned that day changed my approach to education and life.
The way that those questions were marked, was by checking to see if the student had written down three principles. The prof called them “Brainwave Principles”. That’s it. Three principles. No page long ramblings…three simple principles. A student only had to write three lines to get full marks on a ten mark question.
I then realized, that he had 12 “Brainwave Principles” in his textbook, and that you could answer every question by applying those 12 principles. If I truly understood those 12 principles, I understood the whole book. I tested this on my next exam in his class and aced it. Specifically, I knew what Principle applied to what question, and I was able to explain that in my answer.
My second brush with principles based learning was after listening to this Ted Talk with Elon Musk. In it, he talks about using First Principles based reasoning to come up with his ideas for business. He said that reasoning by analogy is just like copying everyone else. But when you copy everyone else, you follow their same thought pattern and therefore see limitations where they see limitations. By instead boiling everything down to first principles, Elon claims that he has been able to see the problem from a completely different perspective and is therefore able to examine if the perceived limitations of an idea are in fact true. This talk inspired me to dive deeper into the idea of First Principles reasoning.
Finally, after talking with a teammate, he mentioned how some of the really intelligent students in his program didn’t need to study for their courses, because they DERIVED their answers. They completely understand the principles behind the questions that a prof is asking, and therefore are able to piece together how to answer. In contrast, students who memorize answers to questions have trouble answering those questions if they are presented slightly differently than what they expect. They are less flexible, and their knowledge if more fragile. Meanwhile, a student who understands principles is flexible and robust because they can answer any iteration of a question testing their knowledge of a principles.
I then purposefully aimed to make my studying more principles based. The process looked something like this:
  • Understand the terminology so that I could understand the language of the concepts, the principles, and the problems
  • Aim to understand the overarching principles of the subject at hand
  • Aim to have a working knowledge of the concepts inherent within those principles
  • Enjoy my free time!
I applied this process to all of my courses. I was able to study much less…meanwhile, my marks actually went up. Why? Because I internalized the principles and it was easier for me to bring forth information in test taking scenarios. Because my knowledge represented a deep understanding of the principles on which the question was based, I could answer any type of question about that principle because all I had to do was apply it. On the other hand, memorized information was always more fragile because if I took in too much information, there was a chance it would be crowded. Also, without any sort of association, it’s fairly easy for your memorized information to go POOF in a test taking scenario. Principles based learning creates associations.
Strength & Conditioning
How this translates to strength and conditioning is just that…through translation. Coaches (myself included) often get bent out of shape over what exercise, modality, intensity, volume, etc etc, is best for training. In my eyes, it simply doesn’t matter. If we accept that the goal of strength and conditioning is to improve sport performance, then we’d also probably agree that sport performance can be improved when athletes can completely express themselves physically, in their sport, without hindrance of any kind. This usually translates to the idea of effectively and efficiently using the body in a coordinated and controlled manner to express force. To do so, the athlete should have internalized various movement principles. Things like: holding tension through the core while under load in order to stabilize the spine, mobile joints should be mobile and stabilizing joints should be stabile, be able to dissociate different parts of your body smoothly, etc.. Therefore, the idea that athletes “must train this way” is absolute bogus. A coach who is saying “all athletes should squat and lift heavy”, is really probably saying that “athletes should be able generate lot’s of force into the ground, and hold tension through their core to maintain a neutral spine while doing so.” I think that there are principles of movement that athletes must master in order to perform in their sport optimally. With those in mind, I aim to find the most effective way to train those movement principles. A mistake that coaches make is that they think “these drills are good for hockey”  because it looks sport specific and then end their thinking there. If those drills do not lead to an improvement in hockey performance through skill translation, those drills are a waste of time. But if those drills lead to some sort of translation (let’s say, increased ability to generate lateral force, and increased control and power in the hips in certain movements), then those drills are useful. The key is translation of athletic/movement principles, not mimicry of sport movement in non-sport contexts.
The strength coach should therefore understand what movement principles their athletes can develop that will translate to their performance. Then the strength coach should explore the best way to instruct and implement those principles into an athletes training program. Instructing exercises for the sake of instructing exercises, or improving numbers on lifts for the sake of improving numbers of lifts is absolutely useless unless an athlete can translate a skill or ability to generate force to their sport. So improving a squat does nothing for the athlete unless it now allows the athlete to learn to hold more tension in their core to keep themselves stable and put more force into the ground. If the athlete has increased their squat weight without actually improving in their sport, the squat was a waste of time for the athlete.
Hockey Coach
This also translates to being a hockey coach. When coaching, I’ve struggled with teaching plays to my players because I found that those plays would often fall apart when the players entered a game. If I’m particularly good at constructing clever players, and if the players are good enough to execute them, I may get a quick win. But as soon as another team figures out those plays, if all the players have previously relied upon was the plays, they are now standing on one leg. If instead, the players are taught principles, the players can adapt their play to the situation that meets them. Like a student who has internalized principles of a subject versus memorization, the player who has internalized important principles in hockey is more flexible and robust to any situation. This creates an empowered player and team who have the trust of the coach to solve their own problems.
The coach should aim to teach principles that will lead to the biggest effect in a team’s game. I do not think that chipping the puck out, or dumping and forechecking are good concepts to be preaching. Both of those concepts teach the principle of chasing. I think that passing and possession are principles that coaches should be aiming to teach. If I teach the principles of passing, support, and creating triangles, then if a specific play isn’t working, but the players are flexible in finding their solutions, the players are more adaptable, and the team is more likely to succeed.
Ideally a coach would ask themselves what principles they should teach in order to get a desired outcome. Not, what play or action should they teach. For example, a coach struggling with the breakout could either: a) tell their players not to make turnovers and to chip the puck out or b) teach their players principles of making plays to exit the zone. Similarly, a hockey player struggling with stick handling can: a) try to pick apart each aspect of their stick handling that they are deficient in and try to train each piece or b) figure out the principles of puck control on a deeper level – for example, posture and relaxation. A student should look at the principles and concepts taught my their teacher and aim to understand them completely rather than memorize every word in the book.
I’m aiming to improve my ability to use principles based learning, teaching and coaching. I hope this has inspired you to do the same.

