Sunday, 3 March 2013

Team USA's Secret Weapon?

There's no denying that the American World Junior program has taken big strides in terms of improving over the last decade. They were once also-rans as their development programs simply weren't churning out the same talent as Canada, Russia, and Sweden. That's no longer the case, and there have been many theories as to why the Americans have now become a world power not only in junior hockey, but in women's and all men's hockey as well. One of the factors that may have directly led to the Americans' increased success is a program called IntelliGym.

I received an email from Mary M. about this program, and I thought it might be worth a look considering that Hockey USA seems to be all-in on this program. Mary's email intrigued me when she name-dropped a few team names that are currently using the IntelliGym product, so I thought I'd lay out the information here. She wrote,

This season, Israeli Air Force technology is being used by a number of Canadian Major Junior clubs, USA Hockey and several colleges to teach hockey sense.

The teams are using a product called Hockey IntelliGym and results suggest the cognitive functions the brain uses for hockey - like legs, shoulders and biceps - can go through workouts and improve.

The product employs a stripped down videogame-like interface. It allows for totally customized training, taking into account a player's size, position, dominant hand and past performance.

The Notre Dame Hounds, the OHL's Niagara Ice Dogs, the QMJHL's Moncton Wildcats, the Concordia Stingers of the CIS and the Simon Fraser University women's varsity team are using the product as reference teams.
Interesting, right? Israeli Air Force technology is making better hockey players? That's a very interesting premise, and it caught my attention almost immediately. She also included this very compelling statistic: "USA Hockey's Under-18 team has been using the product since 2009-2010. Since adopting the product, it has gone from winning 29% of its games to 70%, and has won four U18 world championship gold medals". And now she had me hooked.

So what is this "IntelliGym"? Well, they explain it fairly well on their site.
The Hockey IntelliGym® is a software service, running on the user's pc, while connected to our servers. On the servers the athlete's data is collected and tracked, adopting future drills to the athlete's exact needs and current developmental state.

Following our patented cognitive simulation technology principles, the training environment does not look like the target domain (the hockey arena) but rather includes all the underlining elements required for effective hockey-related skills training.

The Hockey IntelliGym® is recommended for competitive players of all ages - professionals, collegiate, all the way down to 12 years old. It is effective for all skating positions, as well as for goalies.
From reading that, it's brain training. The computers analyze your data, make recommendations based on your strengths and weaknesses, and encourages you to improve on an area you've identified by customizing specific drills to improve performance. In short, it's training your brain to make you a better hockey player!

Now you might be saying, "Teebz, this was Israeli Air Force technology, not hockey technology". I had the same sentiment, and I was kind of doubtful that a training program for fighter pilots would be useful when training hockey players to be better players. The history is explained here, but the results are rather impressive considering their scientific foundation.
The researchers identified a record improvement in flight performance - more than 30%, in two of the leading air forces in the world – for cadets who had undergone only 10 hours of focused attention training in Gopher's simulated "game".
That "Gopher" is Professor Daniel Gopher, and his list of accomplishments in his academic career is impressive! What Professor Gopher did was change the fighter pilot training from flight simulators and in-air training into a video game called Space Fortress. Rather than placing fighter pilots in high-fidelity simulations, "the game stimulates exactly the same cognitive skill-set that is required" for fighter pilots in the air. In short, the game measures and records all the decisions made by these pilots under the same circumstances, but without risking millions of dollars in military training and equipment.

So where does hockey come into this? Well, the game works to help "develop perception and decision-making skills" that one would use on the ice. Rather than putting hockey players on the ice, the players are taught to manoeuvre ships as in Space Fortress while making passes and evading enemy ships. The "space", if you will, looks similar to a hockey rink, but the goals set out by the game force the player to master techniques and make decisions based on the requirements and the enemies. Take a look at the following video about the IntelliGym product from Hockey USA.
Seems like it's pretty credible, right? I'm going to get some more information on the program so that I can bring some definite results to this blog. I'll also see if I can speak with some of those teams who may already be using IntelliGym to get their feedback as well. Honestly, though, I always find these kinds of computer programs that collect, analyze, process, and determine strengths and weaknesses to be fascinating. While it appears that NHL teams have yet to adopt this type of program, it would be interesting to see how much one NHL team could improve year-to-year when using IntelliGym. Of course, the NHL is slower to adopt these sorts of technologies as a whole, but if it makes a significant change in the success of fighter pilots, it probably would do wonders for a pro hockey team.

While the game is still played on the ice, there's no denying that former MLB catcher Yogi Berra was right when he said, "Baseball is 90% mental". Hockey seems to picking up on this aspect, and, as Hockey USA is proving, smarter players making better decisions are producing overall better results for that program.

What say you, readers: is this a credible product? Do you know someone using it? Please let me know in the comments!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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