Reflections on a Junior Hockey Career Part 1: Patterns of Successful Players

This March, my fifth and final season of junior hockey with the Vermont Lumberjacks ended. Reflecting on this journey, I’ve thought a lot about a lot about my teammates, numbering in the hundreds. The relationships we shared and the memories made are at top of my mind. But I’ve also thought about the habits and patterns of those who have gone on to do great things in hockey. I realized that there were a few patterns among the most successful. These patterns can be transferred to any high level athlete.

Pattern #1: Being a “pro”

In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says that the difference between an amateur and a professional is that the professional shows up every day ready to work. The stakes for the pro are high, after all it is how they make their living. All of the best players I played with had an attitude that hockey was their job. They showed up on time, and their lives were built around our practice schedules. They skated with both teams when possible. Away from the rink, they took care of themselves.

My teammate from this past season, Glynn Robitaille, is a great example of this. Glynn saw everything that didn’t help get him to his ultimate goal of playing professional hockey as a distraction. He practiced with both teams on most days, and took care of himself away from the rink. If that’s not you, it’s okay. Being a pro is a huge commitment, and we can’t be professionals at everything we do. I chose my work as a personal trainer and strength coach more seriously than I did hockey. But, I’m not going to be the hockey player Glynn is. So if you want to be a pro, then you have to start being it now, well before anybody will pay you to do it.

Glynn
#12 Glynn Robitaille – photo credit: Laura Gerry

 

Pattern #2: Consistent pre-practice and pre-game rituals

Most good players have a set pre-game routine. They tape their stick, play some sewer, and do the team warm-up. The best players do their routine for practice also. It’s one thing to say that you treat practices the same way you do games, but it’s another to actually do it. No, the best don’t get there two hours early like on game days. But everything they do for game days, they do for practices. Even if their routine is thrown off by a pre-practice meeting, they’ll still shorten everything into three minutes to put them in the right space mentally to skate. One time this year we had a meeting go over into our ice time, and our coach told us we had fifteen minutes to be on the ice. There was Mason Emoff, laying on the ground in the locker room doing deadbugs, which were part of his routine, before getting dressed. In contrast, the kids who weren’t as successful wouldn’t treat preparation for a practice the same as a game. On game days, they’d be mentally locked in. But for practices, they would just sit in the locker room until they needed to get ready. Which players do you think got more out of practices?

Mae
#48 Mason Emoff – photo credit: Laura Gerry

Pattern #3 – Investing in loss

Although their preparation is the same, the best don’t treat practices and games the same. “Practice like you play,” is good advice for the lazy, but not for the motivated. In practice, the best players try new things. They play around with a new move they’ve been working on as part of their pre-practice stickhandling routine. Then, They try it at half-speed in practice. They do what Josh Waitzkin calls investing in loss. Investing in loss is putting yourself in vulnerable, risky positions in order to grow. It’s about being willing to get burned in the fire to sharpen your sword. Sometimes Geordan Buffoline tries something really stupid in practice, and it messes up the whole drill. But then a month later, he will try the same thing in a game, and it would be in the back of the net because he has been progressing and practicing that move each day. The best players see the long term and recognize that their growth is dependent on trying new things and taking risks. They more mistakes they make, the more chances they have to get it right and improve. Most people recognize failure and mistakes as the catalyst for growth, but they don’t seek it out. The best players seek out small failures and invest in loss for the long term.

Buff
#65 Geordan Buffoline – photo credit: Laura Gerry Also: That looks like a mean backhand sauce

Pattern #4 – Competitiveness

The most successful players are also usually the ones that hate losing the most. They don’t care what stupid little practice game it is, they will go through a wall to come out on top. This may seem counterintuitive to investing in loss, but it’s not. They will accept loss in the short-term if it means they win in the long-term. They’ll lose the battle, but win the war. They hate losing, but they hate holding back their development even more. These are the kids who in the gym you have to make sure they don’t do too much and hinder their recovery. Cory Doney has his days where you’d rather fight a kangaroo than get in his way. This competitiveness is undoubtedly a big reason why he is such a great player.

Dones
#95 Cory Doney – photo credit: Laura Gerry

The things that make these players great go well beyond hard work. In fact, they often aren’t the hardest workers. They’re the ones who have recognized what it takes to get better, and have doubled down on those habits. They work smarter than they do hard. Hard work is certainly important, but effort without direction won’t get you there. Evaluate yourself on your habits. Do you take your job as an athlete seriously? Is your preparation consistent? Do you take risks? Is that competitive fire there?  If you want to be a serious athlete, this is what it takes.

