After winning bronze at the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games – when they were gunning for gold instead – Canada’s para ice hockey team wanted to raise their game.
The Sochi disappointment became a catalyst for change and Ken Babey was hired as the team’s new head coach. He brought with him a vision that included an expanded sport science and medicine program, which was realized as the result of a partnership with the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary (CSI Calgary).
For the past three years, the Integrated Support Team (IST) has been instrumental in crafting and delivering a new year-long high-performance structure for the para ice hockey team, which historically has only trained seriously for six months of the year. This initiative has vastly improved the physical capacity of the team and helped create a new culture of excellence.
Erin Sargent, the team’s Lead Physiologist and a CSI Calgary Exercise Physiologist, began working with the team in January 2015 and started by establishing the (IST) that included physiology, strength, nutrition, para medical and mental performance experts.
From there, Sargent and Brian Yu, the team’s Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, began to establish performance targets, introducing new training and monitoring programs and have since added more components, including an injury prevention program.
Early on, Yu says the main goal was to earn buy-in from the athletes. “That started out being a challenge,” recalls Yu. “But it was quickly achieved with the coach's support and when the players started to see the results on the ice.”
“The ultimate goal for the program was simply to make the players as fit, fast and durable as possible,” explains Yu, “so they can play in the system that coach Babey wants them to play.”
Key areas for improvement included on-ice speed and aerobic capacity so they could dominate the game and have the stamina to last well into overtime. The team focused on improvements in body composition, work capacity, anaerobic power, linear acceleration on ice, maximum strength and explosive strength.
To monitor progress, Sargent developed a skating test to measure a spectrum of cardiovascular fitness and throughout the season the team improved their average score by over twenty percent. Yu says the players also made huge improvements on their explosive strength and linear acceleration on the ice. “They are finally at a point that they can skate faster than the speed-dominant Americans!” he says.
The major challenge Sargent and Yu faced throughout the process was working with a decentralized team. “We had to make some changes to the way we programmed, delivered the programs and communicated with the players,” explains Yu. But they made it work with careful monitoring and frequent training camps that brought everyone together.
Yu says athletes have been nothing but amazing. “They were always positive and enthusiastic about training,” he says. “They provided us with lots of feedback regarding their training progress so we could adjust accordingly. Their commitment was shown through the testing results and improvements on ice.”
It’s encouraging to know the team is on the right track and for Sargent the results speak for themselves. “The athletes feel they’ve never been so fit. Since we incorporated sport science, they all see improvements. They say they don’t always understand it, but it’s working.”
The ultimate test of their hard work will be when the players take to the ice at the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in PyeongChang. The team plays in the semi-final against South Korea tonight, Wednesday, March 14th at 9pm MST. Be sure to tune in and cheer them on!
Canadian Sport Institute Calgary: @csicalgary
Written by Kristina Groves: @kngrover
Photo by: Dave Holland @csicalgaryphoto