IntelliGym:  Revolutionizing “Hockey Sense” Training

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Talk to any hockey scout, GM, or coach and they will all say the same thing.  Beyond any physical skill in hockey, the one thing that determines the longevity and sustained success of a player is “Hockey Sense”.  It’s what made Wayne Gretzky the greatest player to ever play the game.  Gretzky wasn’t big (Listed as a very generous 6 feet, 185 pounds), he wasn’t a tremendous skater (he had that hunched over, laborious stride), and didn’t have a particularly hard shot, but what he did have was an off-the-charts, insanely high level of mental acuity.  The reason he was so much better than everyone was that he could read the game three steps ahead of the play.  Wayne Gretzky was the gold standard for hockey sense.

Knowing that hockey sense is paramount to the success of a hockey player, why can’t we figure out how to develop this skill?  The answer has always been that it’s too complicated, and in hockey, like most sports, when something is too complicated, the default, all-encompassing answer is: “You either have it, or you don’t”.  It’s easier to say Gretzky was a gift from the Hockey Gods, born with Einstein-esque hockey sense then to begin to fathom that there is a way to train hockey players to think the game at elite levels.

From a development standpoint we need verifiable correlations.  Want to score more goals?  No problem, we can count those and if we work on your shot, we can see before and after effects.  Need to become faster?  OK, let’s work on adding more leg strength and incorporate some power skating to lengthen your stride.  We can compare timed laps to determine improvement.  These are physical skills that are easily trained and can be directly linked to outcomes.  The brain, however, isn’t as easily measurable–at least not for a bunch of Hockey Dum-Dums (Me, chiefly among them).

Growing up in the culture of hockey, I always took my cues, without question, from this guy (generic all-knowing “Hockey Guy”):

 Hockey Sense

Why wouldn’t I?  He’s the coach.  He had a loud voice and a whistle and he “forgot more about hockey than I’ll ever know.”  There may have even been a time when he was a young player when he dared ask the question of how to develop hockey sense, before he was smacked on the head with a hockey stick and told to smarten up.

So, in order to break the cycle and think outside the box, how can we begin to explore how to train this mysterious intangible that all great players possess?  Enter “IntelliGym”, Applied Cognitive Engineering (ACE) training technology designed to improve cognitive performance of competitive athletes.  Originally developed for Air Force pilots by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.), IntelliGym uses “Cognitive Simulation” to develop and train the brain to improve reaction time, perception and spatial recognition.

IntelliGym is a software program automatically customized to each and every player’s strengths and weakness, and is uniquely based on positive reinforcement. It adapts to a player’s learning curve and particular needs as he develops new lines to competitive success in his neural pathways.  It’s not a hockey video game (Like EA Sports NHL 2015)—it’s not even close. It is designed (based upon extensive research) to target and develop specific cognitive skills.

 

The Science Behind IntelliGym

“What we have discovered is that a key factor for an effective transfer from training environment to reality is that the training program ensures ‘Cognitive Fidelity’, this is, it should faithfully represent the mental demands that happen in the real world. Traditional approaches focus instead on physical fidelity, which may seem more intuitive, but less effective and harder to achieve.”

Prof. Daniel Gopher (World-renown expert in Cognitive Science)

 

Common assumptions are that the best way to train for something is to physically do it.  Repetition makes perfect, right?  When it comes to the brain, this can be true, but it isn’t necessarily the most efficient and effective approach.  In other words, there is a better way to improve your hockey sense than just being on the ice playing hockey.  By understanding which cognitive skills make up hockey sense and isolating training through a specifically-designed, comprehensive program, you can experience more substantial results.

Professor Gopher noted regarding the reapplication of his original technology that “most of our daily activities, and specifically most of sports related activities, involve executive control processes that are responsible for aspects such as planning and sequencing activities, focusing attention, selecting between environmental aspects, switching and dividing attention between different actions, and more.”

In other words, IntelliGym includes major components that train athletes to be “Mentally Tough”.  Across all sports, insiders and outsiders alike have always marvelled over the mentally tough “Clutch” performers—players who always seem to elevate their game at the most critical moments.  From Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods, there have always been a select few who deliver astounding results when pressure is at its greatest.  Like hockey sense, mental toughness has always been a mystical intangible—too complicated to comprehend.

 

IntelliGym Results:

Theories are great, but hockey is about results.  How is a historically undisputed view—you can’t teach hockey sense—that has lasted over a century going to all of  a sudden be debunked by some goofy video game built by a bunch of airplane nerds?  Where is the proof that this works?

Since 2008, the IntelliGym program has been an integral component of development for the USAH’s NTDP (National Teams Development Program).  The NTDP became base camp for the further development of IntelliGym, from a hockey sense training standpoint.  Supplying subject matter expertise, the NTDP and ACE Ltd., teamed up to fine-tune the program and the results have been astounding:

 

USAH’s NTDP – Since incorporating IntelliGym Training:

  •  First two USHL Playoffs
  • A total of 17 gold medals out of 21 international tournaments
  • 5 out of 6 IIHF U18 World Championships titles

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US NTDP Testimonials:

“We fully expect the Hockey IntelliGym to become part of the regular training regimen for players at all age levels and abilities.”

Jim Johannson, Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations for USA Hockey

 

“They just started to make plays under pressure that I hadn’t seen prior to them using the IntelliGym”

Former U18 National Team Coach, Kurt Kleinendorst

 

“It’s a tremendous part of the whole player that we’re trying to get with USA Hockey”

Danton Cole, US U18 National Team Coach

 

On top of the extensive work with USA Hockey, IntelliGym was awarded first prize at the 2010 Brain Fitness Innovation Awards and was featured in The New York Times and The Globe and Mail.

 

Injury Prevention Aspect:

With increased knowledge of the effects of head injuries in hockey, there is more emphasis now on protecting players, especially youth hockey players.  With how big, fast and strong hockey players have become, the best form of injury protection is awareness and spatial recognition.  The Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, a global leader in sports injury prevention and rehabilitation, has collaborated with IntelliGym to include cognitive therapy training designed to improve players’ on-ice awareness and decision making, which in turn are expected to enhance performance and reduce injury rate.

 

Like anything in sports, change is inevitable and expected.  Hockey, more than any other major sport, has experienced change a break-neck rates.  From equipment to training, continuous improvement has been the driving force behind the survival of the sport of hockey.  IntelliGym is just another example of how positive change continues to fuel the success of hockey world-wide.

 

For more information on how IntelliGym Hockey works, check out:  https://www.intelligym.com/hockey/preview

 

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

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