The answer is very simple and kind of obvious if you think about it. Compared to other sports where the athlete uses walking and running motor patterns, skating requires an advanced and unique set of athletic skills-balance, anatomical alignment, leg strength, and coordination. The “weird” exercises that you see professional skating coaches teaching are specifically designed to enhance these biomechanisms. Let’s go over a few of these exercises in detail:
1. One leg skating. Learning to move and create speed while skating on only 1 leg is exceptionally difficult. It requires that the player be able to generate power out of the inside and outside edges of the skate blade, rather than generating power by changing from one leg to the other. To generate speed out of the edges on the blade, the player must master exceptional balance on the edges. This “cat-like” balance comes from having correct anatomical alignment. The torso should be centered over the hips, and the hips should be centered over the knees, ankles, and feet. By coaching a player to master these super-human skills, not only does the player begin to possess the ability to skate on one leg, but they also acquire the elite sense of balance and alignment required to produce quick explosive movements with little or no effort. One leg skating reinforces the necessary skills to be able to balance on a ¼ inch piece of steel on ice, and more importantly, reinforces and teaches the hockey player to have a 6th sense of how to balance and move quickly in a controlled fashion. Skating on one leg also builds leg strength and coordination by requiring that both the right leg and the left leg can perform the work equally. Long story short, these skills are what separates players like Connor McDavid from the rest of the pack!
2. Explosive jumping drills. We often have the players jumping over hockey sticks, ropes, or the black pads on the ice. We have drills where the player performs these jumps forwards, backwards, or laterally. Jumping is an explosive movement where the athlete must use leg strength to forcefully straighten a bent knee. In order to jump on the ice, the player must learn to bend (load) and then fully extend to leave the ice. This is an exaggerated form of the power production mechanics in a forward stride, and has direct applications to burst speed mechanics as well (think first 3 steps). In addition, to successfully “land” these jumps, the player must have good leg strength, balance, and a favorable anatomical alignment. These attributes can be enhanced further in more advanced players by having them perform the jumps on one leg at a time.
3. Deep knee and hip flexion drills. Having players perform full squats, one-leg squats, lateral squats, spider squats, etc. is a method of helping the player gain an understanding of his/her full range of movement. Anyone who has ever attempted to teach a beginner how to skate knows how difficult it is to get them to bend their knees! Coaches are always telling the players to “GET LOW” or “BEND YOUR KNEES” but the player only bends a little bit. By teaching the player to bend maximally, the player starts to get a better idea of the full range of knee flexion angles. Ideally, the best knee angle for skating is around 90 degrees, and unfortunately most beginning skaters think that 20 degrees IS 90 degrees! Players who can stand up straight (0 degrees) AND squat all the way down (180 degrees) will have a much easier time figuring out where the 90 degree angle is.
Skating proficiency-speed, control, power, and quick changes of direction are the foundations of ice hockey. Sometimes it is necessary to “come in through the back door”, so to speak, to help athletes learn the intricate details involved in these movements. So, the next time your child is having a power skating lesson where they are being asked to try “weird” looking drills, know that there is a method to the madness, and in the long-run they will become much better skaters for having practiced these drills.