Yoga As a Tool for Elevated Hockey Performance and Active Recovery

By Jennifer Tirillo MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS, 200hr Registered Yoga Teacher

Chances are that we’ve heard it at some point, whether from another healthcare provider, loved one, or on social media: Have stress? Do yoga. Back pain? Do yoga. Build flexibility? Do yoga. Need to work on your balance? Do yoga. Can’t sit still to meditate? Do yoga. While the practice of yoga is not the magic pill or answer for everything that ails, it can still be a really impactful tool for many individuals looking to make changes in their lifestyle and that includes hockey players.

To appreciate the benefits of yoga, I think it’s important to understand a bit of philosophy in addition to the roots of this ancient practice. We know that thousands of years ago, men in India practiced yoga with the intention of sitting in meditation for extended periods of time. Even though our intentions in this day and age may be slightly different, we move with mindfulness and breathe with expansiveness in an effort to find stillness. Ask any athlete, stillness is HARD however there is much value in hitting the pause button. Let’s work to generate an understanding of what yoga actually is.

When I ask my athletes about their perceptions relating to yoga, they typically answer that it’s about stretching and breathing-they’re not wrong. In fact, yoga has become a staple in western countries for exercise and stress management. There is value in highlighting that recent studies suggest that practitioners continue their yoga practice for reasons beyond the physical benefits, including mindfulness and personal embodiment.

Enter: the Eight Limbs of Yoga (originally in Sanskrit)

  1. Self-Awareness Practices (example: truthfulness, being honest with oneself)
  2. Internal Awareness of body, mind, and spirit (example: self-discipline)
  3. Physical Postures
  4. Breathing with Intention
  5. Tuning Out Distraction
  6. Concentration
  7. Meditation
  8. Integration

The tenets under which yoga is based may be applied to the present day and can be invaluable to competitive hockey players. Mindfulness-based interventions (MBI’s) are more readily used than ever in sports; those who are searching for avenues to uplevel their performance, promote mental health/reduce burnout and set themselves apart from their competition come to yoga as a means to pursue those goals. Athletic trainers are on the forefront in terms of healthcare advocacy for athletes and along with traditional sports medicine concepts, AT’s can look to incorporate holistic techniques such as meditation, intentional breathing and movement sequencing for rehabilitation and active recovery. Research suggests that athletes who practice yoga make healthier food choices, experience less pain during training, and adopt mindful decision-making processes.

Implementation:

I began offering yoga for athletes in 2012 as a method to balance training workload, cultivate resilience, and promote active recovery with baseball and hockey players. As I continued on this journey of meeting the needs of not only the physical body but also the mind, it became clear that adding a regular mindful movement class each week was incredibly impactful for the overall wellness of the athletes under my care.

My role as the Director of Sport Performance with a Connecticut junior hockey program has afforded me the opportunity to lead a team session every Thursday. Yoga is intentionally scheduled prior to a weekend of competition or when offloading a training-intensive week. Intention is everything, be it in the weight room, when planning drills on the ice, and in life therefore intentional sequencing is a priority. In 40 minutes, we practice CARs (*Functional Range Conditioning), poses that incorporate all planes of motion in addition to building mobility, breathing strategies to train tidal volume, and of course-stillness. Keeping an open-mind, having a bit of humor, and the support of hockey operations has made this program an undeniable asset that contributed towards a statistic of zero practices or games missed in 2022-2023 season for hip/groin injuries.

For more information, please feel free to connect with me:

JTtheAT@gmail.com
Concentric Care & Wellness
Director of Sport Performance Norwich Sea Captains

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Bagheri S, Naderi A, Mirali S, Calmeiro L, Brewer BW. Adding Mindfulness Practice to Exercise Therapy for Female Recreational Runners With Patellofemoral Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Athl Train. 2021 Aug 1;56(8):902-911. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-0214.20. PMID: 33237990; PMCID: PMC8359715.

Bühlmayer, L., Birrer, D., Röthlin, P. et al. Effects of Mindfulness Practice on Performance-Relevant Parameters and Performance Outcomes in Sports: A Meta-Analytical Review. Sports Med 47, 2309–2321 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0752-9

Wang Y, Lei S-M, Fan J. Effects of Mindfulness-Based Interventions on Promoting Athletic Performance and Related Factors among Athletes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trial. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2023; 20(3):2038. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20032038

All photos courtesy of Jennifer Tirillo.

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