What I Learned Training My Own Hockey Team

I was incredibly lucky help my hockey team more than just on the ice this year. I think my biggest role in making this team successful was as my role as the strength and conditioning coach. How could I be a coach and a player? Was I the Jackie Moon of the Eastern Hockey League? Being in this at times awkward role taught me so much about coaching and leadership. Now I bring those lessons with me in all areas of my coaching and my life.

Lesson #1 – Start with why

The days of the coaches who get kids to work by yelling and asserting authority are on their way out. Real leadership is not telling people what to do, it’s showing them why it will benefit them. It’s responding to objections by listening first, and then explaining. If athletes understand the reasons why we do what we do they will show up each day with enthusiasm. Players who don’t understand will just go through the motions. Simon Sinek in his book Start With Why talks about why understanding the purpose makes everything more effective. In a coaching situation like this, where I don’t have the authority of a regular coach, them understanding the reasons why is essential.

Even if you are in a coaching situation where you can force them to do things, not only are you making them resentful of your power over them, but they’re also not going to improve they way could. In these scenarios, athletes will be looking to take shortcuts, to go through the motions, because they don’t see what’s in it for them. I’ve often seen a disconnect between what players think the reasons for training are, and what the real objectives are. During the season, our main goals are to prevent injuries, and improve performance, not to crush them. But, many players vision of the workouts did not line up with the reality of our goals. So, as a coach, you can’t emphasize enough what the goal is for each season, the reasons for them, and how it fits into the plan for overall development.

Being more aware of this now, I’ve seen the importance of it in all areas of teaching. In schools, I don’t think we do a good job of explaining to adolescents why they have to learn something. What’s the point of algebra? Of history? Physics? If students don’t see a reason why, how do you expect them to work hard at it? Sure, you can have teachers walking around the room like sharks and telling each off task student to focus, or you can get them to understand why staying on task is important. Get your players and students to see what’s in it for them.

Lesson #2 – A coach alone can’t build a great culture

A culture of buy-in and mutual trust and respect must start with the coach, but it won’t flood to the rest of the team without great leadership. There have been mornings where I’ve made my whole team wake up earlier than they wanted to. They would walk in, annoyed at me for making them be there, not ready to work. I can explain to them the purpose, but inevitably logic and reason will not fix their emotional annoyance. Some of these days, I did the best I could. I know some guys got nothing out of the workout that day, and resented the overall process. However, a lot of these days, our leaders stepped up to help me out. They helped to motivate the group, led by example, and got more players refocused. Inevitably, this energy rubbed off on the rest of the team. Seeing this, I realized that a great culture is not just about the coaches. It’s about the character of the individuals of the group. You need great leaders, and players willing to listen to these leaders in order to create the culture you’re looking for. You need a full room of guys who want to get better. The reverse is also true. If the assigned leaders aren’t doing their job, their teammates will follow suit. If the players are there for a good time and not to get better, then it doesn’t matter how great the coach and captains are. To our head coach’s credit, he has done an incredible job recruiting the right guys, and not just the best guys.

I could not have been successful as a strength coach without the support of our leaders, nor could our team overall have had the success we did without starting with a group that wants to get better.

Lesson #3 – “Look the part” is BS

What I’ve always known, but have had to come to accept, is that being a great coach and being a great athlete are completely different things. What goes into each discipline is as different from being a doctor or a lawyer. Coaching is not about being a great player. If you know someone who can make you better, it shouldn’t matter whether they can do all of it themselves. Yes, if they went through it, they will have experiences that will help them as a coach, but it’s not a necessity. “Looking the part” may help you get clients, but it won’t help you keep clients. That’s about getting THEM results and building a relationship. Those factors are independent of how good an athlete you are. After all, coaching is a field of service to others. Our goal is to make others better, and our personal fitness or athletic progress isn’t one of the key factors is contributing to that. This is the first time that I’ve trained athletes who are better than me, and so it’s the first time I’ve had to deal with this insecurity. I will have to get over this, because it won’t be the last time I work with athletes better than me.

Being a coach in this capacity has been one of the best learning experiences of my life. I now view the coaching process very differently. Consider how these lessons can help you be a better coach, teacher, or learner. Do your students understand the reasons why? Does your culture need to focus on picking the right group to begin with? Are you really focused on helping others and not what you’ve accomplished?

 

Restoring Posture In Junior Hockey Players

The first training session with the Vermont Lumberjacks this fall, I asked the group if they’ve ever felt hip flexor or groin pain. Literally every single hand went up. In my role as the strength and conditioning coach for the Vermont Lumberjacks, I’ve been able to witness how over forty 16-20 year old hockey players move. Just about all of them have the same postural imbalances as a result of being on the ice since young childhood, and these imbalances explain why hip flexor and groin injuries are so prevalent. So, it has been one of my goals to arm our players with tools to prevent or minimize groin and hip pain throughout the season.

