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Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Bag Skate

In mid-winter of 1980, as he prepared his team for the Olympics ahead, Herb Brooks had his players muttering his name in vain under their breath as he skated them endlessly and mercilessly up and down the ice at the end of a practice session.

Every winter since then, probably more frequently since the release of the movie Miracle which depicted the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team and glorified what has become known as “Herbies”, an endless number of players have muttered the name of their coach under their breath as well. At least as much as they could while trying to catch their breath.

Every hockey player knows about the Bag Skate. Every hockey player hates the Bag Skate. If you have ever bore witness to one or have been on the business end of one you know why. There really is not a whole lot good about them.

If you happened to be in the inner sanctum of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, or if you were paying the slightest bit of attention during Miracle, you would know that there was a method to Brooks’ madness. He was not trying to physically condition his players, although they probably did get a little benefit in that regard. But he was trying to psychologically condition his players, to develop their mental toughness and get them to work harder than they believed possible. Most importantly, he was trying to bring them together, to get them to understand that they were a team, and all in it together representing their country, not just a group of individual stars from all over the country. If that team cohesiveness was spawned predominantly through a universal, temporary hatred of its head coach, then so be it.

That’s all we’ve got?
Unfortunately, most Bag Skates are a little light on the method and a lot overboard on the madness. And even more unfortunate is the fact that many youth hockey coaches tend to view the Bag Skate as a beneficial coaching tactic and a positive experience for their players. In my opinion that couldn’t be further from the truth.

As a player, I hated the Bag Skate and thought they were stupid. As a coach, I still hate the Bag Skate and still think they are stupid. I also think it is a waste of valuable ice time and causes more harm to youth hockey players than benefit. On the very rare occasions that I have resorted to it, I am much more upset at myself than I am at the players because I have failed them in my role as a coach.

At the higher levels of the game, junior, college and above, where the players are pretty much physically (and maybe or maybe not mentally) mature, the Bag Skate might serve a little bit of a purpose in terms of getting a team’s attention when all else fails.

But the concept is really quite Neanderthal if you really think about it. A team is not performing as well or working as hard as a coach thinks that it should. So the solution is to put them on the goal line and have them skate to the blue line and back, red line and back, far blue and back, far end and back. That usually takes anywhere from 45 seconds to a minute the first time around and then increasingly longer with each subsequent repetition.

And that’s the best we’ve got? That is supposed to somehow make them play better or harder? Seriously?

Players should love to skate
The actual physical demands of the Bag Skate really don’t do anything but tire the players out and possibly make them mad either at the coach or at the teammates who they believe were the cause of the Bag Skate in the first place.

Mentally, the fear of the Bag Skate might get players to work hard in the short term when threatened with it or it could get them to play harder in the next game or few games after the Bag Skate. But the effects are always only temporary. Fear of the Bag Skate should not be relied on as any kind of motivator for a team or players. All it really does is get their attention when all else fails. The reality is that it is a desperate and short-term move.

In youth hockey, where the players are neither physically or mentally mature, the effects of the Bag Skate have more serious negative consequences.

In a game where skating is arguably the most important skill set, using that skill as a punishment makes very little sense. Why would we want there to be any sort of negative connotation toward skating? Players should love to skate. They should feel good about skating. They should want to skate. As fast as they can for as long as they can. Associating skating with punishment or using the threat of it as fear to motivate players can’t be a productive strategy in the long run.

Bad, then worse
From a technical standpoint, the Bag Skate does nothing to help players improve their skating technique. In fact, it actually makes them worse. For the first 15 seconds of a hard skate a player can maintain good skating technique, good knee bend and body posture with a long, powerful stride, returning the skate completely back underneath the body before taking the next stride. After that, it is a complete train wreck. The legs straighten, the base widens, the stride shortens, and the result bears very little resemblance to efficient and powerful skating technique.

But this doesn’t just occur for 15 seconds, it goes on for the 45 seconds or longer that it takes for the repetition to be completed. And then it just gets worse for each subsequent go around. In effect we are training our players to be poor skaters. And then we wonder why they can’t skate fast?

If that is not bad enough, it can actually get worse depending on when the Bag Skate occurs in a practice. Some coaches like to send the message right from the get-go. Before a puck ever hits the ice, the players are on the goal line getting ready for misery. Down and back they go, over and over again. The ice gets bad. Their skating technique gets worse. They get tired. They get angry. If and when the torture ever stops before practice is scheduled to end, there really is no sense in doing anything else. For all intent and purpose, practice is over. The ice is bad. The players are physically and mentally spent. Anything done from that point on in terms of trying to practice to improve is nothing but a greater waste of time and an even greater waste of the money that paid for the ice time.

Yet the Bag Skate is pretty much accepted as a time-tested staple of pretty much every coach’s repertoire, which is really kind of sad when you think about it. That’s all we’ve got? Just because it was something that was forced on us at players doesn’t make it right.

Times have changed. Most areas of coaching have improved. The use of the Bag Skate confirms one of three things, the coach doesn’t know any better, he saw Miracle too many times or there’s nothing else left in the coaching bag.

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