At all ages and all levels, at any time in the training schedule, players should learn new drills by beginning with slow movement. They should not increase foot speed until their technique is perfect. New drills should be introduced at warm-up pace so that players can safely learn proper technique and acclimate to new demands.
A training program that incorporates a variety of drills to develop overall athleticism and coordination is critical during the neural maturation period from age 0 to about age 12, the prepubertal phase of growth and maturation. At young ages, agility is more important than quickness to ongoing development. Coaches should devote a greater volume of drills to agility and less to quickness.
Repetition is key. Players need enough practice time to learn, correct, rehearse, and benefit from each drill. For example, if a ladder is set up to drill quickness, select four footwork patterns and repeat four times rather than do eight patterns twice each.
Preparticipation screening is necessary to be sure that players are ready for plyometric training. Readiness for plyometrics used to be tested by the player’s ability to squat 1.5 to 2.0 times his body weight. My current method is to see whether a player can skip and play hopscotch—I am sure you get what I mean! Most young hockey players can do low-intensity plyometric exercises, but they should first complete a 6- to 8-week strength program before participating in quickness drills. After improving their strength base and muscle readiness, players can begin with a small volume of drills (six to eight sets).
Trainers need to keep initial drills simple. Before increasing tempo, they should make sure that players can land and stop in balance. Players should hold each direction change transition point for 2 seconds. Players must pass through this pause-and-hold version of each quickness drill, demonstrating that they can coordinate the deceleration mechanics, before going full out. Then when players can execute the entire exercise at top speed, the trainer can later add similar exercises to the volume or replace an exercise with a more demanding one, netting the same volume.
To enter each exercise, the player establishes a ready position with knees flexed and hips low. If a player has to move into the ready position before he is set to accelerate, he will suffer a critical delay in initiating the required movement. The player needs to keep his center of gravity within the base of support. The less lateral weight transfer that the player has to absorb, the more rapid is the foot movement that he can achieve. An aggressive angle, with hips outside the base of support, can increase power, but for pure fast-feet drills, players should keep the feet close to the midline and minimize vertical displacement. They should keep the feet close to the ground, eliminate impact forces, and focus on turning over foot position rapidly. The sound of the movement offers a useful cue. Players should eliminate any loud pounding on the floor by modifying their technique to ensure a soft landing.
Quickness training is quality, not quantity, training that requires full-out effort for a few strides followed by active recovery. Improvement is not just a physical adaptation that requires overload; it is a neuromuscular adaptation that requires explosive and correct movement patterns with perfect technique. This adaptation increases the ability of the brain to turn on the machine more quickly. Players should perform at full effort until neuromuscular fatigue occurs. Trainers should not seek to induce physical fatigue. When fatigued, explosiveness slows and technique falters. Instead, athletes should rapidly complete precise movements so that the neuromuscular system learns to organize high-velocity movements. Limit drill duration to 10 seconds, ensuring the ATP-PC energy system dominates.
Rest intervals must be long enough that the player does not begin any repetition in a fatigued state. This is not a test of endurance. Between-set recovery time should allow the player to attack each drill in a perfect condition to generate the fastest movement possible. A 1:5 work-to-rest ratio provides time to resynthesize enough ATP to fuel another high-quality drill. For 24 athletes, four groups of 6 is the ideal setup; while 4 players complete the drill, 20 rest. Line of 4 players waiting their turns establishes the 1:5 ratio without requiring microattention to a stopwatch to time rest periods. Focus on the execution of active players and let the lines roll through.
Incorporate visual or auditory stimulus in varied movement patterns. For example, drop a ball in front of players so that they have to explode into action to catch it before it hits the ground again. Work in a tight, confined area with several repeats in 10 seconds.
Plyometric drills can be modified to be easier on the joints. Athletes can make the following modifications to obtain quickness benefits but ease stress on the joints:
- Increase foot quickness by popping the feet off the ground. As in a game of hot potatoes, as soon as the foot starts to touch the ground, pop it back off again. Pop off the balls of the feet. Try to increase the number of foot contacts made in a set amount of time.
- Practice quickly reversing movement and exploding in the opposite direction.
- In an effort to turn the feet over faster, a tendency is to pound harder on the ground. Listen to the foot strike and aim to produce no sound. Silence comes from soft landings.
- Eliminate the pause that occurs at the exact point at which the direction of movement is going to reverse. This point is the coupling time between the eccentric and concentric contractions. A pause between lowering and pushing off will lose the potential elastic energy and turn off the muscle sensors, detracting from the potential power for the push-off. Focus on coupling the stop and start as opposed to lowering into a deep loading.
- Keep the feet close to the ground, where they return sooner for additional foot contacts. In sport, movement occurs only when the foot is in contact with the ground, applying force.
- First, complete two-legged drills to share the load and maximize quickness. Next, add simple drills with a single leg, starting slowly with low volume but progressively training until each leg can coordinate well with equal independent quickness.
This is an excerpt from Complete Conditioning for Hockey.