Most of the time, our instincts serve us well.

Not so in ice hockey. At least, not when you're heading straight into the boards.

If you follow your instinct and duck, "that would be the worst position to be in," said Dr. Michael Stuart, a Mayo Clinic physician and chief medical officer for USA Hockey.

That's why Stuart and the Mayo Clinic teamed up with USA Hockey to produce a new 4 1/2-minute video called "Heads Up, Don't Duck" (

With the help of animation, it shows young hockey players why it's so dangerous to hit the sideboards head first and how they can learn to avoid it.

"If you can't avoid contact with your head, it's much better from a biomechanical standpoint to keep your head up," Stuart said.

Stuart, who raised four hockey players (two play professionally), says the message isn't new. But the hockey association has been searching for a fresh way to drive home the safety message to parents, coaches and especially players.

The Heads Up, Don't Duck campaign began in the 1990s, he said, when officials became concerned about the growing number of spine injuries. Before then, Stuart said, hockey coaches used to teach players to "curl up in a ball" to protect themselves, unaware of the danger. "Now, we're teaching the opposite," he said.

When the head is up, the normal curvature of the spine helps absorb the shock, Stuart says. When the head is down, the spinal cord is more vulnerable to damage -- and paralysis.

Even young players can learn the heads-up technique, he said. "We would like to see these same types of drills practiced every day at the rink," he said. "Before every practice and before every game as part of the warmup."

He hopes the new video, which features Olympians Jenny Potter and Ryan Suter (now with the Minnesota Wild), will help change behavior.

"Just practice keeping your head up as you slide," he said. "Then it becomes instinctive."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384