Look-up line distracts players: study

UCalgary research shows a warning line intended to remind hockey players to keep their heads up has the opposite effect.

By Stacy McGuire
Faculty of Kinesiology
August 29, 2017


A one-metre orange line painted on the ice at the base of the boards in hockey rinks – known as the Look-Up Line – is meant to warn players to look up before bodychecking into the boards. But instead of serving as a reminder, this line had the opposite effect: players looked down at the line, potentially making them more vulnerable to injuries, according to a study led by researchers in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. 

“Other sports such as football and baseball use warning lines so players are reminded to avoid certain areas, so we were surprised the Look-Up Line had the opposite effect for hockey,” says Joan Vickers, PhD, lead researcher on a study published earlier this year, and professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology. “Instead of looking up and being aware of the side board, the players looked down longer when we had the Look-Up Line on the ice.”

Medical experts say that if ice hockey players have their head down when they lose control or are pushed into the boards, they have a greater chance of sustaining head, neck, and spinal injuries. In Canada, each season more than 30 per cent of youth ice hockey players sustain an injury, and 50 per cent of these injuries take place in leagues where bodychecking is allowed.

Testing on elite hockey players informed results

The Look-Up Line was created and trademarked by a U.S. hockey player who wanted to provide a visual reminder for others after he suffered a collision with the boards that left him with a spinal cord injury.

Researchers in the Faculty of Kinesiology spent a year testing the warning line in the Olympic Oval ice hockey rink with the help of coaches and players from the men’s varsity hockey team at UCalgary. They painted one half of the ice with the warning line (the Look-Up Line rink) and one half without (the control rink). Elite hockey players were outfitted with devices that tracked the angle of their head and the gaze of their eyes as they played in offence and defence positions.

“Although the players looked down more on the Look-Up Line rink with the orange warning line than on the control rink with traditional white ice, we also found they skated further from the boards on the Look-Up Line rink, a result that may prove to be beneficial or harmful,” says Vickers. “More research is needed to determine the effect of the Look-Up Line in the competitive setting.”

More research needed in competitive environments

Vickers notes although dropping the head before contact may increase the likelihood of head, neck, and spinal injuries, no attempt was made in the current investigation to determine if the orange warning line increased or reduced injury risk, as the degree of contact was mild to moderate, and did not simulate highly competitive games where contact between the player and the boards is often severe.

Since this study is the first of its kind, Vickers says she would like to see more research completed in competitive hockey — as does Dr. Michael Stuart of the Mayo Clinic and chief medical officer for USA Hockey.

“The presence of a Look-Up Line on the ice surface creates an opportunity for player education on the risk of contact near the boards, as well as injury prevention strategies,” says Stuart, who partnered with the University of Calgary to study the effectiveness of the Look-Up Line. “However, more research is needed to determine if the Look-Up Line improves safety.”

Stuart, along with Carolyn Emery, PhD, an author of the study and chair of the Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre, Faculty of Kinesiology, suggests in-game video analysis comparing player contact behaviours with and without the Look-Up Line. Further, epidemiological studies with injury surveillance are needed to examine injury risk in arenas with and without the Look-Up Line.

The study, “Effect of the Look-Up Line on the Gaze and Head Orientation of Elite Ice Hockey Players” in the European Journal of Sport Science, is authored by Joan N. Vickers, Joe Causer, Michael Stuart, Elaine Little, Sean Dukelow, Marc Lavangie, Sandro Nigg, Gina Arsenault, Barry Morton, Matt Scott and Carolyn Emery (2017). 



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