Freelap Friday Five with Dan Bittle
Dan Bittle is a skating and skill development coach, partner, and director of research and development with Apex Skating. From 2011-2015, Dan served at the NHL Scouting Combine as a volunteer fitness evaluator. Dan consulted with the Boston Bruins organization at the 2015 Development Camp and conducted testing with the AHL Providence Bruins during the 2015-2016 season.
Apex Skating is a skating and skill development firm headquartered in Ottawa, Canada. Using advancements in technology coupled with coaching methods founded in movement biomechanics and kinesiology, Apex Skating delivers skating development camps and consulting for youth and pro hockey players across North America. The company also creates digital educational content for youth coaches worldwide. Follow Apex Skating on Facebook, at @ApexSkatingCA, and @dannybittle on Twitter.
Freelap USA: How do you assess speed and conditioning on the ice? Some people use specific tests to determine acceleration, higher velocities, and aerobic capacity. What do you do to capture the ability to move fast from point A to point B?
Dan Bittle: There have been rapid advancements in the field of accelerometer technology, and we’ve started using inertial measurement units (IMUs) to capture on-ice accelerometry and velocity data. Before we started experimenting with assessing speed on-ice, we did consider the accuracy of data acquired and weighted it against practical budgetary limits on emerging technology. We see tremendous opportunity in this field, which needs further research and investment.Accelerometry & velocity testing w/ IMUs on-ice is the next wave of athlete testing in hockey. Click To Tweet
Until now, testing physiological attributes like aerobic capacity on the ice has been cumbersome with VO2max testing apparatuses. Accelerometry and velocity testing with portable IMUs are leading the next wave of athlete testing technology in the hockey industry.
Multiple data sets streamed at the same time paint a rich picture of the complex actions of sport. Skating is more of an enigma because it’s difficult to extract the right information.
The algorithmic sophistication of IMU motion analysis software technology, such as the MR3 by Noraxon that we use in our practice, easily gives coaches the opportunity to understand how efficiently their hockey player accelerates, decelerates, and changes direction. They have the opportunity to provide instant feedback and correction to the player’s technique on the ice.
Traditionally we haven’t tested physiological conditioning. But with the advent of heart rate tracking technology, this niche has been widely embraced by the NHL strength and conditioning coach community for both on-ice and off-ice testing and tracking purposes. It’s a very exciting time to be a sport science geek.
Freelap USA: The pelvis and hip structure play a major role in femoroacetabular impingement (FAI) and other biomechanics factors. With ice hockey players’ skate technique, how do you connect motion capture with range of motion testing? Several people understand the connection, but most skip the analysis and scientific bridging of the data to see cause and effect. Could you expand on this in more detail?
Dan Bittle: I’m fascinated by an intriguing and poignant comment made by Dr. Andreo Spina about evolutionary human locomotion—anatomically and biomechanically, human beings are simply not inherently optimized to be skaters. To paraphrase, he notes how ambulation in the sagittal plane by producing force and movement with hip abduction seems almost counter-intuitive to our evolutionary ancestors.
In elite track and field, sport scientists have analyzed and dissected the sprint gait cycle to maximize efficiency in acceleration/velocity, stride length, and frequency. Strength and conditioning coaches, clinicians, and technique coaches in many sports are already working in collaboration to use movement-based assessments and osteokinematic/orthopedic testing to optimize movement performance on the field or the track. They’re also using the information to implement rehabilitative interventions to prevent injury.
With the ever-increasing advancements in wireless IMU technology, coaches and medical professionals can capture and analyze am athlete’s movement kinematics to gain a closer look at how they move on their natural playing surface and not within the restrictive confines of a laboratory.
As technique coaches, we maintain a close relationship with a network of strength and conditioning coaches, sport medicine doctors, and rehabilitative practitioners. I believe that maintaining a collaborative network of professionals in various fields is ideal for the longevity and success of a hockey player.
In our organization, for example, we have an exercise physiologist on staff who facilitates assessments and testing to build an anatomical profile of each client. Clinical practitioners value the sophistication of modern IMU motion capture software. The built-in software algorithms can analyze motion capture kinematic data to raise alerts to tendencies in movement characteristics that may pose susceptibility to injury, such as valgus knee forces and correlating risk for ACL issues.
For example, a technique coach observes that an ice hockey player is not gaining full knee extension during the apex (pun intended) of the forward skating stride. They may simply remark that this is merely a matter of motor patterning and talk about the necessity to develop consistent, positive repetitions in technique (which is certainly a distinct possibility).
A strength and conditioning coach or clinician may observe the limited range of motion and want to conduct orthopedic or movement-based testing that ultimately will determine a muscular restriction in the rectus femoris.
