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CODEBREAKER-The newest frontier in elite hockey training is “all between the ears” (as seen on Sportsnet)

It’s long been thought that no-look wizardry and otherworldly awareness are reserved for the game’s best. But cognitive performance coaches are looking to prove that ‘hockey IQ’ is a quality that can be learned and developed.

Kurtis Gabriel’s voice still quickens when he recalls the hours spent in the garage. It was back in 2021 that the long-time pro first pulled up to Satoshi Takano’s house in Etobicoke, Ont., first stood among the machines and the wires, and had his mind opened.

On the cusp of a dream opportunity with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, Gabriel had connected with Takano over social media and, hunting for something that could take his game to a higher level before he debuted in blue and white, he decided to give Takano’s cognitive performance training a go.

The next thing he knew, he was whirling around in a blur of lights and other stimuli that pulled his attention in all directions as Takano took him through a series of complex drills designed to test the limits of his vision, reaction time, and ability to mentally map his environment.

Before long, the winger was hooked.

“First of all, it’s fun. I mean, that’s number one,” Gabriel says of what had him rapt that first day in the garage. “It’s an extremely competitive training environment, and it’s you versus yourself. … It’s so multifaceted — you have the obvious vision training, cognitive training, mental stamina. But also, you make mistakes and you get such instant feedback. And it being so competitive, you want to not mess up. But it’s inevitable, you’re going to mess up just like anything in life, and it’s just an instant reminder every single rep to forget the last rep, focus in, get present and attempt it again.”

In a sport that gets quicker every year — one that’s gone all-in on dynamic, creative skill — it stands to reason that the next wave of progress coming for hockey training regimens will be a turn to the type of work Gabriel did in that garage. In Ontario, Takano is among the leaders on that new frontier of cognitive training, his approach having already drawn in veterans like Gabriel, younger big-league standouts like Washington Capitals pivot Dylan Strome, and future stars like 2023 No. 3 pick Adam Fantilli.

The fundamental concepts underpinning what Takano teaches have been around the game in some form for decades. Heightened awareness, methodical decision-making, a detailed understanding of the environment around you — Gabriel’s been hearing about their importance since his early years in the sport. “Joey Hishon, who I played with in Owen Sound and had as a skills coach, he’s always said, ‘You have to know where every single player is on the ice at all times. You have to be mapping them, mapping the ice in your head,’” Gabriel says. “That’s why guys make plays with no-looks, and are able to put pucks into space to create possession.”

Traditional thinking in hockey says that plane of no-look wizardry and otherworldly awareness is reserved for the game’s elite. But those like Takano, who hope to upend that tradition, believe it’s more accessible, that ‘hockey IQ’ is less an innate ability than a quality that can be learned, honed and trained. Takano’s mission is to crack that elusive code, and while the quest is certainly still ongoing, plenty of high-level athletes who’ve stood among his machines are already convinced of his vision.

“It’s so layered,” Gabriel says. “People see it and think I’m just looking at lights, and I’m turning my head, and I’m touching things. Dude, it’s so much deeper than that.”


Satoshi Takano never intended to get into the cognitive training game. Nearly a decade ago, he was just a hockey dad, helping his son, Ryo, build his skills on the ice. But as his son progressed, Takano noticed gaps in Ryo’s training, and as a result, in his game.

“He’s the genesis of this whole thing,” Takano says. “I was watching him play in his early years, and I knew that he had really, really good skill — his skating was great, edges were fantastic, he has really sick hands as well, and a great shot. So, you would normally think he checks off all the boxes. But then I started to realize that he wasn’t making the right plays.”

The issue wasn’t whether his son could play the game, but how he played. “He’s got tremendous skill, but he didn’t know how to apply all those skills,” Takano remembers. Given his own background in engineering and technology — Takano teaches at Humber College’s School of Applied Technology — he looked to solve the problem the way he knew best: he turned to the machines.

