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Asteroids-like video game helps train young hockey players

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IntelliGym (Credit: USA Hockey)

To succeed on the U.S. hockey team, you have to have excellent skating skills, tremendous stick control, and a wicked slapshot.

It also helps to be really, really good at Asteroids.

USA Hockey, for the past five seasons, has used an Asteroids-like program to help improve the spatial awareness of players in its national team development program. And early signs show it having a positive effect.

“Work the brain; the science is there,” Danton Cole, coach of USA Hockey’s U-18 team, told The New York Times. “We have skating coaches and strength coaches and, obviously, hockey coaches to give our guys every advantage. But here’s an area where we can further their development: deep learning.”

Technically, the program -- called IntelliGym -- isn't the old Atari classic. Developed by Israel-based Applied Cognitive Engineering, it tasks users to move a triangle through a series of other triangles, increasing the difficulty steadily.

Players use it twice a week for 15-20 minute sessions, never playing the night before a game or on consecutive dates.

"You have many objects around you, things are happening very fast; you need to respond; you need to have spatial awareness; you need to have very good anticipation; and you need more complex skills, like executive function in your brain and attention control,” said Danny Dankner, CEO of Applied Cognitive Engineering.

The use of video games by athletes isn’t new. NFL players have long sworn by EA’s Madden as a means to better understand sets and prepare for opposing teams.

And while using a video game to train for something as physically taxing as ice hockey might seem a bit odd, the junior and youth teams, both of which have used IntelliGym, have won two of the past four world under-20 tournaments and four of the past five under-18 world titles.

Several professional players, including Boston Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton, have also used the program. And several pro teams in Canada are now starting to experiment with IntelliGym.

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