In explaining this, I’m going to take an oversimplified approach. The anatomical nuances are not essential for the athletes to understand as long as they understand the goals and principles behind what we do. I must give two professionals full credit for making this a part of our training program, and ultimately keeping our athletes healthy. First, Oliver Hall at Inspire Physical Therapy. When I was struggling with chronic hip pain, I went to him. He armed me with the tools to keep my body healthy, and in the two years since, I have rarely had any hip pain. Olly has taken the time out of his day on multiple occasions to come watch the lumberjacks train, and then gave me the guidance to make this a part of our program. Secondly, Michelle Boland brought the concepts that Olly had taught me into a gym setting at her presentation at the NSCA Vermont State Clinic last year. Since then, her resources have been incredibly valuable. Both Olly and Michelle are certified with the Postural Restoration Institute.

 

The posture of every hockey player that I have worked with exists on a spectrum of the same postural phenomenon. They all have a tendency towards an anterior pelvic tilt and externally rotated hips. 

Anterior tilt example
Pelvis is excessively tilted forward causing arch in the low back.

Neither of these are surprising when we think about hockey. It’s played with the hips flexed basically all the time, and requires powerful hip external rotation and abduction with every stride. Furthermore, external rotation is coupled with extension in every paired bone in the body when we inhale, which explains why the tendency to be externally rotated and extended is paired together. If you want to, you can prove this to yourself by taking a few slow breaths and focusing on what your body does. As you inhale, your ribs, chest, and hips will want to open up, while on the exhale everything will want to close down. With our athletes, we focus on pairing internal rotation and flexion with our exhales in order to offset the bias towards external rotation and extension.

doney-stride.jpg
Left hip externally rotates and abducts as he pushes off.

The differences among athletes lie in the degree of this imbalance, and the severity of it on each side of the body. Some athletes are balanced, and able to fluidly shift their weight from side to side. Others have a tendency to shift their weight to the right, while others are so stuck in external rotation they they struggle to shift weight to either side without excessive back extension.

An athlete in balance is able to simultaneously externally rotate and abduct their stride leg, while shifting their weight to the other side and internally rotating on the stance leg. The problems arise when the hip cannot internally rotate adequately, causing the body to compensate by tilting the pelvis forward and extending the spine. On the side(s) that cannot adequately come out of external rotation or extension, we see weak abs, hamstrings, and adductors, which all play a role in posteriorly tilting the pelvis and internally rotating the hips. When these muscles are weaker on the left side, which is common, it leads to a right side bias. The weaker left hamstrings and adductors cause more of an anterior tilt on the left side of the pelvis, which make the left hip flexors overworked and more susceptible to strains. The Postural Restoration Institute calls this pattern left anterior interior chain (left AIC). So, our goal is to first identify where they exist on this spectrum of being being neutral, tight on one (almost always the left) side or tight on both sides. No player is perfect, they all exist on this spectrum.

left-aic-spectrum.jpg

In bilaterally tight athletes, tight hip flexors, an excessive anterior tilt, and weak internal rotators lead to overuse of both hip flexors. Groin (adductor) strains are also a risk, because they are lengthened and weak relative to external rotators and abductors. In individuals who exhibit a stronger left AIC pattern, the right groin is constantly working, as weight is constantly shifted to that side. In these individuals the right groin is overworked and tight, and the left groin is lengthened and weak, leading to groin strains. Most guys came in with very little understanding of any of this, so we started with the basics and have worked our way towards more specific exercises.

 

Step 1: Learning the posterior pelvic tilt

I have talked about this in depth here. The reason I start with these methods, rather than PRI methods is because of simplicity. Especially in a group setting, it is important that we start with the most basic concepts first, and then build off of it.

 

Step 2: Teaching internal rotation – activation of adductors, hamstrings, and gluteus medius therefore restoring hip internal rotation.

To understand the reason for focusing on restoring internal rotation and adduction at the hip, we must remind ourselves that internal rotation is coupled with flexion as part of respiration. With hockey players, we want to get them out of this extension and external rotation bias. That’s why, after they’ve reached proficiency with basic pelvic tilt methods, we work on teaching them how to internally rotate their hips to help them avoid overusing the low back. Those with more bias towards the right side (left AIC) still learned this so that they understood the process on both sides before moving on to unilateral work. Those who were tight on both sides spent more time focusing on this.

Here are some of the exercises, from PRI, that have helped us work on this.

For each exercise, the important cues are the same. We’re bringing our pelvis to neutral, internally rotating our hips as we exhale slowly and fully.

Slow exhales – on exhales round lower back, engage abs, hamstrings, groins.

