Herb Brooks Employed a Down-To-Earth Definition of “Conditioning”
Posted by Dean Holden at October 19th, 2015
by Jack Blatherwick, 14 October 2015
Given the importance of playoffs in every sport, part of the objective throughout the season is conditioning your team to play at the fastest possible pace while maintaining high quality skills. That was the goal (every practice, every drill) for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team.
But if you watch “conditioning” drills in most sports, the goal appears to be slowness. Is this a misinterpretation of academic concepts like aerobic or cardiovascular fitness? Keep in mind we form habits in each practice drill. The CNS (Central Nervous System is the Brain + Spinal Cord) memorizes – actually changes its anatomy to “streamline” – those movements we repeat often.
Coaches may have the best of intentions for slow conditioning drills, but neuromuscular learning has nothing to do with stated intentions. Athletes become what they repeat most often. Practice a poor golf swing, and you ingrain the wrong habits (on the subject of practicing bad golf habits, I’m an expert). If you jog around the lake for cardiovascular fitness, your CNS is memorizing slow movements, not explosive athleticism that looks like Adrian Peterson or Patrick Kane.
The goal for developing hockey talent was stated simply by the great Russian coach, Anatoli Tarasov: “Speed of hands, speed of feet, speed of mind.”
There’s not much room for slowness in that definition, but we’ve inherited some bad traditions when it comes to “conditioning.” We make young athletes run long shuttles or skate-the-lines, practicing quickness for 5-10 seconds and slowness for the next 35 or so. And if we add more of these, it becomes nothing but slowness – totally antithetical when you consider the original purpose was to maintain speed and quality skill. But … it’s what coaches did before us.
You might ask, “Didn’t Herb Brooks do this with the 1980 Olympic Team?” Yes, when he was frustrated with the team’s effort, he’d “lose it,” as anyone who played for him can attest. There’s an important difference, however. Young players we coach are forming new skating habits, and those should certainly not include slow feet, inadequate knee bend, weak extension and terrible posture.
Actually, the “conditioning” plan for the 1980 team was all about elevating the comfort zone to match the Soviets. By practicing all skills at uncomfortably fast tempo for two hours – over and over for six months – up and down the ice, making quick decisions in flow drills – all the while being pushed by a relentless coach – Herbie turned his players into windup machines.
As a player, Brooks had felt the discomfort of competing against the high-speed/high-skill Soviets in World Championships and Olympic Games. Therefore, as a coach, he was determined they would not win the “comfort zone battle” at Lake Placid. Not for one shift.
So each shift in his “overspeed” practices was a physical and mental challenge: racing up-and-down the ice, criss-crossing and making creative plays in the coach’s comfort zone. Later in the winter, each drill was progressively longer: three lengths of the ice, then four, as players were more capable of executing skills at this “insane” pace. Observers asked irrelevant academic questions, “Is this supposed to be aerobic, anaerobic, lactic or alactic training?” But that was discussed in July. The answer was, “Yes. All the above.”
The mission was clear. The Soviets had the edge in experience, but they would not enjoy an advantage in their trademark: quick hands, feet and mind. The Americans, like the Russians, were conditioned to play like windup machines.
What is the objective when we train children and adolescents?