Air Force hopes software improves players, one (video) game at a time

This offseason will prove important to see if a new video game-like training program the Air Force hockey team uses proves to be as advantageous as preliminary results suggest.

The Falcons just completed the first half of a two-year training program with The Hockey IntelliGym, a mental acuity improvement software program that could translate into improved “hockey sense,” that hard-to-define special ability to anticipate plays and allows players to see the ice better.

It is what makes players special and it is a gift that everyone on skates wants. College coaches would love to find a way to make their recruits better without the need for the hours of ice time required to hone that sense.

Falcons associate head coach Mike Corbett hopes he has found it. He is anxious to see how the software affects players during that key offseason between their freshman and sophomore years when most college players’ development makes the biggest leap forward, physically and often mentally.

“We have a good group of freshmen and I am excited to see how this helps them improve,” Corbett said.

He has good reason to hope.

The designers point to existing data that shows the program, based on pilot-training software developed in the 1980s by Israel and the United States, is a considerable help. The average result is a 30 percent improvement on the ice (more points and completed passes, fewer turnovers) after just one year of 30-minute sessions twice a week.

The program was adapted to hockey in consultation with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program and was put to use by the NTDP in 2010, when the program’s teams won the Under-17 and Under-18 world championships.

Users play games that look similar to hockey in a futuristic sense, with spaceships replacing players and a bomb replacing the puck. Defensive and offensive situations are presented, requiring quick thinking on the user’s part.

According to data provided by IntelliGym, Air Force saw a considerable jump in its goal differential this season (119-83, plus-36) compared to the previous season. The difference is marked when you look at previous seasons: 2010-11 (137-116, plus-21) and 2009-10 (103-94, plus-7).

Of course, that data can be affected by other factors and may point toward an already-improving program. Falcons sophomore defenseman Adam McKenzie, for one, is sold on the benefits. He feels sharper on the ice and thinks his time on the computer is a reason why.

“It definitely helps,” he said. “Even if it’s just a little bit. If everyone on your team improves just a little bit it can make the difference between another goal and that can mean a win or a loss.”

The program has benefited greatly from its work with USA Hockey, which offers the program at a discount to members and promotes it on its website.

The software is advocated for an obvious reason; any hockey improvement possible away from the rink is a boon with limited ice time available for most players.

“That can be the difference between a win and a loss,” said Falcons forward Paul Weisgarber.

That exposure, notably with the NTDP, and its proliferation through the youth ranks makes it widely used already.

Individuals and teams can purchase the training program. With a team purchase, coaches have access to attendance and progress reports, but cannot change the program, said Danny Dankner, chief executive officer of Applied Cognitive Engineering Inc.

That is important because after years of research, the program is designed to adapt to each individual’s neural pathways, focusing on areas where the player’s cognitive ability needs the most improvement, he added.

The program becomes more and more difficult as the player improves. More of the action is obscured, forcing the player’s brain to anticipate where the puck will be without using their eyes.

Also, the pace picks up while the obstacles and computer-controlled opponents become more challenging, forcing more rapid actions by the player. That kind of mental workout is what hones that “hockey sense,” which would take hundreds of hours to simulate on the ice.

The video game-like appearance helped players take a liking to the program. The challenge keeps them coming back.

“Definitely,” Weisgarber said. “We’re a more techno-savvy age group and that does help.”

There is little doubt that the program will catch on in the college ranks.

“Everyone is looking for that little edge,” Corbett said.

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” McKenzie said. “It absolutely cannot hurt.”

Video: An overview of The Hockey IntelliGym, produced by USA Hockey:

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