Lower extremity strength training is a priority when considering a comprehensive training program for youth hockey players. Most coaches consider dynamic stretching, functional strengthening and plyometric training to be enough. However in a sport where agility and balance are essential it is important to consider how players can improve these components off the ice.
In the hockey community the term “bender” is often used to describe a player that has ankles falling inward which is known as rearfoot or hindfoot valgus.2 From a coaching and overall performance perspective, it is obvious that this is not an ideal foot position when performing a hockey stride. Power from each stride will be reduced as the player transfers his/her kinetic energy through the trunk, hips and knees into the ice effecting both the player’s speed and agility. This may have a significant impact on the player’s overall skill development when practicing edge work and stopping drills.3 With a lack in development, the athlete may ultimately have limited confidence pursing pucks along the boards or in congested areas of the ice. This can foster the development of a timid player who may be less likely to compete in these areas, thus further stunting his/her development and ultimately his/her long-term participation in the sport.
From a biomechanical and injury prevention perspective, a chronic weakness and malposition of the ankle may also place added stressors on the knee and lead to an increase risk for knee pain limiting his/her participation throughout the season.4,5 One can argue that the support from the boot of the skate should counter the athlete’s lack of strength, but it must be understood that the stiffness of the boot will break down over time and potentially expose the athlete’s strength deficits over time.
With 25 different muscles in the lower leg and foot one may wonder, “How can I strengthen my ankles to better myself on the ice?” Simple single leg balance activities on the ground are a great place to start. When standing on one leg it is important to focus on keep 3 points of contact with the foot: (1) the big toe, (2) the little toe and (3) the heel. The athlete is expected to be able to hold this position for 30 seconds, 4 times, prior to adding tasks or changing the surface (couch cushion, pillow). Common tasks such as turning one’s head, closing one’s eyes, stickhandeling, juggling balls, and squatting can be incorporated into the individual’s single leg stance training to improve his/her coordination.
If a specific individual is unable to maintain a neutral foot position while balancing barefoot on a flat surface, a towel can be placed under the middle half of the foot to improve the overall ankle control. It is important to note that pain during any type of balance training activity is not acceptable and should be assessed by a physician or licensed physical therapist. These conditions may require formal therapy to address specific deficits within the hips, knees and ankles to restore good balance and control.1
1) Stand on one leg, eyes open on a firm surface –> progress to a couch cushion or other unstable surface
2) Stand on one leg, eyes closed on a firm surface –> progress to a couch cushion or other unstable surface.
3) Other activities you can attempt to master
- Single leg stance while passing around a ball around in the locker room
- Single leg jumps forward and backward/side to side over a line (3 sets of 10 jumps in each direction)