“How can I use technology to solve a sports problem?” he asked himself. “That’s when I started to implement some of the equipment that we’ve got here. I started it on the ice at the beginning — I would haul in all this equipment, all these posts and everything, and that’s how we started. … At the time, everybody laughed at me. Everybody. They were like, ‘Why is he bringing on construction cones?’ But I knew it was the right thing.”

“At the time, everybody laughed at me. Everybody. But I knew it was the right thing.”
As that approach developed, Takano pulled even more from his working life to find a solution to his son’s playmaking woes. “We started to expand it into not just reacting to what’s happening, but also using that to improve his decision-making. So, ‘If it does this, then do this’ — it’s basically how we program software. ‘If you do this, we need to do this. Or if it does this, don’t do that.’ That’s something that no one was really teaching him growing up, and I saw the opportunity for me to step in and help change that.”

Fast forward to the here and now, and Takano’s nearly a year removed from opening the ReactForge Cognitive Performance Institute in Concord, Ont., a facility that’s already hosting hockey players of all levels, athletes from the baseball, soccer and badminton worlds, as well as elite race car drivers and Olympic fencers.

Regardless of the sport, the approach for each athlete is the same, Takano explains.

“The most important thing is we identify gaps, exactly like I did with my own son,” he says. “I’ll watch a good number of games to understand their behaviours and their traits, so I know before they even walk through this door the type of player that they are. And they might have one idea of it, but I’m looking at it from a cognitive perspective. [It’s] not ‘Are they a fighter?’ — it’s more about, ‘What are their specific areas of opportunity that I can really focus the drills on?’” Takano explains. “Once I determine exactly what those areas of weakness are, I design specific drills to improve on the areas of weakness, but at the same time build on their strengths.

“So, if I know that they’re a very good north-south player, how can I help them understand that a change of speed might actually help them, based on what they see? Yes, they might be a fast skater, but let’s make them fast to the right areas.”

What drives those hours of research, drill designing, and work in the facility is Takano’s belief that he can shift the decisions athletes make in-game — that training a hockey player to see the ice differently will allow them to take in more information; that training them to react to situations at a speed faster than the game will slow the actual game down for them.

“What people don’t really understand is that players only have the puck on their stick for less than two per cent of their entire game,” Takano says. “Everybody I know, including my own son, worked on that two per cent, but no one worked on the 98 per cent. It’s just simple math.”

In his view, the potential benefit of shifting focus to that 98 per cent, to improving a player’s overall awareness out on the ice, goes beyond the ability to set up more goals.

“Obviously, there’s a playmaking aspect of it, but there’s also the other side, which is safety,” Takano continues. “As the speed gets faster in the game, we want our players to be able to see threats coming at them as quickly as possible, and then be able to get out of the way or avoid a hit.

“So, what we’re trying to do is help stimulate a player to see the entire environment, and exactly what’s happening around them, so that they can ultimately make better decisions.”

 Jordan Frasca, an OHL standout who starred alongside Shane Wright in Kingston, and is now playing out his second season as a pro with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ ECHL and AHL affiliates, is six months into his first go-round with Takano. So taken was the 22-year-old with his first sessions at the Institute in May, he brought all four of his hockey-playing brothers to train with Takano by the end of the summer — including 20-year-old Jacob, who donned the blue and white for the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 2023 Traverse City Prospects Tournament.

On the cusp of a new campaign when we spoke — one he’s started at a point-per-game clip — Frasca said he’d begun feeling the effects of his work with Takano.

“I think the biggest thing is I see things much faster — like, I see plays happening much faster, I see people coming to attack much faster,” Frasca says. “Honestly, the best thing I think has just been training my eyes. I think before, I was mostly just focused on the puck. My eyes were just picking up one thing — now my eyes just see a bigger picture and have a better, wider range of perspective.”

Mason Jobst, a college hockey alum currently suiting up for the Buffalo Sabres’ AHL affiliate in Rochester, had his first in-person sessions at the Institute in August, but the 29-year-old’s been following Takano’s methods from afar for years. “I was just instantly drawn into what he was preaching and how different it is than everything else that’s out there in the market as far as finding an edge and getting better,” Jobst says. “I feel like I’m kind of an edge-chaser, trying to figure out how I can get better, and so many people are doing so many of the same things now, especially if you’re on Instagram or anywhere online and you’re looking through stuff. Everyone seems to be doing similar stuff, and he was doing something so different.”

