For any athlete there are a number of benefits that will be experienced by adding yoga to their training program. Many professional sports organizations have realized these benefits after having their athletes participate in yoga, and it is becoming more and more common for even youth sports teams to be adding the practice into their dry land training programs. Some of the physical benefits that an athlete may experience include an increase in flexibility, decrease in injury risk, increase in core strength, improved joint stability and an increase in body awareness. Along with the physical benefits also come the mental advantages seen in increased focus and concentration.
In creating a yoga plan for any hockey team or individual player, you want to consider their current training schedule (whether it be dry land or on-ice), as yoga should be considered part of their training. The misconception that yoga can be done on an “off day” should be dispelled with athletes – it needs to be considered part of the training and be treated as such. During the times when their training schedules are predominantly of high intensity – leading up to a big game or a tournament for example – the yoga should be restorative in nature. When their training is more relaxed, the yoga can be more core building and intense. Yoga should complement the current training program, and not detract from it.
Having athletes as students, typically means that you may see more injuries that you need to be mindful of during class. Knowing how to modify poses, or which poses to offer as alternatives to accommodate these injuries will be essential. If you are training a team, it will be important that all team members can participate, as this experience will also allow for team bonding. In order to accommodate injuries you should have ample supply of props (blocks, straps, bolsters, etc.) that can be used, or encourage the team or individuals to purchase them for use during class.
In examining what actions and responses are required of the body during a hockey game, we can determine how to construct and plan the classes, allowing the players to gain the most benefit from the poses. Keep in mind that many of the poses may need to be modified to accommodate the muscular and athletic build of the students, and the fact that they are likely not used to stretching or bending in such ways.
Hockey requires a player to have the ability to stop and start quickly, and change directions instantaneously. In order to do this, the player will require strong joint stability in order to prevent injuries. When putting together a class, think about poses that will build strength around the knees, hips and shoulders. Balance poses such as tree, half moon, side plank, or warrior III will help create this type of strength, building up the muscles, tendons and ligaments surrounding the joints and decreasing the likelihood of future injuries.
In order to take the long strides needed to cover the ice from end to end quickly, a great amount of flexibility is required. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all hockey players will have flexible hips or hamstrings, though. Working on hip opening poses such as gate pose, frog, or triangle will be beneficial to help lengthen their hip adductors, pelvic muscles and hamstrings. The fact that hockey players are required to have this long stride does mean that in order to balance it out, some of the poses should require square hips in order to prevent the overworking of one set of muscles. Balancing this by adding in multiple straight- or closed-hip poses such as warrior I, lunge, and reclined twist, the athlete can ensure that they are not over stretching one set of muscles while ignoring the others.
If you are working with a goalie, you may incorporate more closed hip poses than open hip poses, in order to offset the position that they usually take when in net and helping to ensure equality in flexibility and strength of all hip, pelvic and gluteal muscles.
Depending on the age of the hockey player or league you are working with, there may be physical contact involved in the games. In order to withstand such contact it is beneficial to have a strong set of core muscles. Building up the core muscles should include not only the front core, but also the back and sides. This strengthening may come in the form of very direct abdominal exercises such as sit ups, leg lifts, etc., or it can also be done more indirectly through plank, side plank, locust, handstand and other balance poses. Strengthening the core for hockey players will also add to the necessity of having the lean strength required for quick starts and speed.
When you think about hockey as a sport, one of the first things you might think of is the equipment required. The pads, helmet, stick and skates play a huge role in protecting player, but also have an immense effect on the body. A player consistently has their knees bent in order to have better balance, their arms and shoulders forward to hold their stick and keep it on the ice, and their feet bound up in tight skates. Having poses that work to lengthen the legs and spine and open the front body will counteract this position. Adding in a shoulder stretch to child’s pose, or any forward fold will help prevent injury and open up their chest and shoulder muscles. An average competitive player is in skates anywhere from 7-12 hours a week – that’s a lot of time to have your feet locked in skates! Hockey skates are quite rigid and provide a lot of support, which means that the ankle isn’t supporting itself, and is generally quite weak because of this. Any pose where the ankle and foot are required to be flexible (downward dog, lunge, awkward pose) might be painful and difficult initially for the players, but over time their flexibility and strength will increase.
When teaching yoga to any student, but in particular athletes, it is important to be aware of the most common injuries that they may face. This is good practice for you as a teacher, as students may come in at any time with these injuries. It is also good for you to know how the poses you teach can help to prevent against these injuries. Hockey players typically see injuries to their joints – shoulder, hip, knee – for some of the reasons identified above: the multi-directional characteristic of hockey, and the potential body contact. The huge amount of leg strength required for speed and agility also results in pulled groin muscles and hamstring injuries. The forward facing motion combined with the ‘hunched’ position that is held often produces an imbalance in players’ bodies and results in lower back injuries being very common in hockey.
As a yoga teacher working with hockey players, it is important to remember that any yoga is going to be better than no yoga. It is also key to remember that the class structure doesn’t require major changes; however being more mindful of the various poses will help guide your students towards increased flexibility. Try to do some research before hand in order to show that you have knowledge about the sport, and if you can, incorporate specific scenarios or stories that are relevant to the individual or the team. A mindfulness meditation at the end of class can help the students visualize what they might normally experience during a game. If you usually do a reading at the end of class, perhaps it could be a quote from a hockey player or a famous coach. Most of all have fun with it! It is likely that these students may not be very flexible, and if they are a team, may be more likely to socialize. Always be flexible, as what you may have planned might not work on that particular day.
What kind of athletes have you taught yoga to? How have you found it helps in their training, as well as their daily lives?
Beth Spilchuk lives in Mississauga, Ontario with her partner and their dogs. She has been doing yoga for almost ten years, and has been teaching for two (and they are the best years!). She teaches a variety of classes, but has a particular interest in the addition of yoga into sport training schedules, and the benefit it can provide to athletes. Connect with Beth on twitter @yogilete, or Facebook!