|Former Bruins star Tim Thomas revived his career with yoga.|
When I was young, I was lucky enough to have a fair amount of natural flexibility. But I still worked at it. I remember doing stretches in the living room of my house in college, and my roommates marveling how I could wrap my hands under the bottom of my feet, and touch my nose to my knees.
As I got older, and work and parenthood squeezed my day, I was less vigilant about my stretching routine. In my 40s and 50s, my once pliable body became stiff as a proverbial board. The solution? Yoga.
Here's my chat with my yoga muse, Kim Johnson. Let me know hat you think ...
Yoga – A goaltender's secret weapon
Goalies are a defensive bunch. It seems whenever the "powers that be" decide that the game needs more scoring, everyone looks at the size of the goalies, and the size of their equipment. It's far less often that you hear folks talking about how today's goaltenders are better athletes, better coached, employing better techniques.
But what those same people often don't realize is that the techniques we teach these days, while incredibly effective, can wreak havoc on a goalie's body. It's no surprise that we're seeing more lower body injuries, especially the hips. Those in the goalie business have even designed specific exercise programs, which we employ at Stop It Goaltending, to help counter-balance those forces.
And yet, one of the best methods of avoiding butterfly-induced injuries is actually ancient, and much, much older than the game itself. Namely, yoga.
Just this past summer, I sat in as New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider was telling a group of young netminders about a time when he saw elder statesman and fellow Boston College alum Scott Clemmensen on the floor, going through an elaborate stretching routine – including yoga poses – before practice.
"Clemmer, what are you doing?" Schneider recalled asking his teammate. "And he says, 'Don't laugh. It won't be long before you're doing this too.'
"Sure enough, he was right," said the Marblehead, Mass., native with a big smile. "Now that I'm over 30, I'm doing the same stretches. Every day."
Kim Johnson of the Athlete's Yoga in Woburn, Mass., has been working with hockey goalies for more than a decade. They include pros like Schneider, Scott Darling, Mike Condon, Joe Cannata, Clay Witt, as well as a raft of young men and women still in school, from 12 to 22. Goaltending, she says, is "a unique position with unique needs that calls for unique training."
"Today's goalie has to train harder due to stiffer competition, higher standards, college scholarships, etcetera," said Johnson. "In order to gain a competitive advantage, athletes are seeking non-traditional methods of training. These unconventional methods can help avoid boredom, overuse, even fatigue, and yet maintain strength and endurance."
Contrary to the generally accepted notion that goalies are as rubbery as Gumby, Johnson said "surprisingly, many goalies lack 'natural' flexibility, making them more susceptible to injury." That's where yoga can make a difference.
"Flexibility in general helps prevent injury, and unfortunately flexibility is often minimized in relation to the overall strength and conditioning pie," she said. "Coaches often leave it up to the athlete to stretch on their own."
Because of that, a sensible stretching routine is often ignored altogether, or done incorrectly. Neither are good ideas.
"Most stretches are done improperly, or not held long enough," said Johnson. "And they don't breath into the stretch. Also, most athletes do the same stretches over and over again, and the body begins to adapt, and those stretches are no longer effective."
Because correct form is so important in yoga, Johnson recommends that goaltenders of all ages start their regimen under the watchful eye of a trained professional.
"A home practice is great, but proper guidance for the beginner is best," she said. "A qualified yoga instructor can customize a program to meet your specific needs as a goalie.
"Learning the breathing techniques, basic foundations, modifications and alignment are essential to a safe and effective practice," said Johnson. "In addition, so many issues (become apparent) on the mat that don't appear in the gym or in the net. A good instructor will ask questions, pay attention, and notice issues before they lead to injury."
A professional yoga instructor will also keep you on point, making sure you stay with the program.
"Consistency is the key with a yoga practice, as the benefits are cumulative," said Johnson. "The yoga approach to conditioning is slow and steady in order to build strength and flexibility from the inside out.
"With a consistent practice, the actual resting length of the muscles improves," she said. "Elongated muscles are healthy muscles. Relaxed muscles heal faster. Healing and recovery take place through the breathwork, which relaxes the central nervous system. This is what makes yoga unique. It's a systematic approach that addresses the 'whole' body."
However, yoga is not a "one size fits all" discipline. Johnson stresses that goaltenders of different ages need to take different approaches.
With middle and high school goalies, Johnson said she keeps things simple, focusing on breathwork, simple stretches, body and spatial awareness, coordination, strengthening, core development, managing stress, and basic functional movements.
At the college and pro level, she concentrates of injury prevention, opening the hips and groin as well as developing strength in those areas, functional movement and functional strength, range of motion, balance, core strength, recovery and healing, fluidity of movement, balance, mental toughness, focus, breathing techniques, meditation, visualization, and stress management. Whew!
"Goalies peak later, but that's when the body shows signs of wear and tear," said Johnson. "Yoga keeps the body young and moving with ease and efficiency. A customized yoga program can improve their flexibility and complement their existing strength and conditioning program. Because we focus on flexibility and strength, the goalie gets a well-rounded, comprehensive training program."
Even beer-leaguers can benefit.
"Flexibility and balance wane as we age. Flexibility keeps the joints and muscles healthy, enhancing range of motion," said Johnson. "Balance means enhanced coordination and control over how the body moves. This translates to better form and technique. Skating alone requires proper technique, attention to detail, balance, rhythm and coordination, all of which correlate with yoga."
Regardless of your age, the reality is that goaltending is tough on the body. With sports specification becoming all the rage, there's precious little off-season, and that constant pounding can take a toll.
"Overuse is a big issue due to playing the same sport all year," said Johnson. "Hip issues in young goalies is epidemic. My concern is the future of their bodies. Most goalies careers will end after high school, yet they need their bodies to be healthy for life in order to lead an active lifestyle.
"I emphasize core and gluteal activation, so there is ease of movement, less exertion, less stress on the joints," she said. "Use those big, meaty muscles to keep the hips and groins safe. The core is continually engaged while you practice yoga, so in essence you train the core to fire in games, practices or any workout. It becomes habitual."
Johnson also accentuates the mental aspect of yoga, which incorporates meditation with movement.
"Just as you would train the body, meditation trains the mind," she said. "Every practice ends in Savasana, where you are still, eyes closed, resting on your mat. This is where the magic happens, giving the mind and body a chance to process and generalize what it just learned.
"This calming effect translates to the net so that nothing rattles you. Better poise, control and composure," said Johnson. "Feedback from our goalies indicates that they use the breathing techniques before and during games to calm nerves. I like to teach them 'One breath at a time, one puck at a time.'"