Flatten low back against the wall or floor.

Dig heels into ground to engage hamstrings.

Step 3: Addresses left and right side imbalances – continuing to work on internal rotation on the left side, and hip abduction on the right.

In this phase, we work on addressing the left to right differences. The human body has a bias to shift our weight to the right due to the body’s natural asymmetries. When this happens the right hip hikes up, and the left pelvis shifts forward. The right abs and right adductors become comparatively much stronger, and the right glute medius becomes weak as a hip abductor. On the left side, the left abs and adductors are weaker. This imbalance can manifest itself symptomatically in a few common manners. First, your left hip flexor may hurt because of the stress placed on it due to the anterior tilt on the left. The right quadratus lumborum (a low back muscle) may become very sore, because the right glute med will be unable to overcome the strong right adductors in order to abduct the hip with the pelvis in the slanted position. So, we will get fake hip abduction via the QL. And of course, these issues can lead to other upstream and downstream problems. The right stride will be weak, because the athlete will not be getting optimal hip abduction, so fixing this imbalance also has performance enhancement implications. All of our exercises in this phase focus on activating the left abs, left adductors, and right abductors while inhibiting the right abs, right QL, and right adductors.

For these exercises, we still want to maintain a flat back and use slow exhales. But now, emphasize the side to side differences.

  • Hike your left pelvis up into your rib cage by using your left abs and left groin.
  • Think about pushing the right arch away.
  • Dig the left heel into the ground (wall with reach) or bring it slightly towards your butt (belly lift and right leg reach)

 

Step 4: Transferring it all to dynamic movements

These static exercises are all great, but if they don’t transfer over to the ice, then athletes are going to always deal with their posture and pain issues. At this point, it’s about taking all the concepts and methods and applying them in more dynamic situations. For us, this is always happening, even from day one. I can’t wait until our posture is “normal” to let them actually lift weights. We’d never strength train. It is a continual process of slowly improving posture and function, and then applying it to more sport-like scenarios. With step one, teaching the pelvic tilt, I am strict. Nobody is doing a heavy goblet squat or an ab wheel until they can show me they can flatten their back. The risk of causing back pain outweighs the benefit. But beyond that I know that I just have to slowly work with them where they’re at. Over time, weak muscles that we worked on will begin to work more during strength training exercises, and eventually dynamic exercises like cleans and jumps without the athlete thinking about it. Admittedly, there are better ways to approach helping these concepts transfer to more sport-like movements. But, we have not had time to learn many of the exercises that bridge the gap between static exercises and a hockey stride. But, we have emphasized the same cues during our split squats, stiff-leg deadlifts, and hex bar deadlifts, to name a few.

All four steps are always happening at the same time. Some days, we need basic neutral pelvis cues on our squats and ab exercises. Although over the course of the program we’ve spent more time on one phase after another, review of all four is constantly needed.

This is far from a scientific study, but since November 1 we have only lost two man games to hip and groin soft tissue problems (which were the result of a freak play, not overuse). The captain of our junior A team, Mason Emoff said “I have never had the training to prevent hip flexor and groin injuries until this year. This is my first time in three seasons of junior hockey that I haven’t had to sit out mid season due to hip flexor or groin pain.”

Why College Is Overrated And You Should Take a Year Off

Going to college has become a big, expensive decision that most families are automatically saying yes to. Anytime we see decisions as large as this without questioning it we should pause and reconsider. As Mark Twain said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” There are lots of good reasons to go to college, and I will be going next fall. but too often people go without evaluating why.

 

Why college is overrated:

Let’s say a college education costs $20,000 per year. That’s $10,000 per semester where a student takes about five classes. Each class meets twice a week for fifteen weeks, so around thirty classes. Therefore, every time you step into a class, you’re paying about $65. And in most classes you’re receiving little individual attention. Could you spend that $65 to improve your skill set and career prospects in better ways? Although a college degree is a necessity for many jobs, what people and companies are looking for are ways to create value for their company and customers. Instead of focusing on getting a piece of paper that proves your adequacy, focus on doing great, valuable work. If you can do this without spending boatloads of money or by using the money more wisely, shouldn’t that be an option to consider? Regardless of what path you take, developing skills that will help the world is paramount. How and who it will help is completely up to you, as is where you develop those skills. Start by creating value and the path you take will fall into place.

Ask your parents how much of what they learned in school is actually applicable to how they make money today. 2010 U.S census data examined by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that just 62 percent of college graduates have a job that requires a degree. Furthermore, only 27 percent of graduates had a job closely related to their major. Just as the world has drastically changed since our parents were in college, it will continue to change from now until we are members of the workforce. The twists and turns that our lives will take are unpredictable, as is the world we will live in. In ten years there will be jobs available that don’t even exist now. And jobs that do exist won’t be around anymore. There’s a chance that what we learn in school won’t be applicable.

