Field hockey is an intermittent team sport characterised by repeated high intensity actions, such as shooting, tackling and sprinting.
As a youth hockey player there are a multitude of technical and tactical skills that need to be mastered in order to enhance overall development and performance. These may include learning to effectively position themselves on the pitch both with and without the ball during a range of scenarios.
To add to this, hockey players may be regarded as ‘hybrid’ athletes, requiring the maximal anaerobic capabilities to sprint, win possession and change direction with intensity, whilst also possessing the aerobic fitness qualities to recover quickly between high intensity bouts of work. This then needs to be maintained over the course of a full match, broken down into a range of ‘rotations’ dependent upon the position played.
For example, a forward may be required to complete shorter 6-8 minute rotations of very high intensity work before being substituted, whereas a full back may very well remain on the pitch for the full duration. Regardless of position, players also need the necessary physical qualities to get into low positions and remain in them for prolonged periods such as when defending in the ‘D’.
With that in mind, there are a range of boxes that need to be ‘ticked’ when approaching the preparation of a young hockey player. This blog aims to provide insight into those boxes, describing how to effectively balance them with a long term view in mind. This blog can be read from the perspective of an S&C coach, that of a parent of a young hockey player wanting to understand your child’s requirements, or as a player who wants to learn more about the physical attributes needed to reach your goals!
If you are a goalkeeper, you may find my article around Strength and Conditioning for Hockey Goalkeepers more helpful.
Youth hockey players are not mini adults, and therefore there are some key factors to consider when designing an appropriate programme for them. These factors are (not limited to) the following:
Age (biological vs chronological)
Long term goals
It is incredibly important that age is taken into consideration when planning a programme for any athlete, regardless of sport. This can be broken down further into chronological age (how long someone’s been alive) and biological age (physical maturity irrespective of actual age). An example could be two 13 year old hockey players (same chronological age), but one of which is a year older in biological terms. This can be measured using weight, seated height and standing height to determine your stage of maturity. This then provides us with a measure of our biological maturation called ‘peak height velocity’.
There are a multitude of factors which will determine what happens next, but the simplest heuristic to use here is that if an athlete is experiencing rapid rates of growth, then their programme may need to be adjusted to account for this, as ‘adolescent awkwardness’ can lead to things like reduced co-ordination in athletic tasks. One potential intervention may be to reduce the total amount of training that they are doing in a week, to help them through this rapid growth period.
Training history is the degree of experience that the athlete possesses in relation to training status. For example, if an athlete has been formally training for 2 years, then it may be said that they have a training age of 2. Some athletes may have no experience and therefore have a training age of 0! This is a significant factor in what happens next, as the initial stages of working together will look very different dependent upon this factor. If a young athlete who has never formally trained before starts performing basic exercises to improve their overall function, improvements will largely be neural (co-ordination based) as they learn to organise their limbs more effectively in athletic tasks. If a young athlete is relatively old in biological terms for their chronological age (they are an ‘early maturer’), then changes in hormonal profile may influence changes in muscle morphology meaning an increased ability to produce force. This is an important distinction, as on face value it may appear that similar changes are happening to both athletes, when in actual fact they are very different physiological changes underpinning the improvements in performance gained from training.
Movement competency is how well an athlete moves in relation to defined technical models. This could be said to be the ‘athletic foundation’ upon which everything else can be built. “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe” as Charles Poliquin famously said, which broadly speaking means that we can’t build a strong, powerful athlete on a foundation of poor movement and instability. If an athlete has already built a good movement vocabulary through exposure to a broad range of sports and movement challenges at a young age, then there is a stronger foundation already in place. If this isn’t the case, then it becomes a higher priority in the initial stages, although movement competency always remains a priority throughout an athlete’s career!
The individual’s long term goals are vital to clearly define, as everything can be framed around them, which helps support buy in and accountability. If a young athlete’s goal is to gain selection for their 1st XI, local performance centre, D1 college or international side, then we can begin mapping out the path we need to take to get there. ‘Reverse engineering’ is working backwards from an outcome to understand what is required to get there. It would be like taking a car apart to figure out how it works, which in hockey terms would mean deciding which steps need to be taken to get to the end destination. We can also use this end destination to begin relevant conversations about how an athlete's strength and conditioning programme aligns with the necessary steps to achieve their goal.
Now that we have identified the key considerations when working with young hockey players, we can now establish what success looks like for us. You need to define the outcome you are seeking to achieve, otherwise you won’t know if and when you get there. What is the end goal?
