A little bit of history
When I started playing Air Hockey in 1993, I spent twice as many hours on the table as I do now, yet my game was not as sharp. I was playing to win and have fun. I still do this, but these are no longer my primary reasons. Now I practice to improve, which leads to my ultimate goal of winning.
Yes, I have logged a lot of hours of play over the last two decades, but most of my recent improvement is because I have learned how to make better use of my time spent on the table. Clear objectives and a framework for each session, laid out weeks to months in advance, is how I get the most of my practice.
19 years ago my typical schedule looked something like this:
Monday: 10 games
Tuesday: 25 games – do not let anyone win!
Wednesday: 10 games
Thursday: 25 games – try not to let anyone get to six points!
Saturday: Play a weekly tournament
Repeat next week
As you can see, not only was I just playing games, which does have its benefits, I had no specifics to work on. Nothing was planned. A much better way to practice, if your goal is to improve, is to have a long-term structure to your sessions. Since we do not have tournaments year-round, the best way to construct a schedule is to make sure that you peak for major tournaments and important matches.
Schedules really do matter
I divide my practice calendar into three phases: 1) New tactics 2) Improve weaknesses 3) Solidify strengths.
In this phase I work on new aspects of my game that might be potentially valuable: Reactionary defense, off-speed LWUs, etc. After developing these new tactics I identify which ones are successful and can be used as part of my game. I discard the new tactics that do not work. At the end of this phase I hope to have one or two new weapons (offensive or defensive) that I can add to my arsenal.
It helps to have a good partner who can identify your weaknesses and work on improving them with you. Also, candidly asking a better player “What are my three weakest areas?” is a good way to evaluate your game.
Tuning up your strengths should not be overlooked. It is your strengths that will ultimately win matches. I do not spend quite as much time in this phase, but I make sure that my strengths are always the last things that I work on before heading into a major tournament or match.
Drill baby, drill
To work on new tactics, improve weaknesses, and solidify strengths, I approach each practice session with clear-cut goals. To meet these goals I use specifically designed drills. For example, if my goal were to defend straight shots from left-of-center more effectively, an appropriate drill would be to play a game vs. my opponent in which we both only execute shots from the left-of-center. For this drill I would weight straight shots as 5 points, since I want to work on my defense against straights from left-of-center, and weight RWUs as 1 point. I do this because keeping an element of game play and decision-making involved is important even during drills so that they do not become mindless. (At the end of this article, I have examples of more drills).
Practice works, if done right
Before each practice session and tournament match, I do the exact same 20-minute warm up. This is beneficial for a few reasons: 1) It helps prevent injuries 2) Using the same routine gets me in a consistent mindset 3) I use part of my warm ups to improve on areas of my game that need constant attention.
Stretching – 5 minutes
Puck control – 5 minutes of various drifts and maneuvers
Defensive mechanics – 2 minutes of defensive movements
Chase drills – 3 minutes of chasing the puck along both rails
Puck snagging – 5 minutes of snagging missed straights and overs with a partner. I added this to my warm ups because it has been a problem area for me and it is an excellent way to wake up my reflexes.
I divide practice into 50% drills and 50% sets. Since mechanics are very important in Air Hockey, and most of the drills are mechanics based, 50% of practice allotted to drills is appropriate. The first part of each session is drills. After drills I end with sets, which keep decision-making sharp and are a great incentive to play intense towards the end of practice.
One week before a major tournament or match I only play sets and take 15 minutes breaks between the sets and a full minute between games in order to simulate tournament play.
How it looks in practice
The below schedule is word for word from my calendar and was created 3 months before the 2012 Las Vegas World Championships. It was designed specifically for my strengths and weaknesses and is not applicable for other players. The takeaway should be the amount of granularity.
