Hockey player’s typically carry a lot of dysfunctions in their body.
Before even before considering the impact of being smashed around, the hockey stride itself puts players in a position that results in a variety of imbalances, overly tight hips, and rounded back and shoulders. Players then compound the effects of this position with the insane practice schedules and over a 60+ game schedule for Junior/Pro players (or an insane 80-120+ for minors).
While more players are mindful of the impact mobility/basic stretching/self-myofascial release work can have on their body and performance in the season, and off-season programs are increasingly intentional of restoring balance, much of the focus is spent on the hips and shoulder, often ignoring the significance of one joint on hockey performance: the ankle.
Unlike hip or shoulder mobility work, which is often motivated by trying to elevate pain/discomfort, ankle pain or “tightness” is rarely a complaint in hockey players – but it is a joint in which optimal function supports on-ice performance. And, a large portion of hockey players are missing optimal function.
Ankle Mobility’s Effect Off-Ice: Lower Body Kinetic Chains
To understand the role of the ankle in the hockey stride, it’s important to create a quick context/understanding of “kinetic chains.” Kinetic chains are derived from biomechanics, in which movement at one joint affects movement at another joint, thereby creating a “chain system” operating as a collective.
So, while this gives the body powerful synergistic movement systems, it also means that an athlete that lacks an optimal range of motion at one joint will innately find a compensation somewhere else to successfully get into a position. Often, we see this in squat patterns, when an athlete has limited ankle (and/or hip) mobility and compensates by defaulting into a rounded back (or lumbar flexion) position to try to create the same depth. These suboptimal positions not only make less efficient/effective movements (hurting performance) but also put athletes at risk for injury through improperly loading mechanics.
In the gym, these suboptimal movements are often easy to spot. The most relevant example is that an athlete will emphasize pushing through the toe, creating a quad-dominate movement, in which athletes utilize their quads instead of their relying on more powerful/stronger glutes contractions.
While it’s difficult to explore activation patterns during a hockey stride, you could theorize that athlete’s who utilize quad-dominate activation patterns off-ice, will likely carry this over to their on-ice stride. This means that many players likely have the untapped power in their stride that could be accessed by learning glute activation in the gym and more efficient movement patterns.
To return to the central premise of our article, ankle mobility can be an underlying root cause for poor mechanics off ice, and potentially spill over into a hockey player’s on-ice stride.
The Hockey Skate & Ankle Mechanics:
When looking at the hockey stride, it’s important to consider the impact that hockey skate has mechanics has on the ankle.
To deliver a massive amount of explosive force into the ice, the ankle needs to be incredibly stable. I like to visualize this with the analogy: “you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe” when looking at foot/ankle mechanics. With this in mind, skates are specifically designed to enhance ankle stability, and equipment companies continuously optimize skates to enhance ankle mechanics to allow players to generate more force into the skate. This is why we’ve seen boots get increasingly stiffer while also integrate features (in both boot design and footbed design) aimed at increasing mechanical capacity. Most recently this has included increasing the “heel to toe drop” which allows for greater ankle flexion.
While skate design’s impact on the lower body kinetic chain is a topic, it’s worth considering the long-term effects the skate boot has on the physical structure of the ankle. A hockey player, unlike any other athlete, expresses force through a range limited by equipment. This means that while young players develop, often they’ll get stronger up the chain, while the restriction of the tight hockey skate will prevent them from expressing this force through optimal ranges.
This justifies the necessity for off-ice physical preparation programs at the youth age and a well-structured Strength & Conditioning program aimed at correcting movement limitations built up over time.
The Significance of Ankle Mobility on Hockey Performance:
Through the sheer number of hockey players that I see in any given season, I tend to find that athletes that have the “cleanest” mechanics off-ice, typically translate this capacity to that classic smooth, technical stride. I’ve found (almost) universally that the best squatters are the best skaters. While there are multiple facets that play into this, it’s easy to conceptualize that athlete that fails to get into an optimal position off-ice, likely won’t be able to express that position or movement efficiently or effectively on ice.
Research supports this as well, a hockey stride kinematic study from Marquette University found that players who can increase ankle mobility (primarily dorsiflexion) can get into a more “crouched” athletic position that “yields increased skating speed and efficiency” (Tidman, 2009).
So, while players are starting to understand the impact mobility has, not just on health/injury-reduction, but on performance – it’s important to consider the significance of optimal function of all joints. Hockey inherently has factors that lead to imbalances and restriction in players, and structured off-ice work needs to be a priority for players.
Hopefully we’ve created a context for why the ankles deserve more attention in mobility programming and warm ups.
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.