With early specialization as the dominant model in today’s youth hockey system in Canada (and virtually everywhere else in the world), the pyramid of optimal sport development (shown above) is often applied in reverse order. Most youth hockey players have had significantly more sport specific practice and skill work than either of the other 2 levels at early ages. In an ideal system (one that would minimize injuries and burnout while maximizing long term athletic performance, skill, and enjoyment), early movement training would be implemented and movement would be optimized before anything else in an athlete’s development. This can be achieved at an early age (<8 yrs old) while continued work on movement should always be included in an athlete’s training program. Strength and conditioning work is critical for both injury prevention (can lower incidence of serious injury by as much as 2/3) and for optimal athletic performance.

Recent research (Faigenbaum et al. 2014) looked at the optimal age to start appropriate strength and conditioning activities to maximize athletic potential throughout life. 4 groups were studied:

  1. Strength and conditioning activities initiated during pre-adolescence
  2. Strength and conditioning activities initiated during adolescence
  3. Sport only
  4. No strength and conditioning or sport

Neuromuscular performance potential was significantly higher in those who started training in pre-adolescence followed by those who started in adolescence and then by those who played sports only. The no training/no sport group (not surprisingly) did the worst. The most interesting and possibly surprising finding was that those who started training earlier saw improvements in mature neuromuscular performance potential and were never caught by the other groups. In other words, kids who start working on the performance box (from the above graphic) at an early age increase their adult athletic potential to a level that cannot be matched by those who don’t get this head start. Those athletes who began strength and conditioning during the adolescent period still saw mature neuromuscular performance potential well above that of those who opted for “more sport” only. The take home message here is clear…start appropriate strength and conditioning early to optimize performance in the short term but, more importantly, to raise the lifelong ceiling for performance in all athletic pursuits.

Training should focus on improving all athletes’ strength (the ability to produce force is critical to all sport performance), power (also known as speed strength or rate of force development), and metabolic conditioning (short, medium and long term endurance). No athlete has ever been told they were too strong, too fast, or too fit!

Strength training should include loaded movement and traditional and non-traditional resistance training using body weight and external loads. Power training includes explosive body weight movements (lower and upper body plyometrics), select explosive weightlifting movements (once an adequate strength base is achieved), and track work. A recent study showed that professionally designed plyometric training programs improve neuromuscular control, muscle strength, muscle-tendon stiffness, and bone density while decreasing injury risk. Metabolic training can be achieved using a variety of apparatus and exercises including but not limited to track work, bike work, and sled work.

Injury prevention has already been mentioned but it is worth repeating here that a reduction of 40-70% in incidence of serious sport related injury can be achieved through consistent, professionally designed and monitored strength, conditioning, and neuromuscular movement training. It is also worth considering the value of primary prevention (prevention of first injury) especially as it relates to the knee. A recent study showed that younger athletes who have had an ACL reconstruction and return to their sport had a 35 times higher likelihood of a second ACL injury than an uninjured adolescent! The take home from this is that we need to do everything in our power to prevent first ACL injuries in our developing athletes!

The following principles should be followed when it comes to program design for in and offseason training for developing hockey players:

  1. Avoid and prevent injury at all costs.
  2. Build the bottom 2 boxes in the sport performance pyramid (quality movement including agility and mobility training & strength, power, and energy system training)
  3. Provide appropriate training for all youth tailored to their chronological and developmental age (kids actually respond better to certain kinds of training depending on their developmental age!)
  4. Teach the fundamentals of strength and conditioning to everyone at an early age so that healthy lifelong behaviours can be engrained!
  5. Make training fun!! Kids will work extremely hard when they understand the goal and why it is important for them especially if training is structured in a challenging but enjoyable way.

Maximal gains in strength and metabolic fitness can be achieved with more frequent weekly training sessions and this should be prioritized during hockey’s offseason. Rest is important so training sessions focused on the same performance parameters should not be conducted every day but upping the training frequency in the offseason from once or twice per week to 3 or 4 times per week can yield maximal results in the limited time available before competition resumes. In order to prevent regression (loss of offseason gains) during the competitive season, it is strongly recommended that a frequency of 1-2 sessions per week be maintained in-season.

Stronger really is better!!


Drew Burton, MKin, CSCS