Balance training is something that has made its waves through the hockey training industry, but what it’s really trying to accomplish is something more accurately described as proprioception. Proprioception represents how the body reads information from various body parts in motion, as well as what’s going on in the environment around your body. This information (proprioceptive feedback) is the language that your nervous system uses to figure out what is happening with your body and what move it should make next in order to accomplish whatever the hockey player is trying to complete.
Here’s why balance is important
Hockey players need to be able to change the direction of their momentum as fast and efficiently as possible. That’s hard enough to do on a basketball court or a soccer field—for hockey, the ice makes it ever harder. Possessing good balance allows players to stay on top of the action by quickly adapting to where the puck and the other players around them are heading. Hockey is also a rough sport. Players routinely endure pressure, checking, and other physical confrontations where players are trying to knock each other off their feet. Possessing good balance keeps players on their feet and in the action for longer so that they don’t waste time by needing to get up and regain their bearings.
In general, every hockey skill requires good balance to perform. The better your balance, the better you’ll be able to skate, stickhandle, and take slapshots—improving your balance simultaneously improves your entire hockey skillset. Here are four of the most effective ways to improve your balance as a hockey player:
- Balance Exercises
There are a whole bunch of simple balance exercises that you can do literally anywhere. The most basic one is to practice standing on one foot. At first, practice standing still for long periods of time, then gradually add more complicated movements like squatting or extending your other leg backward and stretching your arms forward. This will get you used to controlling your center of gravity in awkward situations. Other simple but effective balance exercises include standing on your tippy toes, one-legged squats, heel-to-toe walking, and one-legged hopping. These exercises require minimal concentration and can usually be performed alongside other tasks, so they can be an effective way to quickly achieve excellent balance.
- Agility Drills and Exercises
Improving your agility will inherently improve your balance—you need good balance to be able to efficiently switch your momentum and build speed in a new direction. There are endless agility drills available online for both on- and off-ice training, most of which involve little more than a few cones or a rope ladder on the ground. Having a partner is also extremely beneficial when doing agility workouts because it allows for the addition of spontaneous movement. While side-stepping through a rope ladder will improve agility, the movement is predictable—it’s the same every time you do the exercise, which doesn’t fully represent what it’s like to play in a hockey game. With a partner, you can do agility exercises like sitting in the middle of four cones and as soon as your partner points to one, you need to sprint there. This adds a level of unpredictability to the drill that accurately represents the constantly changing conditions of a hockey game.
- Improve Your Core
The technical definition of “having good balance” is the ability to control your center of mass so that it always stays within the area created by your support points (usually your feet). For players, our center of mass is in our abdomen—our “core.” Therefore, the abdominal muscles and all muscles around the core have a large impact on controlling our balance. Exercises like sit-ups, crunches, planking, side bends, and the “Superman” strengthen the core muscles which will, in turn, improve your balance.
As an exercise, yoga is essentially the practice of holding different, often strenuous body poses in succession. Many yoga poses engage the core, like the plank pose, the boat pose, and the cosmic egg pose. As explained above, strengthening the core is an effective way to improve balance. Also, many yoga poses directly improve balance, like the eagle pose, the half-moon pose, and the tree pose. Yoga can also help you mentally improve balance. Yoga is a full mind and body exercise that focuses on breathing and concentration while holding the poses. The more you practice yoga, the better you’ll become at maintaining your focus while your balance is being tested. Then you’ll be able to keep your mind on the action of the hockey game rather than worrying about how you’re going to stay on your feet when you’re in a scuffle.