Written by Molly O’Brien
Right around the two-week mark of our HockeySTRONG program, we expect to hear the same question – “when are we going to start lifting heavy?” It is inevitable; at fifteen years old, even our youngest program members are used to starting day one with a loaded barbell on their shoulders.
Despite the lack of sex appeal, our HockeySTRONG program involves a slower buildup to the strength, speed, and power drills that are a little more Instagram-worthy. In the first two to three weeks of our program each year we perform a base phase, a period of time during which we focus on a few key priorities:
- Rehabilitation of injuries and minimizing other imbalances and restrictions
- General flexibility and specific mobility of ankles, hips, thoracic spine and shoulders
- Basic hip, shoulder and core stability
- Rehearsal of movement patterns to be loaded later on use
- Circuits and isometric holds using light loads
- Basic speed and jump mechanics
- Base aerobic capacity
- Emphasis on importance of recovery, nutrition and mindset
Completing a session during a Base Phase rarely gives you that same pumped-up feeling as pushing a heavy squat or jumping over a hurdle that sits higher than your belly button, but it is no less important – some players might argue that it is even more so. Talk to anyone in the league (NHL) over 25 with an injury that’s forced them to take time off – the rehab process often involves working through years of neglected joint mobility and stability patterns, and this can be quite the costly endeavor in many ways.
Essentially the base phase is the active transition between playing a long season and intense training for the next. Both sport and training are incredibly stressful on the body. Performance of this base phase fulfills two main training objectives:
- Decreased likelihood of injury through training
- Increased ability to handle more a) varied movements and b) heavier loads, speeds, and forces in safe manner
- Decreased Likelihood of Injury through Training
Offseason training programs often involve drills that are not only intense, but also vastly different from the activities athletes perform in-season unless they have the benefit of working with a strength and conditioning coach. Sprinting and high-level jumping drills require incredible amounts of reactive strength in the hamstrings, calves, quads, and glutes – musculature that is typically underdeveloped in hockey players who have been skating for the last seven to eight months. Heavy strength work including squatting, pressing, and cleaning are common in many programs as well, and require stability through ranges of motion that often just aren’t there.
If we fail to respect that the demands of these activities, the likelihood of inappropriate preparation and eventual injury is undoubtedly present.
- Increased Ability to Handle more Varied Movements
One of the largest priorities in the base phase is to use mobility and stability work to help open up a larger realm of competent, coordinated, and connected movement to an athlete.
Hockey (and most sport) is rarely performed in segmented, rehearsed movement pieces. Imagine this scenario: a player skates at top speed into the offensive zone, performs a sudden change of direction, receives a pass, withstands a check, has to battle on the boards, is able to break out and finally rips a shot (let’s say they score too, just to make this more exciting). This is an example of a common string of movement that challenges many aspects of physical competence.
Many athletes arrive to train with defined objectives (I want to get bigger, work on my strength, get faster), but very few identify competent, coordinated, and connected movement as one of those trainable goals. In my humble opinion, this is a vastly overlooked training objective with huge impact potential.
- Increased Ability to Handle Heavier Loads, Speeds, and Forces in a Safe Manner
The proper performance of a base phase will help build some key qualities that allow an athlete to endure more effective training all off-season long (boo-yah!).
- Aerobic base conditioning will allow for enhanced recovery between working repetitions of drills and between training session – repetitions and sessions performed from a more recovered state are more effective; this may also allow for more working repetitions to be performed
- Light loads allow for the enhanced development of tissues (muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, fascia) – loading connective tissues builds resiliency, which may assist in decreasing injury risk and in building the body’s tolerance for higher speed and heavier loads
- Rehearsal of movement patterns will allow for more consistent, connected repetitions – if an athlete is familiar with a pattern, they are likely to display higher levels of strength, speed and power through it
- Emphasis on recovery, nutrition, and mindset – if you want to train frequently, you must be recovered, fuelled, and mentally in it to win it
One of the hardest things to hear about, as a coach in this field, are those instances where bodies of skilled and hard-working athletes become broken down far too soon due to poor training practices and improper care of injuries. I have the pleasure of working with many young and talented athletes, and most of these kids would take a shot at jumping over the moon if I told them that it would help them to become a better hockey player. As strength and conditioning coaches, our job is to direct that positive energy into the training that will allow young people to have longevity – even if that means enduring the impatient groans when we set up a circuit!
As one of our NHL vets always says … “There’s a lot of hockey left to be played.”