 

Consider a gap year:

If you’re a high school student struggling with where you want to go to school or with what you want to study, consider taking a gap year. The options for this year off are limitless. And, in twelve months you can do so much. The first thing I recommend for a gap year is to pursue a professional interest. If you have a career in mind, find out if there’s a way you can start doing it. Seek out job opportunities and internships. Discover if you would actually like it. Yes, you can’t just go be a doctor. But, if you’re stubborn enough, I’m sure a doctor’s office could find a way to make you useful. And if you focus on doing a great job, they might start paying you. Secondly, take time to travel. Commit yourself to actually learning the language you took in high school. The benefits that traveling will bring to your life are outside the scope of this article, but if you have a whole year off, time away from home should be part of it. You can fund it with the money you earned cleaning stethoscopes. Lastly, think about your interests. What topics have always seemed interesting, but you’ve never had time to dive into? Find some books on it or an online course. Have you always wanted to draw, write, or make music? Whatever it is, this is the perfect time to attack those subjects. Exploring these curiosities will challenge you to think about what your real interests are and the things that you have a knack for. You may discover exactly what you want your career to be.

One of the push backs against a year off is the worry that once kids have time off from school, they won’t want to go back, or won’t be able to academically motivate themselves. If you can’t motivate yourself to keep learning, whether through reading books, taking courses, or taking classes without an institution telling you to, then you should really consider if it’s the right time for college. In college, kids aren’t forced to show up for class. They just fail. Except now being a slacker costs thousands of dollars. Instead, take time to improve yourself before spending all that money. Develop good study habits with the training wheels still on. Then, when you go to college you’ll be more prepared and more mature. There is a big difference between an 18 and a 19 year-old, and being a year older, a year smarter, and a year more prepared will give you an advantage.

Also, why is everybody in a rush to grow up?

The coolest part about taking time off is that you’ll discover that there’s so many more options than what we’ve been led to believe. You’ll realize that the traditional high school to college to work path is not the way our lives have to be. There is no path you have to follow. Make your own path. Time off makes you question the assumptions. And, you’ll realize in other places in society that these assumptions guide our lives in so many ways just because nobody has thought to question them.

 

Why I’m going to school:

I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve accomplished the last two years. At the age of twenty I’ve built a career for myself, I’ve traveled the world, I’ve discovered a lot about myself and my interests. I felt that I was learning and growing so much that one gap year turned into two. But now, I feel that I have squeezed the most out of what I can at this stage in my life. In college, I hope to have my thinking challenged every day. Yes, there are certain skill sets I want to develop, but more importantly I want the experiences that college will bring. To be in a new place with new people and a new culture. Life’s a journey, and I want college to be an exciting chapter of it. Lastly, I do recognize the value, and often the necessity, of a college degree. So, I will go through the system and spend a lot of money for a fancy piece of paper. But, now I know that I’m not doing it because that’s just “what people do,” or because, “that’s what the next step is,” but because I feel that it is the best decision for my growth. Consider what the next step for your growth is. Is it school? An internship? An eleven month trip around Europe? There is no path you have to follow. Make your own.

Play More Games – Why Unstructured Play Makes You a Better Athlete

With more organized youth activities and the rise of technology, unstructured free time has come more and more out of children’s lives. Many have lost the time to explore their environment and their authentic interests, or if they have time they use it to excessively play video games. They aren’t throwing bouncy balls off the side of their house, or exploring the woods, or playing hacky sack and ping pong with their neighbors. As a result, they’re losing some important physical developmental pieces.

What is “unstructured play?”

For the purposes of this article, unstructured play is any game that requires the physical use of your body, and without excessive adult interference. It is the child’s game. It’s the games they make up when they’re bored, and what they play with their friends when they come over. Unstructured play offers kids time to develop new skills that they often can’t get in a sports or strength and conditioning context. It teaches them new physical skills, how to be more reactive and creative athletes, and, most importantly, they’re fun.

Like any sport, each game requires a general set of skills. Think about the skills we work on in the gym, like running faster and jumping higher. Any game will give kids time to practice their general physical competency. It could a game like tips that requires them to jump every time they get the ball, or Spikeball which requires quick accelerations in every direction. But, each game also requires a unique set of skills. In basketball it’s shooting threes or dribbling. In hockey, it’s the stickhandling ability or an efficient skating stride. Every silly little game gives kids the chance to develop more and more skills that carry over into their actual sports. Sewer, for example, helps kids use their feet better. Spikeball is great for hand-eye coordination. Roof taps requires the ability to catch and throw effectively. We’re developing a lot of the same skills we do in sports, but in a different context. Through these games, the child will develop new skills that they don’t in their sports. An athlete who plays soccer in the fall, hockey in the winter, and lacrosse in the spring is never learning how to throw or catch. Something like wiffle ball would be a great game for this athlete. These games help athletes further enhance skills they already work on, and also learn new ones that support their overall physical competency.