In relation to the previous section, having the end goal at the forefront of your mind allows you to think long term and not progress too quickly as a young athlete.
Here’s a quick thought experiment, and something I often use to define the outcomes I seek to achieve with an athlete:
If you had 5 years to get to your goal, what would the first week look like?
This is an extension of the 5 year rule which can help us to gain immediate perspective when working with young athletes. All too often we can be in a rush to get to end goal, wanting immediate fixes and quick results. But there is no short cut to success, and we must ensure that no steps are missed along the athlete’s journey to their goal. If we can define our 5 year journey, we can make sense of our next steps and the most appropriate decisions for a young hockey player.
In a 5 year period completing 2 strength training sessions per week we can accumulate over 500 sessions in total. That gives very little excuse for an athlete not to be a well rounded, competent mover by the end of this period. As a coach we can then begin to tick off as many athletic ‘boxes’ as possible during this journey. These may include the following:
Mobility across joints and in integrated movement
Speed (acceleration and maximal velocity)
Changing direction both in a straight line, laterally and rotationally
Hopping, skipping and bounding in three dimensions on one and two feet
Crawling, balancing and manipulating body positions
Squatting, hinging and lunging on one and two legs
Pushing and pulling with one and two arms both horizontally and vertically
Local muscular capacity of relevant tissues including calf, adductors and trunk
Well developed aerobic conditioning and general work capacity
Can this be achieved in 500 sessions? Absolutely, but it requires consistency and becoming a master of the brilliant basics.
We will touch on the term ‘specific’ shortly, in relation to how we can frame a programme around the demands of hockey.
See the big picture
Continuing with the theme of perspective when working with young athletes, it’s essential that the big picture is taken into account. Sport is one amongst a multitude of factors which need to be considered during this busy period of a young person’s life. Academic work can add unseen pressures, which add to ‘filling the cup’ of stress, which is a simple analogy to understand stress accumulation in the body. All stresses, no matter their origin, are responded to in the same physiological manner. We therefore have a finite capacity for this stress, and they all add water into our cup. If the cup overflows, we have reached our stress capacity, and often get overwhelmed, unwell or injured during these periods. Other factors which can add to a young athlete’s cup include social pressures (including social media), uncertainty, upcoming exams, assessments and many other things.
Supporting a young athlete through this can be done by understanding where their strength and conditioning programme sits within the overall picture of their life. It may well be that adding more stress is not a productive use of their finite resources, and that easing back at appropriate times will help with their total stress tolerance. This is where we need to throw out the text book of periodisation, and start seeing the bigger picture. These times also present excellent educational opportunities to talk about self management as an athlete, how to remove unnecessary stresses, and techniques for managing pressure.
However, there is an important role to play in increasing an athlete’s tolerance to stress at the same time, and therefore it is a fine balance, a ‘push and pull’ approach which we learn through experience. Some young athletes will need pushing at times more than others, and vice versa. This all comes down to knowing the athlete in front of you.
Base decisions on assessment
Without assessment we are guessing about what an athlete needs, so we must remove any guesswork in the process of supporting an athlete during their journey. Assessments should seek to answer a question, and the answer we get then informs our programme decisions. Here are a few questions you may seek to answer with young hockey players:
What is the athlete’s local capacity at relevant injury sites associated with hockey?
What is the athlete’s biological maturity status relative to their age?
How fast can the athlete accelerate over a short distance?
What is the athlete’s maximal sprint speed capability?
Are there any asymmetries when comparing the athlete’s left and right limbs?
Has the programme changed the previously identified performance markers?
What is the athlete’s injury risk profile?
There are an infinite number of questions we can seek to answer, and this totally depends on the context in which you are working. However, once we’ve assessed and answered the relevant questions, we can build a programme that seeks to meet their needs and ‘bridge the gap’ between their current capabilities and the demands of hockey. If they are aiming for a specific team selection, there may already be defined physical benchmarks which help us gauge how close we are to achieving them. Finally, assessments can be used to monitor progress during the athlete’s athletic journey.
General vs specific
General - concerning all or most people or things
Specific - clearly defined or identified
‘Specificity’ is one of the most common phrases you might hear around strength and conditioning. “How can I make it specific to hockey?” is frequently asked by athletes, parents and coaches alike, all coming from a place of good intentions. Often people assume that the more specific something looks to a given sport, the more relevant and beneficial it is going to be. Clearly we want to ensure that there is strong alignment between the demands of hockey and the programme content, but it isn’t quite as simple as that.
