Blog Article: Everything Popular is Wrong – Skating Technique and Knee Bend

Here is yet another reference to a Tim Ferriss Concept, this one from the Four Hour Body. I continue to learn things with regards to hockey development, or my life…and I can hear one of his sayings resonating in my head from a book I read 4 years ago. “Everything popular is wrong” was ringing in my head as I realized that one of the most common skating technique cues was something that was really messing me up. Here we go…
“Bend Your Knees”
Ya, I’ll go ahead and tackle this one. I’ve taken a shot at the forward arm swing, and now I’m gonna tell you that knee bend doesn’t matter. Well actually, I’ll tell you that knee bend does matter…but more is not better.
If you go back and look at old games, you’ll very rarely see players with a deep knee bend. They may look hunched over, but that is due to hip flexion. Hip flexion is the angle between your upper leg and your torso. If you look at clips of speed skaters, you also rarely see a deep knee bend, but rather a deep level of hip flexion to allow their torso to come forward.
We got mixed up, somewhere…
The same well known power skating school that I beat up upon (but honourably leave unnamed) preaches the idea of at least a 90 degree knee bend and an upper body angle of 50 degrees. Why? I have no clue. It seems like they arbitrarily thought that both of those angles were ideal. Or maybe they did some research. Who knows, but both cues have trickled down, and many power skating coaches now use those cues.
50 degree upper body angle and 90 degree knee bend? Doesn’t look like it to me.
NHL – What works? What do we see?
Let’s take a look at Toews. This guy is absolutely nowhere near the upper body angle recommended by power skating coaches. How much knee bend does he have? Not much. What he does have is hip flexion. He hinges at the hips and sticks his butt back to maintain balance.
Crosby, Ovechkin, Kane, Benn, Tavares, Datsyuk – all have different levels of knee bend depending on their bodies. But all have good hip flexion and less knee flexion than you think.
Knee Bend? Yes! 90 degrees? No! But more importantly: hips back in hip hinge.
Force Production
By having straighter knees, and more hip flexion, the body is in a more balance position. This allows the skater to generate force more quickly from their support leg with their hip. Meanwhile, a more flexed knee needs to travel back behind the body before being able to generate forward force from the hip. With a deep knee flexion, the leg can generate force, but with the knee extensors (quadriceps). The hips (glutes) are much more powerful than the quads at generating force.
Straighter knees allows the musculature of the lower leg to be recruited earlier. For example, researchers at the fine University of British Columbia found that soleus is recruited when the knee is in a bent position and that both the soleus and gastrocnemius are recruited in an extended knee position. So having the leg straighter has the lower leg in a more advantageous force producing situation. Also, with the knees straighter, the hips have to sit back to compensate, putting them in a more advantageous force production situation. When both knees are highly flexed, in order to extend the leg behind the body, the skater either knees other wordly flexible hip flexors (which, when tight impede hip extension), or they compensate by generating force laterally or not at all. Less knee flexion allows the legs to extend more directly behind the body.
When a skater has more hip flexion and less knee flexion, they can shift their balance by subtly moving their hips forward and back. When a skater has more knee flexion, they have to use larger ankle movements to shift their balance forward and back. The ankles, being further away from the centre of the body provide less leverage and are therefore not optimal for shifting body weight, but are instead useful for locomotion. So a larger knee bend shifts the responsibility of weight shifting to the ankles, which are not ideal for the task. Meanwhile, being in hip flexion allows the responsibility of weight shifts to originate closer to the body’s centre.
I had a teammate comment that he thought I got too low and got stuck on railroad tracks too often. He was right. I thought, because I had been told, that my strength as a skater came from my knee bend. But this knee bend actually made it more difficult for me to change direction.
Why we went wrong:
Very easy for someone without expertise to do, we confuse what we think we see with what is actually going on. We see deep levels of hip flexion from a speed skater, or a skater who looks strong, and we think its knee bend, because we don’t actually know very much about hip flexion of hip hinging. We describe what we know, and we know knee bend.
Making the adjustment
If you’re buying what I’m saying, experiment with skating with less knee bend. Make sure to compensate for less knee bend by sticking your bum further back. Make sure to also keep your ribcage down when you’re skating. Don’t eliminate knee bend, but play with a more extended position. Let your hip hinge dictate your knee bend. Pay attention to the ease with which you can generate force. If you find yourself in a position that’s easier to generate force, try that position out for a bit. Also, pay attention to how your stick handling and shooting improves or doesn’t with less knee bend, more hip hinge and a bit more forward torso angle.
If you know that you already have deep knee flexion, try sticking your butt further behind you and up, keeping your spine neutral. If you know that you don’t have knee flexion and your coaches are telling you to bend them more: politely nod, ignore them, practice the hip hinge, work on sticking your butt further behind you while skating.
Hip Hinge
If a skater cannot hip hinge correctly (flex the hips while maintaining neutral spine), this whole article will not help them. The skater who cannot hip hinge should first learn how to do so before attempting to improve any other aspect of their game.
  • “Bend your knees” is not an effective cue to teach an effective skating stride. It may cause a skater to emphasize knee bend over hip hinge. Hip hinge is a primary consideration for skating speed, power and balance, and knee bend is a secondary consideration.
  • Too deep of knee flexion leads to suboptimal force production angles
  • Too deep of knee flexion leads to less balance and control while skating dynamically
  • Learning to Hip Hinge is crucial for skaters
  • Applying the Hip Hinge to the skating stride will result in more speed, balance, puck control and improved shooting
  • Do not eliminate knee bend. Rather experiment with different levels to see what works for you. More knee bend is not better!