Beyond the skill set, unstructured play helps athletes develop the ability to react quickly. Reactivity is the ability to adjust your movements or positioning quickly due to a sudden change in the game. For example, someone playing defense in football needs to be able to react instantly to attempted dekes and movements by the attacker in front of them. It’s not about speed or acceleration. It is the ability to react quickly to changes in the game. I believe the ability to react is the difference between players who are great in practice, and players who are great in games. In practice, coaches will often tell you where to go. In competition, you have to react to what’s happening around you. Come gametime, you can’t rely on the lines drawn on the practice board. In play, athletes will be able to get exponentially more reps that require a quick reaction than they would at their practice. Consider a Spikeball match with a neighbor. In this match alone their might be 40 points handed about, with an average of three volleys per person during each point. That’s 120 reps. Even in a sports practice with drills that teach reaction ability, getting anywhere near 120 reps is unlikely. And even if you do, it’s not in a quick ten minute game. The ability to react to your environment is not trained in sports practice the same way the specific and general sports skills are. With that in mind, one of the best ways to develop it is through unstructured play.

Unstructured play also encourages creativity unlike most organized settings. With the stakes low, and with no coaches or parents telling them how to play, they’re forced to come up with their own strategies. It allows athletes to explore their own learning processes through trial and error. If they try something and it doesn’t work, they can either keep practicing it until they can do it, or they learn to abandon it altogether. Think of skating on the backyard rink. This is place where some of the best hockey players honed their skill. They tried new moves, new routes to beat defensemen, and ultimately emerged with a skill set unlike any other player. Without a coach to tell them what not to do, they develop their own moves. I think of a roof taps game where you could practice a fake with the ball, or practice going behind your back. If you tried that in a basketball practice, your coach would likely yell at you if it didn’t work. This is the place to try things. When your creativity shows up years down the line in a big game, everybody will be wondering how and where you learned it.

Perhaps most important of all, is that these games are fun. I’ve never met an athlete who didn’t love Spikeball. When my hockey teammates and I get to the rink, we can’t wait to grab the soccer ball and start playing sewer. Athletes are competitors. If somebody challenges us to a game, we’re going to give all our energy and effort to crush them. You could be teaching the same skills elsewhere, but young athletes seem to always rise of up to the spirit of competition. And as soon as the game is done, they wish they could play for hours more.  A best of three game of taps can quickly turn into a seven game series. Or a 3 inning wiffle ball game will go to the bottom of the 19th. Also, this will reinvigorate an athlete’s love for their real sports. If a soccer player has been playing sewer with her hockey teammates all winter, she’ll be so excited to show her soccer team the moves she learned. I remember when I played wall ball I would quickly start making my best Derek Jeter impressions, and how much it would make me wish I was on the diamond. Whereas sports games and practices can gradually lead to burnout over the years, unstructured play does the exact opposite.

 

How to incorporate more unstructured play:

Be bored. Wake up on a Sunday morning without any plans, and commit to not staring at screens for more than an hour. What are you going to do the rest of the day? Text your friends to meet up. If you’ve got a roof and a ball, you’ve got a roof taps court. Or maybe somebody can bring a Spikeball net. It’ll be more fun than anything you’d do inside.

When I was younger, anytime I was bored I would call my next-door neighbor Wyatt to play games outside. Roof taps and ping pong were staples, but we also made up games like dinosaur bowling and arena soccer. We were so competitive with it that we created The Battle of Tarbox Road. Basically, everytime we played a game, we played for a country on this map I had printed out. Big games were generally for bigger countries. When somebody won, we filled in that country on the map with the color of the winner. Some games were back and forth, while others one person dominated. Soccer, for example, Wyatt smoked me unless we were playing full contact. To date, The Battle of Tarbox Road rages on whenever Wyatt and I are both home.

Even when I couldn’t have a friend over, I stilled played games. The side of my house worked well for a wall ball wall. I had a whole collection of bouncy balls that I would throw against my house and then practice diving in one direction or another to catch. I literally did this for hours in the summers. I think it was why I was a good baseball fielder. But I only did it for fun. If you can put the Xbox away for a few minutes and try it, you’d realize how fun it is.