Hacking Movement Quality, Expert Performers and What You Need to Know to Move Like Them

One pattern that has stood out to me recently is related to the idea of movement quality. The term gets thrown around a lot, but how exactly is “movement quality” exploited by expert performers? How can a skills coach teach better skills? How can a strength and conditioning coach have gym “movement quality” transfer to performance?

One answer is: teach the “proximal to distal gradient”

WTF is the “proximal to distal gradient”?

Continue reading Hacking Movement Quality, Expert Performers and What You Need to Know to Move Like Them

Sequencing: Your Hack for Rapid Improvement

This article is about how I got 400% better at golf in 2 hours.

It’s also about “sequencing”, and why sequencing can hack your learning rate.

In previous articles, I’ve already outlined that the most important variable for success is your RATE of improvement, and that the best coaches give feedback on HOW, not just WHAT. Sequencing is a powerful tool to increase your RATE of your improvement, and also for coaches who are concerned with coaching the “how”.

Continue reading Sequencing: Your Hack for Rapid Improvement

Why you need to do unnatural things

The term “natural” gets thrown around all the time. It has many different contexts and meanings. One thing that has struck me recently is that people aren’t willing to do stuff to fix or optimize their bodies. I could speculate on the various reasons as to why. But, one thought struck me: people don’t realize that our environment, culture, and society are not set up to optimize their body and performance.

Let’s look at sitting as an example. To examine sitting, let’s look at why it is unnatural, how our environment/culture/society exacerbates this, how it affects us, and how to fix it.

Why: Our bodies are not designed to sit. In fact, they are designed to either move, squat low (ass to grass), or lay down. Sitting requires that our hip flexors are engaged while in a semi-lengthened state. Lot’s of sitting also causes compression of the lumbar spine, turning the glutes off, tightening hip flexors, and jamming your femur into the front of your hip socket.

How: In our society, for most jobs, travelling and most of our education, we sit! Unless we do something active as a job, most of our day is spent sitting.

Effect: Tight hip flexors can turn off the glutes, lead to lower back pain, hip pain, hip movement asymmetries. Lumbar spine compression can cause back pain and core dysfunction. Femurs jammed forward in hip sockets can interact with or cause the tight hip flexors, and then lead to all the same issues of tight hip flexors, thereby preventing full hip extension and flexion.

How to fix: Putting your spine into extension through the Mackenzie Push-Up, using the Egoscue method to reset your hip flexor tension, trigger point your glutes and hip flexors, stretch your hip flexors.

To undo the damage of doing something unnatural for your body (sitting), you need to do seemingly unnatural things (in terms of what our culture/society considers natural) to reverse the damage (trigger point, stretching, therapy). 

Let’s look at some other unnatural stuff in our lives here in the western world and seemingly “unnatural” fixes for them:

  • Distractions (phones, media, social media) and meditation/mindfulness
  • Shoes and foot exercises
  • Lights and sleep hygiene
  • Shitty quality food and supplements
  • Sedentary lifestyle and the need for crossfit or “exercise programs”
  • Desk jobs and shoulder mobilization exercises

Your life is full of unnatural things, conventions, and demands. I hope you’ll consider that with all this unnatural (for your body) stuff in your environment, you’ve gotta do some unnatural (for society/culture) stuff to fix it!

Play 1on1’s like an NHL Defenseman – Gap Control

I want to write this article for players at about the Bantam and Midget level who want to improve their defensive 1on1 play off of rushes. I have noticed that players at this level struggle with setting and reducing their gap against forwards effectively. Not being far removed from Bantam and Midget myself, I remember well the learning steps I have gone through recently, specifically watching and learning from NHL defensemen that I’ve had the opportunity to skate with.

Continue reading Play 1on1’s like an NHL Defenseman – Gap Control