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

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

Guest Post: LIVE your Hockey Career by Ilan Cumberbirch

The purpose of this blog is to get unfiltered, beyond the basics, REAL information to younger players who can make use of it. It was with this in mind that I’ve asked various teammates, past and present, to write some guest blog posts for me. As a young player, I constructed my knowledge of what a hockey career looks like from stories. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have access to stories of players going into college when I was PeeWee, because I didn’t know anyone doing that. If you don’t have a personal connection with someone at a different part of their hockey career than you, you really only have access to the stories your teammates tell you. I’m happy that there are more articles coming out online that provide younger players and less experienced parents with information and stories that can inform their path.

It is kind of daunting to throw your ideas out onto the world wide web for all to see and appraise, so I haven’t had any takers on the guest post, until now…

Enter Ilan Cumberbirch:


Ilan, Cumby, Cumbario, is a close friend of mine and was my teammate at UBC for my first three years as a Thunderbird. He is known for his humour, big personality, and big heart…oh and probably his hair. He has written a post on how to LIVE your hockey career. Ilan is on a similar path to my own in that he is pursuing, what for most, appears to be an unclear career path as a hockey/strength and conditioning coach. Ilan is smart, graduating from UBC with a B.Sc in Kinesiology. What I like about this post is that it incorporates stories of his own struggles and uses it to suggest solid advice to players at any point of their career. It’s also impressive that he is able to expose himself with confidence and candor, while maintaining his humour and charm.

Thanks to Ilan, Enjoy!

LIVE your Hockey Career

I am currently sitting at my living room table in Geleen, Netherlands, listening to a Tim Ferris podcast, baking a sweet potatoe for my pregame meal, and contemplating how to begin my first ever blog post.

I’ve been toying with this since Jason asked me a couple weeks ago, contemplating how to approach it, from what perspective will be most relative for the reader, and how my life in hockey can be of some sort of literary stimulation and (hopefully) entertainment to you the reader…. Much like my hockey career; I’m diving in head first, unknowing what the outcome may be or how it will conclude.

My position in the game of hockey has been relatively diverse. Since the age of 5 I have been a student of the game, being taught by some of the most knowledgeable, and arguably some of the least knoweldgeable “teachers” of the game. I played my minor hockey for the Vancouver Thunderbirds Minor Hockey Association (VTMHA), which at the time was not known for being a hockey powerhouse by any means. Garnering the majority of their players from the west side of Vancouver, to most, hockey was considered a recreational activity to be played until it was time to “grow up” “get serious” and pursue some form of high eduation. Having said that, I grew up with a relatively unique demographic of kids, many of whom I’m still good friends with today, many of whom are highly successful individuals in worlds far removed from hockey.

Continue reading Guest Post: LIVE your Hockey Career by Ilan Cumberbirch

Get Sport IQ – Excellent Blog

Finally! A blog where the articles are written by informed authors, where the same old gibberish isn’t recycled. There are some excellent articles on this blog by some top notch authors. If you like reading some of my articles, you’ll definitely like this.

Get Sport IQ: