Preventative Brain Assessments and Training for Hockey Players
BASELINE TESTING = FUNCTION ASSESSEMENT
Baseline testing provides information about the function of different aspects of your brain. Knowing what level of function a hockey player was prior to an injury gives a comparison point. Many hockey players may have functional deficits without symptoms prior to an injury. In the event of a concussion in a hockey practice or game, any functional deficits noted on examination that were not previously known to have existed, will be incorrectly attributed to the recent injury. Basic ImPACT baselines are an absolute must and a deeper understanding of how well your brain is functioning can be determined with a comprehensive evaluation.
PERFORMANCE = PREVENTION
How your brain is functioning not only will determine how well you play hockey, but will also impact your ability to avoid collisions and influence your rate of recovery in the event of an injury. Peripheral vision, balance, reaction time are all functions of brain that when functioning at an optimal level, can help the player avoid injury.
All things being equal, a higher functioning brain should give you a better outcome in the event of a traumatic brain injury. The research suggests that in the event of a concussion, anybody with ADHD or dyslexia has a worse prognosis than somebody without this neurobehavioral state. Simply put, if an area of brain has functional challenges pre-injury and this area is concussed, the outcome or prognosis will likely be worse.
Given that the research supports this for ADHD and dyslexia, it is potentially true for any region with diminished function. Therefore, the logical thing to do is ensure that we maximize the functional integrity of as many aspects of brain as possible.
Given the high incidence of concussions in hockey and the serious long term consequences of concussions, it is time that a new approach is taken. The new approach considers “function” of brain performance and not just symptoms. Just because symptoms have resolved, does not mean brain function has been restored.
FUNCTION = PERFORMANCE
VISUAL FUNCTION is essential for any hockey player or goalie. It only takes a split second of distraction to cause you to lose sight of the puck. When your mind wanders, your eyes also wander. If your mind is locked in, your eyes will be locked in. The more your eyes are locked on to the target, the better you will be able to track the puck. Quick eye movements, eye tracking and visual fixation are all visual functions that are governed by the brain. These functions will make the difference between scoring a goal or saving a goal and fanning on the puck, missing the net or letting in a soft goal. These visual functions can be tested and improved upon within weeks.
The FOCUS that is essential for all hockey players, regardless of position, can be increased with brain based exercises. When is your ability to focus more important than on a penalty shot? As brain focus comes down, potential distractions increase. The slightest sound, movement or intrusive thoughts can cause the eyes to come off the target causing loss of control of the puck, missed shot or from the standpoint of the goalie, a heartbreaking goal against.
There is a linear relationship between brain function and impulse control. Have you wondered sometimes why a player does not inhibit those impulses and keeps taking retaliation penalties? Impulse control or processing consequences of actions, is a reflection of brain and something that can be improved upon.
The ability to BLOCK OUT DISTRACTIONS is key for a hockey player, particularly a goalie. The movement of all the players, the crowd noise, a flickering light and a host of other factors, can distract a player or a goalie. Impulse control and the ability to attend, is key to keeping a player’s “mind on the game” and the “eye on the puck”.
A hockey players ability to skate, stick handle, pass and shoot requires RHYTHM AND TIMING. Rhythm and timing are governed by your brain. The coordination, speed and quickness of the hands and feet are dependent on, and reflective of, the functional level of the brain.
How many times have you seen an amazing hockey player take a hit, get tripped up and still manage to stay on their feet? Perfect BALANCE is central to all function to any hockey player. As part of the global “vestibular system”, the brain’s awareness of, and accuracy of the bodies position sense relative to their environment, is a consequence of the integrity of brain.
Balance function also relates to stability of your spine, knees and ankles. Injury prevention starts with perfect balance. Balance with your head and body in all positions is important for neck stability and consequently concussion prevention.
Motor functions are developed through repetition. You develop these built in motor programs through practice. However, the area of brain that holds these motor programs is governed, controlled or initiated by other frontal cortex areas. MOTOR PLANNING, MOTOR SEQUENCING, MOTOR INITIATION is the difference between being first off the mark or being caught off guard and slow to react.
Above all else, DECISION MAKING is what makes a hockey player reach their maximum potential. The ability of a hockey player to see the whole ice, recall where all the players are on both teams, analyze their options and potential moves or counter moves while under pressure, is crucial to the success of any team. Content and speed of processing can be measured and conditioned. I believe it was Wayne Gretzky who, when asked why he was so good, said “everybody else skates to where the puck is, I skate to where the puck is going” when he was asked why he was so good. You can only anticipate the development of the game by quick, accurate thought processing.
In the end, when we are talking about concussions, prevention, performance or brain training, it isn’t an either or situation but rather a continuum of care: