Competitive sports have always involved strategy for the win; from the oldest of combative ‘games’ to the modern live streamed major event featuring multi-million dollar advertising. To defeat your opponent means to out work & out maneuver them.
I am often drawn into thoughts relating to the years of traditional Okinawan Karate practice. Strategy was always taught as part of the curriculum; a key concept allowed regular Karate players to become champions.
As a ‘hockey scout’ I now sit back and watch countless hours of practice and games all over Western Canada. I see five players on the ice trying to out hustle and be in a better shooting position while trying to keep the opponent from doing the same.
There are three core reactive strategies that one develops over time, these move from the beginning stages of athletic development and follow the players as they progress from house league to the high performance teams.
I have always maintained that speed is the key to success in hockey, as in most sports. If you are simply faster than your opponent you can get to the achievement mark before he or she can.
There is however an extremely important component that needs to be taught; and I think it is missed by many Coaches. This is the concept of timing. Timing is everything, even when a player isn’t the fastest they appear to be because they are always moving into the right spot when they need to. This comes from the timing of the move. Let me explain using two core combative concepts as analogies to show the necessary evolution from 'average' to ‘elite’ player.
The first stage (using the Japanese Karate term) is Go no sen: This basically means to block and then counter attack. The player reacts only to what has happened, game play is painfully slow and each player faces one on one battles as there is little team cohesion of movement.
This is the rudimentary element of early game play, the puck glides across the ice and a young player (who is standing still) receives it on the blade of his stick. At the lower divisions time stops here; the player momentarily looks at the puck (not around), shifts weight, & starts to move towards the goalie. The other players typically are standing still too and only start to move after the one with the puck heads off.
In your head you can see the first year initiation player standing awkwardly on the ice….the puck lands on his stick, and then everyone (mom, dad, coach, team parents, bored rink guy) yells “wheel”. Unfortunately many older players do the exact same thing here, the timing is the same. They are applying the concept of Go no sen…… a reaction to stimulus. This is the stage that 90% of players will stay at as they play out their minor hockey career.
* Nothing wrong with this, the goal for your child is to have a positive hockey experience… not everyone wants to play elite hockey; the point is this timing style will not get you to that elite level.This is how beginners learn (and must learn this way) in order to get the basic technical skills down pat; what separates the player moving into the elite ranks is the next stage. (Again in Japanese) Sen no Sen: instead of a simple reaction to an attack, Sen no sen is a reaction with an attack. the timing is slight but the outcome is not so subtle!
In protective combat, as soon as the attack starts, the block and counter is simultaneously launched. The movements with the above concept are exactly the same, what has changed is the timing of the event. The timing with this strategy is so important because in hockey both teams/players are committing to the play/attack at the same time.
* Side Note: In Karate there is a phrase often repeated “…there is no first attack in Karate.” This is often but incorrectly taught that Karate is defensive only. This is slightly misleading though, as what it means is that the attack & counter attack happen at the same time (sen no sen) ….thus there is no ‘first’ because they are simultaneous. Think of it this way; the opposing team dumps the puck into your zone for a line change. As soon as that player touches the puck for the shot your defense turns & starts to cover the boards to stop the puck rimming around. At the same time the forwards have swung around to regroup, are circling down low to receive the pass and are already moving full steam in a three man breakout for the other side. When this happens at the correct time it looks as though the team moving to the offensive has some uncanny game sense and have covered the ice in record time…
This is timing demonstrated beautifully. The players (and whole line if done correctly) that make a positional move in harmony with the other teams’ players looks faster on the ice & appear to have a greater sense of game play. They are in the right spots because their timing matched their opponent and there was no hesitation. This is where the young (aspiring) elite player needs to be performing at.
This skill needs to be taught regularly by the Coach, it cannot be a one time lesson or yelled to a player from the bench. A team needs game video analysis, slow motion scrimmages, constant positive reinforcement to the players letting them know to let go of doubt and go for it. Remember that game play (strategy) is just as important as the skill set to actually do the work on the ice.
Last season I was an evaluator for a AA team in a nearby town. The players I had to cut the first 2 days were by no means ‘weak’ or unskilled. There were a few that were obviously there only for the development but for the most part all players could go toe to toe in a one on one. What separated those that left, to and those that stayed was hesitation on the play and their reaction time…..timing.
Something would happen and the other player was already heading to the puck or to pass while the less experienced player didn’t kick it in gear until the pass had already been completed.
Again the movements are the same however what separates the elite from the average is timing. What I find useful is to use video to show the points; Coaches need to find a way to show these players how timing works in a game and how it can be a game changer. Now, where is my Karate Kid video?