(image: wikimedia commons)

What a new form of hockey can contribute to skill development for our national sport

Joshua Shapiro

Understanding how talent is developed can help us improve in everything that we do, and enable us to do so faster as well. As Canadians, we are always looking for ways to better our skills in our national sport, hockey. To answer this enduring question, we should not only consider playing more hockey itself, but also investigate playing a different sport entirely. This article suggests that the sport floorball[1] can act as deep practice for hockey, and can help our country produce more elite hockey players.

Floorball, a relatively new sport, was developed in Sweden in the 1970s and has become popular in Scandinavia, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic, among other European countries. It is a specific variation of floor hockey, played in a gym, with lightweight plastic balls and relatively short sticks. The fact that it is played indoors allows the sport to be played year-round, similar to futsal, the adapted version of soccer discussed by Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code. Due to their various similarities, I suggest that floorball, like futsal, “places players inside the deep practice zone, making and correcting errors, constantly generating solutions to vivid problems”.

Floorball, again like futsal, is played in a small gym. This smaller playing surface results in more opportunities to touch the ball. Futsal allows players to touch the ball 600 percent more often than in soccer, and it would not be unreasonable to postulate that there would be a similar increase in the amount of puck-handling by ice hockey players. This gives each player the ability to repeat actions, as is necessary for deep practice. The smaller area also means that there is less space for a player to move, which has two main effects: Firstly, when handling the ball, if a player is not absolutely in control, the ball can easily be taken away. Thus, the little space you have requires the refinement of stick-handling skills, which improves control. Secondly, it becomes particularly necessary to find space on the court to ‘get open’, and necessitates sharper passing.

The equipment differences also allow for deeper practice. The lighter stick, which weighs less than 350 grams, allows for quicker hand motions, improving reaction time. Shorter sticks also mean that the player is closer to the ground, allowing them greater control of the ball[2]. More importantly, perhaps, is the reduced weight of the ball itself, allowing for enhanced responsiveness to touch. Interestingly, the futsal ball was made heavier for this purpose, but in this case, a lighter ball is more sensitive to the player’s touch. The ball also has dimples like a golf ball, and even holes, to make it more aerodynamic; the ball flies faster than a puck can in ice hockey. Once again, increased speed increases the coordination required on the parts of players defending, goalies attempting to catch shots, and forwards redirecting shots at the net. Moves (dekes) can be easily created in floorball, like futsal; greater control of the ball allows for more manoeuvrability and creativity, which can then be transferred to the hockey rink. One of the recommendations in The Talent Code, while discussing his three rules of deep practice, was to “Slow it Down”. There are dekes that need to be practiced in slow motion in order to be mastered, which is sometimes more easily achieved on a floorball court, due to the fast pace at which you glide on ice. Most importantly, as a forward, every touch put on the ball needs to be more fine-tuned, hence similar to futsal, floorball “demands and rewards more precise handling”.

As one would expect, countries where floorball is played have become “talent hotbeds” (similar to Brazil for soccer). Sweden, where floorball is most popular (and who have won the last two World Floorball Championships), has produced many National Hockey League (NHL) stars. The number of young players drafted to the NHL from Sweden has been steadily increasing, and floorball’s training effects on goalies is especially evident. Starting at the turn of the century, the number of Swedish and Finnish goalies has markedly increased[3], and many NHL goalies, among the best in the world, credit floorball in improving agility and reaction time[4]. In fact, many of floorball’s greatest (and certainly most prominent) advocates are former professional hockey players, such as ex-superstar NHLer Peter Forsberg. Famous Toronto Maple Leaf of the 1970s and 1980s, Borje Salming, has actually created a line of equipment. All of the above evidence suggests that floorball should be incorporated into off-ice training in Canada.

Pavel Barber, a hockey skill-developer and strong advocate of floorball, recently interviewed Daniel Coyle about his book on skill development in sports. Barber asked whether there would be merit to floorball in the development of ice hockey players (noting its similarities to futsal). Coyle replied: “Absolutely, makes perfect sense, because think about what your brain is doing in those positions, it’s having to read and react, it’s trying to create that fine edge, to be able to feel in your fingers what’s going on with the puck, and be able to control it”. He noted that in every sport, the pattern should hold: “shrink the space, force the reaction”.

In his book, Coyle describes futsal as “played inside a phone booth and dosed with amphetamines”, and I believe floorball could be described the exact same way. It also produces “an intricate series of quick, controlled passes, and nonstop end-to-end action”. Coyle points out that the smaller space requires that players look for angles, work “quick combinations with other players”, and constantly look for free space. Players are forced to recognize and make plays much quicker, and execute many more touches under constant pressure. All of the above can be said for floorball as well. Floorball puts players on the edge of their ability, (failing and correcting) in order to learn and build skills. Perhaps importantly, floorball is primarily practice in Canada, not nearly as competitive as other professional sports. This makes players feel comfortable taking risks and experimenting, an essential stage of training. Coyle concludes his interview with Pavel Barber by stating “it makes absolutely perfect sense to me that that would be a wonderful way to spend time in the deep practice zone”.

In conclusion, we should seek to develop floorball in Canada, to enable Canadians to reach their highest potential at our nation’s favourite pastime. Before the last Olympics, due to insurance risks, the Canadian men’s Olympic ice hockey team was forced to run a ball hockey practice (not on the ice). While the players largely treated the activity as a joke, the idea had merit, and was perhaps a step in the right direction. I recommend instituting floorball as a dry-land training for junior and professional hockey teams, and promoting the sport among Canadian youth, further developing leagues, camps, and other programs. This sport has the potential to help further the growth of Canadian hockey.

[1] Also commonly known as unihockey, salibandy, and innebandy
[2] This tactic is used in hockey as well; the shorter the stick, the more controlled stick handling
[3] http://www.businessinsider.com/nationality-of-goalies-shows-the-internationalization-of-the-nhl-sports-chart-of-the-day-2013-3
[4] Accomplished Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist played floorball in his development
(image: ullaj)

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