Muscles can be toned, endurance can be refined, leadership qualities can be taught. But how do you train a hockey player’s brain? Can a coach work the areas of a player’s brain responsible for awareness and intuition?
The Israeli Air Force, of all people, has the answer.
More specifically, the answer comes from Applied Cognitive Engineering, or ACE, an Israeli technology company that has worked with the Israelis and the U.S. Air Force, as well as NASA and the American military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Originally used to train fighter pilots, ACE’s IntelliGym is now being adopted by more and more hockey coaches.
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The cognitive training system develops players’ awareness and ability to make fast-paced decisions and has already made its mark on the hockey world in just three years.
“We had no idea what to expect. It kind of looked like a video game. Sure enough, you could see how it related to hockey and increased your awareness and knowledge,” said Michael Cornell, a junior defenseman and alternate captain at the University of Maine, whose team used the IntelliGym last season. “I think it was one of those things where it became almost second nature. I read this play differently because of the tools I’ve been using. It helped develop a high level of awareness for me.”
Training brain fundamentals
In the sports world, IntelliGym was first harnessed by a number of big-time basketball coaches, including Hall-of-Famer Hubie Brown, who now sits on ACE’s advisory board. When the team behind the IntelliGym noticed the incredible speed and action of hockey, they saw another area where they could provide a vital training tool.
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“We were asking coaches how they train athletes to make the right decisions,” said Danny Dankner, ACE’s chief operating officer. “For many of them, they thought being a smart player was a born trait. Either you were born that way or not. But, just like training your muscles, everyone can train their brain fundamentals. The percentage of improvement for pilots in on-air performance was tens of percent on average. If you want to train situational alertness and read-and-react skills and pattern recognition, these are skills that are harder to train.”
While other schools, including the United States Air Force Academy, have adopted IntelliGym in their hockey programs, the greatest results so far have been with the United States’ National Development Team Program. In perhaps the greatest testament to the merits of the program, last summer’s draft boasted an impressive 16 selections who had trained with the IntelliGym, including top picks J.T. Miller, Connor Murphy, and Tyler Biggs.
But the number of NHL prospects is not the only statistic ACE boasts in touting the efficiency of its program.
Winning games with fewer injuries
Since adopting the IntelliGym, the United States national Under-18 team has gone from winning 29 percent of its games to a whopping 70 percent. Because the U.S. program has only used the IntelliGym for three years, the sample size for these statistics is rather small. But in the world of hockey, it’s championships that are the ultimate metric. And considering the U.S. U-18 team is a three-time world champion and the U-17 and U-18 teams have combined to win 10 of their last 13 tournaments, the results seem to be indisputable.