Why is a good hockey player not necessarily a good ice cross downhill rider ?

Sport biomechanist

Many hockey players have tried to do the switch between high level hockey and ice cross downhill as they were the fastest of their team. If some of them did well in their new career, the majority failed without reaching the performance they wanted. Why is skating on a flat ice and downhill so different? Again, science has an answer to that question. The main factors that make it so different are the technical aspects, the eye-movement coordination and the physical demand.

The objective of an ice cross downhill rider is to go as fast as possible to reach the finish at the bottom of the track quickly. The riders increase their speed by pumping and jumping over the bumps and jumps of the track. The ability of managing air time is the key to success when jumping, while the ability to absorb the bumps is essential to gaining speed rather than decreasing it when pumping. These technical skills are far from being of those learnt as a hockey player, they can however be compared to the skills learnt in sports like mountain biking and skiing. While on the subject of technical skills, knowing the best line of approach when coming up to corners and obstacles is also key in increasing speed through the track. In hockey, the skates are always in contact with the ice and that ice is always predictably flat and the only way to get more speed is by increasing the power of the strides.

The augmented speed in ice cross downhill is due to the abruptness of the slopes used to build the tracks, making it the fastest sport on skates. Riders frequently reach speeds over 60 km/h. At that speed, the perception of your body in the environment is not the same. The eye tracking capacity needed by ice cross downhill riders is very different than for those of hockey players. The fast moving environment creates a high level of optical flow that can cause problems for the new comers to the sport. It can trigger processing problems (like vertigo) due to the increased amount of information the brain is required to analyse in a short period of time (1). That skill can be practiced but it is most natural for athletes used to rapid sports.

The physical demand is another element that diverges between ice cross downhill and hockey. Besides the obvious fact that ice cross downhill requires a better capacity to land jumps from different heights, both sports have a distinct skating biomechanics. On a flat ice, the skating stride has to overcome the friction of the blade created by gravity. That means that the muscle contraction force is the most significant element of the power production. On the other hand, gravity becomes the best friend of the ice cross downhill rider by increasing its speed while going downhill. As a result the higher speed obliges the riders to produce rapid muscle contraction. This type of muscle contraction is rarely a neuromuscular quality that hockey players have as they are trained mostly in strength and power.

In conclusion, being a fast hockey player does not translate to being a fast ice cross downhill rider. Hockey players need to learn how to manage air time and how to pump and jump obstacles. They have to practice their eye-movement coordination skills to be successful in fast-moving environment. They require the capability to be able to produce a lightning-fast muscle contraction instead of a strong one. Considering all that, hockey is maybe not the best background for an ice cross downhill rider. But what would be?

Written by Léandre Gagné Lemieux, M.Sc. kinesiology and ice cross downhill rider

References
1.Bronstein AM (2004) Vision and vertigo: Some visual aspect of vestibular disorders. J Neurol. 251:381-387.

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