Having IMU motion capture as an additional tool in our arsenal and maintaining a collaborative open line of communication among performance and medical professionals will ultimately help optimize movement capacity and injury prevention in ice hockey players.
Freelap USA: With advanced athletes, many coaches worry about sports hernias and low back problems with ice hockey overload. How do you screen or reduce these problems with data and biomechanics? Often it’s hard to reduce volume, but one can improve function. Thoughts?
Dan Bittle: It’s without question that hip and low back injuries are extremely prevalent in ice hockey. In-season, professional players endure hectic practice and game schedules. They also endure the physical demands of continuous travel, which only imposes further stress and demands upon the body. Off-season training demands are also exceptionally rigorous. Players often return home to train almost daily in the gym and on the ice.
Technique coaching should employ a progressive periodization model similar to that of the strength and conditioning field. It should take into account a player’s off-ice strength and conditioning training commitments to ensure the player isn’t overtraining and increasing susceptibility to injury due to increases in training volume.Motion capture technology is a powerful tool to determine an athlete's range of motion limitations. Click To Tweet
Orthopedic testing and motion capture technology are powerful tools to determine limitations in an athlete’s range of motion, which could influence susceptibility to injury. For speed development, there are two distinct schools of thought within the coaching community. One defers all speed training to the ice, the athlete’s natural field of play. The underlying philosophy is that speed training should be influenced by the sport’s distinct movement patterning (such as skating).
The other school of thought advocates removing players from the physiological rigors of their unique sport. Accordingly, speed work can be conducted on the track and in the gym. Because of the FAI issues associated with ice hockey, taking players off of the ice during the off-season has a positive and proactive restorative effect.
I’m interested in such tools as 1080 Sprint (Ryan Smyth from The Park Sports describes the merits of this technology in a great Simplifaster blog). It can bridge the two philosophies by conducting speed training on-ice, in the hockey player’s natural environment, while also acquiring influential relevant data for strength and conditioning coaches and medical practitioners. Having a greater appreciation and insight into the specificity of an athlete’s anatomy may assist in training technique to overcome genetic limitations, enhance technique, and reduce injury.
An example in hockey is altering the stride extension angle to account for anteversion or retroversion of the acetabulum to maximize skate blade coefficiency on the ice surface (and power production from each push into the ice) while reducing strain on the labrum and connective tissues of the hip joint.
Freelap USA: Lots of long-term athlete development (LTAD) coaches want ice hockey players to become better athletes. But much of the research shows that carryover from the land to ice is limited. Besides the technical and tactical aspects, how do you see other sports helping athletes raise their ceiling globally with the biomotor abilities?
Dan Bittle: The age-old expression, “players do not rise to the occasion, but default to their level of training” is of great value and significant relevance to ice hockey players. Even Wayne Gretzky, The Great One himself, remarked that developing foundational athleticism was the key to becoming a more skillful ice hockey player. The capacity to sustain dynamic balance, core stability, reactive agility skills when changing directions, and hand-eye coordination can all be accomplished off-ice.Ice hockey players can develop their sport-specific skills by participating in other sports. Click To Tweet
Participating in other sports, such as tennis, basketball, football, gymnastics, and martial arts, can help instill and develop these characteristics in an athlete. Ice hockey players can continue to develop their sport-specific skills throughout life while participating in other sports. And engaging in other athletic activities can be a form of active recovery for players. I find the field of neurobiology and the concept of neuroplasticity extremely fascinating.
Freelap USA: What is your future plan for skate pressure mapping? Obviously, it would be a good idea to connect the joint systems under the knee like you did with the hip joint. Skate fitness is so important yet very little information is available.
Dan Bittle: We’re interested in integrating skate pressure mapping into our practice. Some software platforms, including the Noraxon MR3, are integrating the data streams from IMUs, pressure insoles, and EMG simultaneously, providing a comprehensive synchronized view of these data sets in real-time. The ability to view precisely where a skater’s weight distribution and foot pressure is inside of the hockey skate boot is extremely valuable. It would give us the opportunity to make corrections in a skater’s technique instantaneously while they’re on the ice.
Due to the sophistication of the foot/ankle complex, clinicians can assess for such pathologies as navicular drop in a sport where the foot is locked into a motion-restrictive skate boot. Some of the industry’s largest hockey equipment companies, such as Reebok-CCM, are embracing a ground-up approach to sport technique and investing in research and development to give the customer some degree of customization.
Some examples are custom insoles and the Ribcor skate model that uses their Pump technology to remove negative space in the heel of the boot. There’s also an innovative Canadian company called VH Hockey that’s creating personalized skates by using drawings of the customer’s foot.
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