In the sport of hockey, vision is often an overlooked (pun intended) skill. Because of the speed of the game, players need to make split-second decisions based on what they see.
“The vast majority of the decisions a player makes on the ice come from the visual system,” said Josh Tucker, who owns and operates True Focus Vision Training (formerly Envision Sports). “If a player’s peripheral vision is limited, they might have a harder time seeing open teammates or seeing a guy come to hit them.”
Tucker, who is an assistant coach at Breck High School, said players have to constantly scan and process information through their eyes so they can make decisions. Part of good vision includes hand-eye coordination, the ability to coordinate physical movements with the information you’re receiving through your eyes.
“Hand-eye coordination – at its simplest – is awareness to where your hands and limbs are in relation to your body,” said Tucker. “When your brain tells your hands where to go – how fast and how far do I have to put my hand? Where is the object in space in relation to my hand?”
Much like a player will weight train to get stronger, there are things a player can do to improve vision and hand-eye coordination.
“There’s strength, speed, agility, flexibility, nutrition and mental parts that make up a complete player and no one would dare take out a piece of the pie,” Tucker said. “If you take out any of those aspects, you’re not going to be as good. A majority of players never do anything to improve their vision, so ignoring that piece is no different than taking out one of those other pieces.”
Get an Eye Exam
Before a player can improve his or her vision, it’s important to determine if they are seeing properly. An eye exam with an optometrist is often the only way for a parent to know if their child is not seeing correctly.
“What I commonly hear from parents when working with kids who haven’t had a proper eye exam is, ‘Well he never complained about it,’” Tucker said.
Tucker said the problem is whatever a child experiences is normal to him or her. So, if they’re dealing with less than 20/20 vision and need contacts or glasses, they won’t know and will go on functioning without the use of corrective eyewear.
“If anything, I hope this will be a call to action to make sure kids are getting annual eye exams,” Tucker said. “School screenings are a fine start, but they are not very thorough in comparison to what an optometrist is going to look at.”
Play Other Sports
The best way for kids to gain coordination, both physically and visually, is by being active and playing a lot of different sports.
“At Breck, we’ll have a drill or a situation where the puck will go off the glass and the kid will go to glove it and completely miss. Most likely, that kid never played baseball,” Tucker said. “Same thing in the goalie world, we’ll have kids who can’t catch and it’s because they never played baseball.”
Playing other sports doesn’t mean it needs to be formalized or in a league.
Many players kick a soccer ball around, aka sewer ball, to warm up before getting on the ice, which is excellent for coordination and athleticism. Although this might be more of an ‘eye-foot’ coordination drill, Tucker joked, it’s a great exercise for a player’s peripheral perception, moving their body and turning their hips.
Complicating the process of hand-eye coordination is the fact that players have hockey sticks in their hands. For sports like baseball, lacrosse and even tennis, players get accustomed to striking an object with something other than their hand, much like in hockey.
“Lacrosse is a great carry-over because you’re giving and receiving passes with a stick,” Tucker said. “You have to process things quickly – the speed of the game is up there with hockey.”
Challenge Visual Skills and Coordination
Like many hockey skills, hand-eye and visual coordination is not limited to on-ice training.
Often times in the hallways of rinks, you’ll see a goaltender warming up by throwing a tennis ball up against the wall at different angles and catching it. Tucker said drills like these are great for younger players and not limited to goaltenders to increase hand-eye coordination and reaction time.
Tucker likens this type of training to golf: “You might only get two sand shots in a round. That’s not enough to improve. The way to improve would be to go to a range, drop a bucket of balls in the sand and hit 200 of them.
“If you’re a goalie you only get so many shots to your glove or blocker,” Tucker said. “With these drills, you can do reps until your heart’s content.”
Forwards and defensemen can do stick drills in their driveway or garage with friends or through training aides.
If a player is bored with going through pylons with a ball, they can “juggle” with the blade of their stick and see how long they can keep it from hitting the ground:
Or, attempt to balance a ball on their blade and roll it up and down the shaft of their stick.
Getting a friend or teammate to join in driveway drills is a fun way to turn training into a competition.
One player can shoot a tennis ball up against a garage or wall, while the other player stands in front of them trying to redirect it, as if they were tipping and screening in front of a goalie.
“You want the stick to become like a third arm or an extension of your arms, so you always know where the blade is in relation to your body,” Tucker said. “If someone tries to saucer pass over your stick, are you able to knock it down?”
If you haven’t done it yourself, chances are you’ve seen someone else do it. At first, it may seem like natural born talent, but those plays are the result of hours and hours of developing hand-eye coordination. Now, it’s your turn to develop those skills with these small games and activities!