Like Frasca, Jobst has started his new season with a near-point-per-game pace. “[Takano] definitely — I guess, no pun intended — opened my eyes to how much room for growth I have,” he says.

Athletes in other sports similarly grounded in rapid decision-making see the merit in this approach, too. Gabriella Page, a fencer who represented Canada at the Tokyo Olympics, has worked with Takano for the past couple years. Much like hockey, she says, success in her sport comes down to honing your ability to see the array of possibilities before you and react as quickly, and correctly, as you can.

“Let’s say you’re working on creating a moment or an opening where you want to make an [attack],” she says. “Well, you have to train your brain to see that opportunity, or see the mistake that your opponent is making, and then react. Because if you don’t react fast enough, you lose the moment in the blink of an eye.”

For Gabriel, who was able to log more hours than his younger counterparts over a couple summers with Takano, the impact was so notable, he found himself lamenting how late in life the cognitive approach entered his training.

“I wish I would have trained [like this] for 10 years. I remember growing up, I wasn’t taught to shoulder check, you know?” Gabriel says, referring to the habit of looking over your shoulder to scan the ice before you touch the puck. “I was taught that vision was an innate hockey skill that was just God-given, like [Wayne] Gretzky. And the rest of us, you know, just chip the puck in the corner and go run somebody over — and that’s exactly how I played. I was never encouraged to make plays and all these things. So, I think it’s just so interesting how I was able to start building in the peripheral, building in the shoulder checks as a habit.”

“What people don’t really understand is that players only have the puck on their stick for less than two per cent of their entire game. Everybody I know worked on that two per cent, but no one worked on the 98 per cent. It’s just simple math.”

Those habits changed the way Jobst understands the game’s best, too. Past the impact on his own skill-set, it’s the shift in his perspective on the sport’s elite players that’s stuck with him.

“What [Takano’s] always preaching is that the brain is a muscle that you can train as well. And that the best players in the world, for example [Connor] McDavid, not only is he the fastest, with the best hands, but he can also process information faster than anybody else. And there’s a direct correlation with how fast you’re able to make decisions and how accurately you can make those decisions, and it translates to the ice,” Jobst says. “You know, a common saying is, ‘Oh, that guy’s got eyes in the back of his head.’ For example, [Nikita] Kucherov — this guy’s dropping dimes to everyone and it’s like, ‘How did he see that guy?’ If you really slow everything down … they’re scanning before they get to basically every puck. They know what they’re going to do with it as soon as they get to the puck.

“I think that was one thing I really took away. Things that I’m trying to watch in other people’s games are like, ‘Where are they looking? When are they looking? How are they scanning the ice? How are they manipulating people with their eyes?’ Those are the fine details that I think, if you’re just sitting in the living room watching an NHL game at night, you may skip over. But if you really slow the game down and watch with a different level of detail, you pick up on those little nuances.”

 For Takano, it’s not just about the McDavids and the Kucherovs, though — there’s as much to learn from others who haven’t necessarily been blessed like No. 97, but who still thrive off their intelligence.

“[McDavid] is the gold standard of decision-making, because he’s got the skills that match it,” Takano says. “But the other players I like to watch are the guys that may not be the fastest skaters, because I think that’s more at the ground level of development. I watch a lot of guys like Mark Stone, and I use him as an example a lot.”

At its core, Takano’s approach hinges on his fundamental belief about the sport: That our understanding of hockey IQ is flawed — that while some portion of a player’s ability to read the game is natural, it can also be learned, trained, improved over time.

“I think when we say it’s something that they’re born with, it just means that they’ve had some experience in their lifetime that made them think critically,” Takano says. “Yes, some are naturally gifted, like a really genius math student. But for the other players, it’s something that they picked up as a young child.”