If you get to your sports practice early, use that time to play a game with your buddies. In the hockey world, just about every team in the NHL plays sewer before games. So throw the soccer ball in your hockey bag and start making it a pre-practice tradition. I put out the Spikeball net before our athletic performance classes, so when kids roll in, they can play a quick game. Some days if I’m not busy, I’ll teach the kids new games before class. If you’re a coach, throw the Spikeball net in the car and have the kids who are early to practice play. Encourage the fun.

Sports at the end of the day are just made up games. The true essence of sport is the spirit of competition, of trying to better and improve ourselves. Playing more games will develop new skills, improve athleticism, make more reactive athletes, and improve creatively. Most importantly, they’re fun. And isn’t that what sports are all about?

 

Coaching Middle School Boys

Although every athlete is unique and must be coached differently, as I’ve worked with more and more people I’ve noticed patterns among different groups and demographics. With these patterns there are obviously exceptions. But, across the board these are some key elements to consider when working with a group of middle school boys. Why do boys get their own article? Girls at that age are usually easy to coach. They listen, they’re not overly competitive, and they’re open to constructive feedback. In general they’re a delight to be around. Also, being a young guy, I feel uniquely qualified to talk about what’s going on in the heads of these growing men because I was there not long ago. I understand what they stress about, what they desire, and what they wish they spent their time doing.

Key #1: Have fun

To these kids, all time spent not in school or doing homework should be fun time. They do sports because they enjoy it. They play video games because they like them. So in the gym we do things that are fun. We do relays and play spikeball. We play sewer if there’s time before class. Many kids love to climb the cargo net or climb the ropes, so we do that too. We’ll set aside time for things that they enjoy, because I know that they’re much more likely to work hard on a drill if they like it. Additionally, we’ll shorten or skip some phases in a program in order to get to the fun stuff. For example, ideally an athlete who walks into our facility for the first time would work on basic running mechanics for the first 3 or 4 weeks. But, they’ll quickly get bored if that’s all we do for our speed training. So, we’ll add in drills like ball drops and short competitive sprints to keep things interesting, and encourage them to work harder. Of course the basics of running mechanics are essential to learn first without other variables. But, I’ll be aggressive with how quickly we move on to the next progression. Or, we’ll continue working on the basics but throw in a more advanced drill here and there. A 6th grader is often going to get more out of a ball drop than a regular ten yard sprint because he’ll be more engaged. He’ll have more fun, and be more motivated the rest of the session. We’ll give them a bone on the speed and plyometric work, that way when we do boring things they’ll be less likely to roll their eyes at me. As a coach, I have to put aside theories of progression and periodization and ask, “What will help them most today and in the long-term?”

 

Key #2: Do like exercises where they can feel something

If they can’t see the value in an exercise, or don’t feel it anywhere, they’re much less likely to work hard at it. Some kids hate split squats, because they don’t feel them anywhere. Some kids like split squats because they feel their legs working. They understand that this feeling is what is making them stronger. Therefore one of the best ways to get buy-in is to be a good technical coach. Make sure they’re doing the exercise correctly, and feeling it in the right muscles. To help with this, start with exercises that are easy to grasp. Sled Push is a good example. Adults hate the sled, because it’s hard. A lot of kids will tell me that they like the sled because they feel their legs so much. To give another example, one day we were practicing flexed arm hangs, where you try to hold yourself at the top of pull-up. One young man switched his grip to an underhand grip, and said that he felt his biceps burning. Then, his friend said that he wanted to feel his biceps too, and so he switched his grip. A simple change like the grip position can allow them to feel it easier or in different places. The next day they both came in flexing their arms and telling me how sore their biceps were.

Key #3: Don’t yell, nag, or act frustrated.

They get plenty of that from parents and teachers. Listen to them. If they talk about how their math homework is keeping them up late at night, don’t tell them how ridiculous that is. Try to explain some basic time management strategies, like setting a timer for video games, or making sure that their homework is done first. Their stresses may seem so insignificant, because you know in the long run they are, but to them, they’re everything. Picture their perspective. They wake up to their parents telling them to get ready for school. The spend the whole day being told where to go and what to do by teachers. They almost all play sports with coaches telling them what to do. If you take a “do as I say approach,” everything you say will get thrown into their brain under the folder, “useless adult crap.” Be the coach who listens to them, who gives them a voice in the decision making process. “You guys want to do ball drops today? Okay.. I think we can squeeze that in if we’re focused and working hard.”

Key #4: Keep explanations concise

If you have to explain something, make sure you tell them the reason for that lesson as efficiently as possible. They don’t want a lecture. But, if you don’t give them the WHY behind something, it will go in one ear and out the other. Communicate to them as efficiently and clearly as possible. If possible, physically show them. One time I was asked why he had to stick his landings and pause between every hurdle jump. Instead of explaining the reason, I took a video of them going straight through, which showed their knees coming in on their landings. After showing him, he saw that he needed to focus on jumping and landing quietly with his knees in line first, before jumping in succession.

