How to train like an elite hockey player
By Stuart Marsh
Elite Hockeyroos defender Anna Flanagan with all the tips to get your training on-point. (image) RedBull Media
Whether you pick up the stick to play for your local team on a weekly basis or are looking to break into the national side, if you want the best performance on the pitch, you'll need to train like some of the world's best hockey players.
And they don’t come any better than gun defender Anna Flanagan, who's currently preparing for the 2016 Olympics in Rio with the Hockeyroos.
"The lead-up to the Olympics is really intense – we all put work and study on hold to train full-time as a team," Flanagan tells ninemsn Coach.
"The Australian squad has incredible depth and all of the girls have an enormous work ethic. It really pushes you to succeed when you know that any of the girls could take your place."
Build your strength for explosive on-field speed
If you want to build lightning-fast reaction times on the pitch, it may be time to put down the stick and head into the gym, because the best way to improve your short-distance speed is to gain strength.
"The strength aspect of our training is probably a lot more than people expect. We do three to four gym sessions a week, mainly CrossFit- style workouts which involve barbell strength training like squatting," says Flanagan.
"We also do a lot of Olympic lifting, which helps develop that power and acceleration – something you need in hockey to close down space."
Olympic lifting, as Flanagan points out, is excellent for developing your fast-twitch muscle fibres (which control how much force your body can put out at any one time). Olympic lifting is based around two main exercises: the snatch and the clean and jerk, and are best done under the supervision of a trained coach.
To boost hockey endurance, ditch the long runs
For decades your average weekend player has relied upon long, slow runs to build their aerobic base in time for hockey season – but modern strength and conditioning science is beginning to tell us that this does little else other than making you better at long, slow runs.
"It's all about shorter, more intense training sessions – the days of long jogs are definitely over for hockey training because all they do is zap the power and speed out of your legs," advises Flanagan.
"Hockey is essentially 70 minutes of work, and although a lot of that is aerobic fitness, the quicker the game becomes the more you need those short, intense 10-metre sprints."
For Flanagan, it's pushing herself to exhaustion in these short (but intense) sessions that helps her to build a level of mental toughness required to play hockey at an international level. She recommends that aspiring hockey players work on short 10 to 40-metre sprints, and slowly build up how many they can do in a 15-minute period.
"A great drill to improve your fitness is to do something called shuttle runs. Go down to your local hockey pitch — a soccer or football pitch is just as good — and mark out every 25 metres," explains Flanagan.
"Then run to the first 25-metre mark and back, then to the 50-metre mark and back, and so on"
Even the pros practice the fundamentals
It’s all well and good to be the strongest, fittest, even the fastest player on the team – but if you can't trap, pass and shoot, you won’t get very far in the sport.
So it may come as a surprise to some that even the elite practise the very basic fundamentals of hockey. From trapping the ball over and over to repeatedly hitting passes, they practice the simple aspects to make sure that in the heat of the game their muscle memory can take over.
"It's funny but even the national team practices the basis fundamentals of soccer over and over. For instance we'd do a two-hour session of just trapping the ball. Someone will hit the ball at us at all different angles and we just work on receiving it over and over," explains Flanagan.
"We'd probably do two to three sessions a week on just the basics of hockey like trapping and passing – you can never be too good and it helps with the muscle memory when your body is fatigued."
Injury-proof yourself for a longer career
As Flanagan explains, a vital part of strength and conditioning for any sport isn't about becoming the fittest team in the world – it's about becoming the most injury-proof.
In hockey, the most common injury suffered is a tear to the anterior cruciate ligament (otherwise known as "doing an ACL"). If that all sounds like Latin to you, your ACL is one of the main ligaments of the knee that protects it from bending further than it needs to, which is called hyperextending.
(For those with a strong stomach, there's several examples of hyperextension here and here.)
To battle this, Flanagan regularly works on her flexibility and mobility, and the team as a whole trains to injury-proof their bodies as much as possible.
"The reason why there's so many ACL injuries in hockey is the sharp turning and direction changes we make on the turf," explains Flanagan.
ACL injuries are just about the most devastating injury a hockey player can endure, thanks largely to the lengthy recovery period. If an ACL needs to be reconstructed with surgery, most people will look at anywhere between six to 12 months before hitting the pitch again.
"To try and prevent ACL injuries from happening we do a lot of strengthening and unilateral work, things like single leg squats," advises Flanagan.
"There's also an emphasis on flexibility, and we do yoga once a week, often to get us warm before a big strength session."