The season is in the books. Junior teams are either long done or have wrapped up their playoffs, while Minor teams are done and have already gone through the gauntlet of spring tryouts for next season. So, what’s next?
This time of year, I typically begin to receive emails from players and parents ready to dive into their summer training. I love (and will always have time for) players who are looking to hustle and put in the work, but understanding the process, especially around the beginning off-season phase, is essential to a successful development summer, and performance next season.
A lot of players are hardwired to finish up their season and immediately jump into getting crushed with intense workouts – while the desire for intensity for understandable (and appreciated) it’s often counterproductive through the initial off-season phase.
It’s important to understand that the body has just undergone 6-8 month of intense work volume. Junior teams are playing upwards of 60+ games, while many our Minor teams are playing (an insane) 70-80+ games. That coupled with the increasing intensity towards the end of season/playoffs leads to a compounding effect of stress on different structures and really begins to amplify imbalances in the body.
Almost all our players come back overly tight in the front of their body (through the hip flexors, quads and shoulders) and weak and/or improperly firing in the opposing posterior muscle groups. Typically, they will have also developed one side stronger than the other. In the upper body this is typically the result of constantly being in two different shoulder positions from hand placement of the stick. While in the lower body, this typically stems from utilizing pivots/starts/stops more on one side than other, either due to positional demands (ie. Right-Side Dman always pivoting with a left foot cut to fold into center ice) or just due to favouring their edges on one side.
So what does this all mean? How do we programming our intro phase to set us up for better development?
Off-Season Phase 1 Goal: Returning to Zero
Looking at the intense work volume in the second half of a hockey season, we can understand that players are likely playing through some sort of pain. Whether a legitimate injury that was played through, or a minor tweak, any flare up has been compounded over the dozens of practices/games and likely been compensated for somewhere else to further exaggerate an imbalance. Understanding this, our initial goal in the off-season must be restoration and returning to zero. Restoring to zero implies the return to a health, pain-free body, with be limited movement restrictions and imbalances.
A major emphasis in this phase is mobility, with the goal to regain end-range of motions that have likely been lost/restricted over the course of a hockey season. Because our goal isn’t specifically flexibility, a lot of these exercises are programmed to be dynamic – in which players have to actively put work through the end ranges to regain range. This often done through hip-work exercises such as various 90/90 and lunge variations.
90/90 Hip Flows are insanely valuable for all hockey players, and Dr. Andreo Spina is the absolute master of everything functional mobility.
In this phase, we typically send players home a stretching and foam rolling plan. While our players foam roll before/after workouts, and we often lead them through specific stretches that compliment our lifts that day, hockey players need to spend a significant amount of time on foam rollers and taking care of their bodies, and this time can often be spent at home (even in-front of a TV) rather than allocating coach-athlete time. This also creates the sense of responsibility in our athletes to look after their body away from the gym.
Players should be spending time on a foam rolling at least once a day, with emphasis through the quads and hip flexors. While stretches should be aimed at getting players into extension as much as possible, especially with students who spend large chunks of their day sitting. It’s typically recommended players sit in some sort of hip extension for at least 2 minutes, a couple times per day.
Off-Season Phase 1: Strength Programming
So, does the restoration focus mean we’re basically just doing yoga? No.
While we’re aiming at bringing balance back to the body, we’re still lifting – just with a different intention.
Most elite athletes' get excited with the idea of hitting maxes and getting into heavy lifts now that the seasons over – but this intensity an often be counterproductive. Simply put: our goal in this phase not to build strength on top of dysfunction. Imagine building your dream house on sand – it doesn’t matter if you build the biggest, strongest mega-mansion in the world if it’s on shitty foundation. Likewise, we rather take the time to make sure our hockey guys/girls bodies are healthy so that we can build on a solid foundation.
Saying that - our athletes still utilize weights and other forms of resistance training during this intro phase. While overall work volume/intensity is low, we still use resistance to correct imbalances (through unilateral exercises) and target specific muscle groups that maybe not be properly firing. We find with our hockey players they’ll typically need to specifically target their VMO through exercises such as the Peterson Step Off or Glute Med/Min work through banded drills. Depending on the athlete, we can also use strength exercises, such as the Sumo Squat (typically in Goblet) to regain some hip range.
Much of this is dependant on the athlete. Some hockey players come back having taken care of themselves and getting in high quality workouts all season and are ready for more strength based workouts (although we still reduce intensity and have that unilateral focus). Whereas some (read: most) absolutely do not, and require more time on building a healthy body.
Off-Season Phase 1: Conditioning Programming
There’s some mixed opinions on conditioning in the early phase. A lot of trainers start off weight heavy strength phases and don’t implement conditioning until later on, whereas other crush guys with conditioning to build a conditioning base right away. Our programs are typically somewhere in the middle.
Remember our goal (getting back to zero) it’s obviously counter-productive to crush players with intense conditioning. With shortened hip flexors from a hockey season, suddenly adding sprints drastically increases players risks of hip flexor and/or hamstring strains. Whereas biking (a hockey player favourite) often puts players back into that position of hip flexion they’ve been in all season. Ultimately our goal is get players out of hockey-related positions while also introducing them to new movements.
With this, we rather use slower condition methods such prowler pushes, where athletes are in that extension position, but at a slower velocity. It’s also good to keep in mind that anything can be turned into conditioning. Often times we’ll create mobility based circuits that support our goals of improving mobility, while combining multiple exercises to increase the aerobic demands.
Summary & Major Keys:
So, while the hockey season is done, and you’re ready to focus on raising your game and turn heads at training camp in the fall – it’s important to create off-season structure.
If you’re truly willing to put the hustle and hard work into becoming an elite player, don’t let that work be wasted with poor programming. The off-season is 4 or 5 months, and using the beginning of the off-season to take the time to invest in the foundations of a healthier body will set you up for a massive development summer and hopefully even bigger season.
Here’s our takeaways:
- Once the season ends, take some time away from intensity. Give yourself a couple weeks of a mental and physical break to refocus on a big summer.
- Take some time away from the ice – you have physical structures that you need to give a break, but also a mental break will let you come back focused and ready to work.
- Structure your off-season. Create goals and a plan to execute.
- “Return to zero” – take care of your body and spend time creating a healthy functional body before building on top of it.
- Foam roll daily. Spend time on mobility/stretching daily. This can be done in front of the TV.
- Try to avoid movements that put your body in a similar “hockey position” in the initial phase.
- Avoid (or limit) sprinting in the initial phase until you’ve regained hip flexor length. Then begin to slowly integrate.
- Lift – but do so with intention. Our goal isn’t to jack up strength or hit maxes (it’s coming!)
Kyle is a Hockey Performance Specialist who’s worked with hundreds of hockey players from Peewee to Pro. A former elite hockey player, Kyle earned his degree in Kinesiology before becoming a Strength Coach that specializes in hockey performance. Today, he runs Relentless Hockey where he works with players across the world, including pros in over 20+ leagues including the NHL, KHL, and OHL.