Playing multiple sports as a kid, for example, seems to have had an impact on how some athletes Takano works with understand their sport. “All of our stats say that multi-sport athletes perform better on decision-making, hands-down,” he says. And baseball, specifically, stands out among the rest. “Most kids who play baseball understand the concept of decision-making and consequence — when you play baseball, you either swing or you don’t swing. And if you make a wrong play, you have an error in baseball. Now, imagine if there were errors in hockey — they would be off the charts. But we don’t measure that.

“There’s more emphasis [on that] in baseball where people understand that, ‘If the ball does this, I swing. If the ball does this, I don’t swing.’ Hockey players don’t typically understand that concept. It’s, ‘I made a play over there and it didn’t work out. Oh well, that’s not my fault.’ If you’re playing baseball, you become very critical of, ‘Am I making the right play?’”

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe sees both sides of the hockey IQ debate. “I think you could probably ask 10 different coaches and get 10 different explanations, because I think there’s a lot that goes into it,” he said in late October, acknowledging how hard the concept is to pin down. “To me, it’s really the intangibles of the game — the game within the game. The ability to read and react off situations that maybe aren’t scripted or predicted or coached. You know, little positional things. How quickly can you transition? Can you jump to a hole at the right time? There are so many things that go into it.

“[As for] the whole debate about whether you can teach it or not — some of it, I don’t think you can. It is certainly instinctual and it’s developed over time for certain players. But the other part of it, I think as coaches we’re coaching it every single day. We try to get them to understand the differences between two feet here or two feet there, to be able to recognize those patterns quicker so that they can respond appropriately.

“So, I think some of it certainly can be taught, and can be developed over time through repetition.”

Key for Takano is instilling in hockey players the impact of each decision made on the ice, slowing the game down to allow them to better handle those decisions, and teaching them cues that hint at which decision they should make. Whether or not this can truly improve a player’s hockey IQ is up for debate, but research around the type of work Takano’s focused on suggests the connection he’s nurturing is a pivotal one.

In 2012, a group of researchers from the University of Central Florida’s Institute of Exercise Physiology and Wellness conducted a study alongside Joseph Rogowski, then the strength and conditioning coach for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. Testing players prior to the season and measuring their results against specific aspects of on-court performance throughout the year, the group ultimately found a connection between a player’s visual tracking speed and their ability to see and respond to various stimuli on the court, resulting in more positive plays.

“You’re trying to get an advantage over your competition. That’s really what it boils down to. I’m sure before long, if you’re not doing this then you’re going to fall behind.”

Another study, out of the University of North Dakota’s Department of Psychology, asked a similar question of the hockey world. Investigating the connection between visual- and information-processing skills and on-ice performance in college hockey, the researchers tested different aspects of players’ vision, reaction time, and decision-making, and then analyzed how this informed players’ on-ice statistics. Here, too, a connection was found — this time between players’ ability to create offence and their reaction time, visual memory, visual discrimination, and ability to shift focus between objects. “This is one of the first studies to show that some of the visual skills that state-of-the-art generalized sports vision programs are purported to target may indeed be important for hockey players’ actual performance on the ice,” the researchers stated in their study, adding later in the piece: “The results further suggest that a decrease in simple reaction time alone is not enough to facilitate performance on the ice: improvements in simple reaction times need to be accompanied by corresponding improvements in higher level information processing [and] decision-making.”

While it may still be too early to say definitively how much cognitive training improves and strengthens in-game performance, count Jobst as a believer.

“I think there are always going to be people that are skeptical, just because it is out there and it is different,” he says. “But if you look at research, there are some different studies on reaction-based training compared to fixed-based training with some different apps … There is stuff to back it.”

Still, this approach isn’t a loophole to becoming McDavid, he says. Rather, it’s a path to getting closer to understanding the game the way No. 97 does.

“I wouldn’t say it’s like the magic pill or anything like that. But it is a good supplement and it is something that gets you studying the game at a different level and trying to watch the best to see what they’re doing,” says Jobst. “And I think doing those kinds of things can lead to better hockey IQ.”