New tactics phase
March 28 – 1.6 hrs, forehand line attack
March 29 – 1.7 hrs, hard RWO
March 30 – 1.8 hrs, forehand from left-of-center
March 31 – 1.9 hrs, still puck attack
April 1 – OFF
April 2 – 1.7 hrs, left-to-right drift
April 3 – 1.8 hrs, move defense out 3 inches
April 4 – 1.9 hrs, reactionary defense
April 5 – 2.0 hrs, hard LWO
April 6 – 2.1 hrs, bizarro CUTS and CROSSES
April 7 – 2.2 hrs, shorten release
April 8 – OFF
April 9 – 1.8 hrs, up tempo offense
April 10 – 1.9 hrs, reactionary defense
April 11 – 2.0 hrs, off-speed LWU
April 12 – OFF (vacation)
April 13 – OFF
April 14 – OFF
April 15 – OFF
April 16 – 1.9 hrs, hard LWO
Improve weaknesses phase
April 17 – 2.0 hrs, strike RWU and CUT with conviction
April 18 – 2.1 hrs, offensive patterns
April 19 – 2.2 hrs, defense reaction time
April 20 – 2.3 hrs, off-speeds
April 21 – 2.4 hrs, reverse circle drift, Mitic sets
April 22 – OFF
April 23 – 2.0 hrs, RWU from left-of-center
April 24 – 2.1 hrs, defense reaction time
April 25 – 2.2 hrs, RWO from left-of-center
April 26 – 2.3 hrs, OVERS
April 27 – 2.4 hrs, offensive variety, combine multiple drifts
April 28 – 2.5 hrs, offensive patterns
April 29 – OFF
Solidify strengths phase
April 30 – 2.1 hrs, right-to-left drift
May 1 – 2.2 hrs, CROSS
May 2 – 2.3 hrs, RWs from multiple areas of the table
May 3 – 2.4 hrs, quick drift LWU
May 4 – 2.5 hrs, CUT from right-of-center
May 5 – OFF
May 6 – 2.2 hrs, puck control
May 7 – 2.3 hrs, LWO
May 8 – 2.4 hrs, RWU defensive mechanics
May 9 – 2.5 hrs, LWU/LWO/CROSS combos + sets
May 10 – 2.6 hrs, problem areas + sets
May 11 – OFF
May 12 – IL STATE
May 13 – CHALLENGE MATCH
May 14 – OFF
Revisit new tactics
May 15 – 2.7 hrs, short release, 3 quarter diamond, LWU defensive movement
Revisit improve weaknesses
May 16 – 2.8 hrs, puck movement, hard overs, snagging
Revisit solidify strengths
May 17 – 2.9 hrs, LWU, CROSS, CUT from right-of-center, quick drift RWU
May 18 – 3.0 hrs, sets
May 19 – 3.2 hrs, sets
May 20 – 3.4 hrs, sets
May 21 – 3.6 hrs, sets
May 22 – OFF
May 23 – 3.8 hrs, sets + problem areas, tactics for specific opponents
May 24 – 4.0 hrs, sets
May 25 – OFF
May 26 – WORLDS
May 27 – WORLDS
A few more drills to talk about
Straights only drill – Play games in which you and your opponent only execute straight shots. You cannot play your defense out any further than normal and you cannot charge. This helps build defensive discipline around re-centering and not flinching. It also forces the offense to use creative drifts to score.
Snag drill – Have your partner intentionally miss overs and try to snag them. Whoever snags the most out of 25 is the winner. This drill helps with transition play, puck control, and reflex development.
Off-speed unders drill – Play normal games except off-speed unders are worth three points instead of one. The offense should attempt tons of off-speed unders, which will help the defenses improve their mechanics for pulling for banks and not sweeping or coming all the way back to the goal. This drill has the added benefit of helping to develop off-speed unders.
Stop reading and…
Get out there and make the most of your practices by having well defined goals and structure for each session. Develop a schedule and find a partner that will help you practice with intent and not just smack the puck around – no matter how fun that may be.
I hope this helps even one person :)
*Originally published July 23, 2012