Strength and conditioning is not sport.
The role of S&C is to provide an athlete with the necessary physical attributes to perform in their sport, whilst mitigating the risk of injury. A different question could be ‘what are the athlete’s current physical limitations to performance?’. This helps us to see more clearly what impact we are trying to make. Overload in training is providing a stimulus that is greater than an athlete’s current capabilities or previous exposure, and this helps us to make progress physically. The more ‘specific' something is, the harder it is to overload it, and this is especially the case with young athletes.
So what is the answer? Well in hockey terms, it is providing the necessary physical qualities for the sport, whilst also providing a broad base of athleticism and a large movement vocabulary as identified earlier (we need to tick off as many boxes as possible!).
An example could be ensuring that there is sufficient work being completed around the calf/ankle, hamstring and trunk on a regular basis, as these are common injury sites in the sport. We can ensure we achieve this aim in a ‘general’ sense by ensuring exposure to a broad range of movements that seek to challenge these tissues whilst developing a broad base of athletic competency.
This thought process might look something like this:
What is a common injury site in hockey? Ankle
What are the factors which determine risk at this area? Force and capacity of ankle stabilisers including calf and soleus, as well as proprioceptive qualities and range of motion
How can we achieve this whilst exposing the young hockey player to a broad range of movements? Challenge them with hopping and bounding in multiple directions, balance tasks, and high volume localised capacity work such as calf raises to develop strength of the plantar flexors
We can see therefore that this doesn’t need to be a dichotomy and we can comfortably achieve both general and specific means of training through a complementary approach. This ultimately comes down to understanding the needs of young athletes, the demands of the sport, and operating around principles, not methods.
Putting it all together
So how might this all look, given that there are a number of considerations to take into account. On face value there are lots of boxes to tick (which there are), and it could be potentially difficult to know what to prioritise.
In terms of weekly content, it would be advisable for young hockey players to prioritise strength exercises (bodyweight only at first unless you are working with a qualified professional who has given you the go ahead to use external load). Aim to complete 2 sessions per week if you can, with each session taking around 45-60 minutes. If you don’t have that much time, you can simply reduce the amount of work in each session.
More broadly, using the ‘rule of 2’ can be a helpful guide for weekly training content. Aim to complete 2 mobility/stretching sessions, 2 strength sessions including local muscular endurance, and 2 speed or conditioning sessions per week. If you have a busy schedule with school and hockey as well, this may not be achievable, but it is a useful guideline for what will be required of you at higher levels of performance.
A simple way to keep things time efficient is to be strategic with when you complete certain sessions. Can you incorporate mobility, speed and strength exercises into warm ups? Can you add on an extra 10-15 minute conditioning session at the end of practice? These questions will largely be dictated by your current schedule and training history, so if you are in any doubt please do contact me.
A relevant strength session for a youth hockey player might look something like this (in order of completion):
1) Mobility warm up including focus on hips, thoracic spine and ankle e.g. t-rotations, spiderman, inchworm, lunge variations
2) Balance, jumping and hopping based tasks in three dimensions such as lateral hops, linear hops and rotational jumps
3) Lower body strength exercises on one and two legs such as split squats, hip hinges and hip thrusts
4) Upper body strength exercises (pushing and pulling) using one and two arms such as single arm bent over rows and push-ups
5) Local muscular endurance work such as single leg bridges, single leg calf raises and trunk exercises (anterior and lateral)
The load parameters will largely be determined by the athlete’s training age and assessment results, as explained earlier in the article. However, it is generally advisable to complete 2-4 sets of 8-15 repetitions with young athlete’s unless their training age allows them to complete more advanced loading.
Here are a few physical challenges that will give you a sense of where you are as a young hockey player! N.B. please always ensure that you have been cleared medically before attempting any physical exercise programme.
Single leg calf raises - complete as many as possible (target = 25 reps)
Single leg bridges - complete as many as possible (target = 25 reps)
Single leg balance with eyes closed (target = 60 seconds)
Plank and side plank - hold as long as possible (target = 90 seconds)
Strength and conditioning for youth hockey players doesn’t need to be overcomplicated. Think long term, define success for the individual, and use perspective to see the bigger picture. Understand the needs of the sport, providing the relevant physical qualities whilst also providing a broad athletic base for the athlete to operate from.
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