It follows that a sport obsessed with speed would eventually find itself taken with training focused on reacting and processing as quickly as possible. And yet, to much of the hockey world, approaches like Takano’s are still fairly novel, Gabriel says.

“I think the higher [into the elite echelons of the game] you go, it’s more known, but it’s just still a new frontier,” he says of cognitive training. “It’s still ingrained to just do the physical aspect of the sport.”

For Jobst, part of the decision to dive into this training, even this late in his career, was his belief that this type of work will soon become the norm across the game.

“As far as training goes, you know, you’re trying to get an advantage over your competition. That’s really what it boils down to. I’m sure before long, if you’re not doing this then you’re going to fall behind. It’s the same thing with shooting pucks in your driveway, it was the same thing with if you didn’t have a power-skating coach, and the same thing with working out. Those are all necessities, basically, if you want to make it to the next level.”

It’s a distant leap from the type of training Jobst and Gabriel were brought up on. Getting a taste of this new world now, they can’t help but let their minds wander to the impact cognitive training would’ve had on their own development had it been around earlier.

“If you’re learning to see and process the game, and use your eyes and how to manipulate people with your eyes and your head at such a young age, it’s just going to become so much more natural as you get older,” Jobst says. “It’s just going to be second nature.”

“It’s literally all between the ears, playing sports.”

“You’d be an entirely different player,” Gabriel adds. “Fundamentals are everything. We get taught, ‘You stickhandle with your head up. You shoot like this. You skate like this.’ Well, imagine from the beginning you’re saying, ‘The number one thing you need to do is scan the ice and shoulder check before you get a puck. So you protect yourself and you can see what’s coming, you can make a better play. All these things, you’re doing it from a young age, and that becomes a habit. That’s a hell of a hockey player, you know?”

And given the direction the game is going, that’s the type of hockey player that seems most likely to find success moving forward.

“You know, once you get to these higher levels, everybody can skate for the most part — nowadays especially. Everybody has been stickhandling in the driveway their whole life. Everybody can shoot the puck. Everybody is training all year round, pretty much. So what’s another way to get a leg up? It’s the mental aspect of the game,” Gabriel says. “That’s always what separated the best athletes from the pack — the emotional and mental ability of an athlete at the highest level is what sets the guys apart. … [Artemi] Panarin, he’s not the fastest guy — he’s all about hockey sense. [Matthew] Tkachuk, he’s not the fastest skater — he’s strong on his skates, good hands, but it’s his mental acuity, making the right play every time.”

In Takano’s eyes, the endgame isn’t to drastically shift the way players train, it’s to add to the current landscape, to bring in a new element.

“We’re not here to step on the toes of strength and conditioning at all. We’re not here to replace skills [training] — we don’t teach hockey skills here,” Takano says. “It’s that gap in between that we’re trying to fill. Especially for the pro teams, the NHL teams, that have so much data, so much video and so many stats. We know where the gaps are. Now we have a solution for these video coaches and skills coaches where we can say, ‘This is how we fix it.’ I think that’s where we really fit in, essentially creating a whole new category in the sport, which is cognitive development.”

For Gabriel, the discovery came too late in his career; the nine-year pro retired from the sport last year. Still, thinking back to those summers in the garage, he wonders about the effect this approach could have on the next generations. About the doors that could open for other players, the impact this work could have in the moments that matter most to those who actually play the sport.

“Games are decided by mistakes, not great plays,” Gabriel says. “I used to watch the game as a fan and say, ‘Look at the great play that guy made to score.’ But as a former player, now I just watch what chain reaction, or what mistake, or who made the wrong decision, that led to that play. That’s what coaches do too. That’s the most valued thing.

“It’s literally all between the ears, playing sports. The ability to make the right decisions at the right times. And when you don’t, not being discouraged, and just focusing on the next play.

“I think that’s more important than being able to toe-drag.”

Article by Sonny Sachdeva
Photo Credits Aaron Wynia/Sportsnet (5)
Link to original article on Sportsnet