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It's All About Those First Steps (A Guide to Quickness)

By Jamie MacDonald, 11/20/15, 10:15AM EST


In a game of inches, quickness can be more valuable than speed. In hockey that speaks especially true. The quicker a player can gain an advantage, the more successful he or she is likely to be against an opponent.

From a puckhandling standpoint, you want to maneuver the puck more quickly. From a mental standpoint, you want to process decisions more quickly. And, from a skating standpoint, you want to move more quickly and precisely. At its core, effective skating is itself a guide to quickness and a function of form, and it’s all about those first few steps of explosiveness that make the difference.

“For most people, it’s about the deep knee bend, the long, extended strides, full stride recovery back under the midline of the body, proper athletic posture, head and chest up, knees and the hips flexed,” says skating coach Carrie Keil.

Few are more familiar with the intricacies of skating than Keil, who has served for more than 15 years as the skating coach at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. She earned a master’s degree in exercise physiology from the University of Michigan, where she served was the Wolverines’ head skating trainer from 1986-1992. In addition, she has worked with youth skaters of all levels for more than 30 years.

“We make sure players understand that the power comes from being properly aligned,” she says. “It’s the same as a golf swing or a baseball bat swing. If your anatomical alignment is maladjusted or incorrect, you will never make the power or the speed or the force that you’re designed to make. This is about understanding how physics and biomechanics combine to have a human body produce force and power.”

Quickness, like agility or power, or even stickhandling and shooting, can’t be learned overnight. Being quicker than an opponent is a lifetime achievement award.

“A parent might come and say, ‘We have eight weeks, can you make my kid faster?’ And, you know what? The answer is no,” says Keil. “Speed is the very last thing to come. Speed is going to be the culmination of years and years of perfecting your anatomical alignment, your leg strength and your movement pattern formations. Quickness is a learned attribute that starts first. You have to study and learn and practice it.”

Developing quickness is about developing a cleaner, more efficient and powerful skating motion. And that work is never really done.

“It’s critical that they stay with it during the growth years,” Keil says. “Some stay with it from 6-12 and their parents come back when they’re 16 and wonder why he or she can’t skate anymore. Well, they're not 10 anymore. You should really have stuck with it while he or she was growing.”

 One of Keil’s more useful teaching tools is the skating treadmill. This isn’t about grinding out the equivalent of a long run on a traditional treadmill.

“I have a couple of skating treadmills I use strictly for form and technique – not for conditioning,” says Keil.

It’s also on the treadmill where Keil helps young players of all skill levels realize the benefit of moving their arms to create explosiveness.

“We have [the players] in front of a full-length mirror so they can really watch their arm movement,” she says. “I can’t believe how powerful it is when people see themselves. They just learn so much so quickly.”

It’s through that explosiveness when players can gain their advantage over the course of three steps. It applies to exploding from a stop or blasting away from a stop-and-start scenario. Cut down the time and inefficient movement between transitions and you'll really have something. 

“Acceleration is all about anatomical alignment,” Keil says. “It’s almost all hip-flexor driven, which are the muscles in the front of the leg, and they’re responsible for bringing the knee up and forward. Those first three steps are all about hip flexor explosiveness and being able to, after your foot leaves the ice, really aggressively bring it forward.”

As important as those first three steps are, explosiveness comes from being a good, strong skater.

“It’s about becoming the best athlete you can be,” says Keil. “You don’t do extra training to work on those three steps. The extra training we should be recommending to kids is overall athleticism.”

The takeaway in any guide to quickness is to start working on it in a hurry.

“It’s really, really tough to train in these motor patterns much after age 10 or 12,” says Keil. “If you don’t get them by the time they’re 8 or so, it’s going to be tough to get them.”


1-on-1 with Carrie Keil

***What Not To Do: The Bag Skate***

 “One of the first things in my presentation [at Level 4 clinics] is the definition of ‘power skating.’ The most common one is that power skating is like a bag skate, where you just make your players skate until exhaustion. I want coaches to understand that’s so deleterious to a person’s development for a young kid to skate until exhaustion. Let’s say it’s a 20-minute skate, the last 15 minutes, you’re skating with the worst form possible. The bag skate is the worst thing you can give them.”

***What Makes Eichel So Good?***

“The reason Jack Eichel is the way Jack Eichel is on the ice is because he started working out with Mike Boyle when he was 12. He took the time and the effort and his parents spent the money to make sure he was being properly trained, and that his athletic foundation would be elite by the time he was 16 or 17 or 18.

“I have a lot of players who are really good at stride mechanics, the long stride in terms of speed, and some players who are just quick. Their ability to accelerate is off the charts. Jack has both. And that’s what makes him special. He has both. And the reason he has both is he has that foundation.

“It’s not anything we did or didn’t do. It’s that he did everything right from a very young age. If you do those things, there are no guarantees, but, if you don’t do those things, you’re seriously behind the eight ball.”

***Great Debate***

“There is some debate among power skating coaches about how long the foot should stay on the ice in those first three steps. Some people teach striking on the ball of the foot and lifting it right back up, leaving a really short mark on the ice. Some people don’t worry about that; they don’t even teach their students about that or talk about it. I have respect for both philosophies. I think it’s another one of those cases where it depends on the player, what they can learn, how old they are and how ingrained their old motor patterns are.”