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Hockey IQ: Training the Brain for Today’s Game

By Steve Mann, Minnesota Hockey, 03/14/19, 12:00PM CDT

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"We found that focusing less on goals or performance and more on improvement takes a lot of the stress and anxiety away.”

Fifty-fifty vision, rapid processing, anticipation and quick decision-making.

These are keys to developing a high hockey IQ, according to Minnetonka High School boys head coach Sean Goldsworthy.

Hockey IQ, he says, is just as important as speed, strength and stick skills in today’s game.

“Our game rewards players that can think and think fast,” said Goldsworthy, who led the Skippers to their first-ever state title in 2017-18. “And problem-solvers have a distinct advantage.”

Goldsworthy likes his teams to play at a high tempo that keeps opponents off balance and a step behind.

“We talk about being on high-speed internet, not dial-up,” he said.

To be truly successful in hockey, players need to develop in three ways: on-ice, off-ice and cognitive. The emphasis on cognitive training is relatively new, he said, but it can make a huge difference in preparing athletes for an evolving game that is faster and more skilled than ever.

Here are some ways young players can train their hockey brains.

Watch Hockey with a Purpose

Goldsworthy’s learned the finer points of hockey while watching games alongside his father, Bill Goldsworthy, who played nearly 800 NHL games, including 10 season with the North Stars.

“He would ask me to watch players like Neal Broten, and then on the way home he’d quiz me about his shifts throughout the night,” Goldsworthy said. “You learned to watch the game from a scout’s perspective, focusing on one player and how they moved with and without the puck, how they generate space, what their assignments might be in specific situations and in transition. It was a great way to learn the game.”

Goldsworthy encourages his players to watch hockey the same way.

“We’re fortunate in Minnesota to have the ability to watch hockey at the highest levels on a regular basis,” he said. “Players tend to model their game after someone they can relate to – defensemen watch defensemen, forwards watch forwards, goalies watch goalies, and so on. It’s a good way to pick up positive habits, body language and mannerisms. We encourage them to focus on players that have a similar role on the team.”

Training the Hockey Brain

Training the brain requires practice, repetition and getting more comfortable in high-stress situations. At Minnetonka, Goldsworthy and his staff emphasize mental skills such as anticipating plays before they develop, making quick decisions and processing information more rapidly.

“We really believe in anticipation skills and a big part of that is splitting your attention – having the ability to focus on two different things at once (what Goldsworthy calls “50-50 vision”), process multiple sources of information and think fast,” he said. “In practice, we try to create as much conflict as we can, and get them to make as many decisions in as small a time constraint as possible. By doing that, they’ll get more comfortable in a high-tempo, high-stress environment. Older training methods were heavy on the puck. I think that’s important, but since over 95 percent of the game is played without the puck, you need to elevate other areas of your game as well.”

Time and Space

According to Goldsworthy, most young players know what to do on the ice, but they don’t have enough time to do it. His approach aims to help players buy more time.

“The game is really about time and space,” he said. “We try to enhance skill sets such as skating, stickhandling and passing but increasing time and space can really separate players and make the team better.”

"We focus on the small details of each drill to not overwhelm them, drills with continuous movement,” Goldsworthy explained. “For example, there’s a flow drill where the player has to move from offense to defense in a transitional situation. We’ll focus on one or two points of emphasis and work on playing and making decisions faster, such as receiving the puck on your forehand or backhand or making indirect passes off the boards or making stretch passes, secondary-level reads instead of the first read, until we get to the point where the decision-making process becomes natural, and the players don’t have to think about it.

“They’ll make mistakes going fast and that’s OK. But once they see the benefits of buying themselves that extra second or two, they realize it’s worth the effort.”

Technology Can Create an Advantage

Goldsworthy and his teams use the computer-based IntelliGym technology program to build these cognitive skills. The program looks and feels like a video game, but specifically trains the mental components required for playing an actual game of hockey.

IntelliGym, which is also used by USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, is best suited for players between the ages of 12-18. Coaches and parents also have access to detailed progress reports.

Goldsworthy incorporates IntelliGym into Minnetonka’s practice plan just once or twice per week, for 30-minute sessions.

“The concept is to train the athlete’s brain to think faster. It’s like writing left-handed when you’re right-handed. Training your brain to work in a different way creates great focus and attention,” said Goldsworthy. “But it’s not a video game. It’s a cognitive training platform, so athletes will need to be mature enough to handle some amount of frustration and learning.”

Changing the Game

By combining on-ice, off-ice and cognitive development for his players, Goldsworthy seeks to shift the game from a transactional environment – which rewards individual performance metrics such as goals or assists – to a transformational one, which values involvement and improvement.

“In a transformational environment, every player has value,” Goldsworthy said. “It’s as much about giving as it is about getting. So whatever you bring to the table, we as coaches will respect and reward. We found that focusing less on goals or performance and more on improvement takes a lot of the stress and anxiety away.”

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Minnesota Hockey, an affiliate of USA Hockey, is the governing body of youth and amateur hockey in Minnesota and the premier developer of hockey players in the state.

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