Key #5: Talk about things they like

Argue about baseball stats. Talk smack about their video game skills. Have a basic understanding of the things they like. If you understand and can talk about the things they like, it instantly builds rapport because most adults can’t. You don’t want to come off as trying to “fit in” with them. Just show that you understand their stresses and things they like and it will go a long way in building trust. What if you don’t know what your athletes like? How would you be able to talk with them? Well, if you don’t know what their interests are, then ask. Get to know them. Ask them what their favorite NBA team is, or who their favorite player is. If you know they’re Warriors fans, then notice next time Steph Curry has a big game, and bring that up with them. “Hey did you guys see Steph had ten three’s last night?” Show that you care about getting to know them, and it will not only build rapport, but you may also start to build great relationships with your athletes that you’ll begin to treasure.

Wrapping Up:

The more I’ve been in the coaching world the more I’ve learned that the technical side of coaching is the easiest part. Anybody can learn how to properly plan a workout program, and how to coach most important exercises. What’s hard is communicating with athletes, to get them to put in their best effort. It’s about connecting, building trust, listening, and giving efficient coaching instructions. These are the skills that I’ve continually found are the most important. These are most important, not how precise the program in theory is. Being a handsome, smart 20-year old guy helps too.

What I’ve Learned Installment #3 – The Second Half of 2018

Each day, week, month and year that goes by without growing in some manner to me is not time well spent. But going beyond that, if we don’t reflect on those lessons, we won’t be able to apply them. In today’s world with the access to information that we have knowledge is no longer power. Applied knowledge is power. Knowledge that we’ve taken and used to improved ourselves or others in some way. In order to internalize important lessons, you have to review, re-ponder, and reconsider what exactly they were, and why they were helpful. Then you have to actually use them. Here are some of those lessons I’ve learned in the last six months.

 

Be genuinely interested in others

In the timeless book How to Win Friends & Influence People Dale Carnegie outlines the keys to interpersonal relationships. One of my biggest takeaways is that if you’re truly interested in the lives of others, they will reciprocate that interest. We humans naturally love to talk about ourselves and all the cools things we’re doing. So, I’ve made it my goal in conversation to focus on who I’m talking to, and about the cool things they want to share. When I hear my brain want to chime in and talk about something I’m doing, I instead ask a clarification question or ask about something I’m curious about. Professionally, it has helped me get to know and understand clients better. It has given me a better picture of who they are, and therefore has helped me improve and personalize our sessions more effectively. It’s also led to me hear the experiences of those older and wiser than I. If in every interaction we all strove to learn just one thing from the other person, we would all leave our days more empathetic and open-minded, with fresh perspectives to guide our days.

 

It’s not about who’s right, but what’s right

The beliefs people hold are often so deeply ingrained in their being that convincing them otherwise is rarely a matter of logical explanation backed up with facts or data. These beliefs are emotionally a part of them. It can be nearly impossible to show them it’s wrong. If at any point you “attack” someone’s viewpoint they’ll close off and feel personally attacked and will now be less likely to listen to counterarguments. Being in a field with many polarizing views, I’ve needed to resist saying harsh statements that will trigger emotional responses from others. Every explanation needs to be placed over a blanket of mutual understanding, and then guide them through the logical sequence that leads to our conclusion. Along the way, any false step in explanation leads to that emotional trigger and vehement disagreement. Sometimes this takes 30 seconds, but other times it takes weeks to slowly not just tell but show the reasons why.

On the flip side, this has made me become more aware of my personal pitfalls. What views do I hold purely out of emotion? Are they actually founded on truth and logic? This is why I write. Writing makes me lay out the logical sequence so that it makes sense to me. And, if I can’t explain it, then that means that I should revisit the topic. It has also reinforced the practice o what Ray Dalio calls radical open mindedness. This means we must always strive to keep our minds open and listening for the possibility of a better, more correct solution. I’m continuing to view more problems objectively, knowing that a lot of my beliefs are just flat out incorrect. This requires not reacting emotionally when somebody disagrees, but listening, knowing I could be wrong. I truly believe that if we all practiced radical open mindedness, many of the world’s problems would go away. Rather than constantly arguing, we’d all be searching for what’s truly the best solution, and be able to approach it with fresh perspectives each time.

But, this is difficult. I remember going to see a friend one evening and meeting her friends who were strongly opinionated on the benefits of veganism. It would have been easy to argue, but maybe I just needed to listen and give their explanation a fair chance. One year ago, I would’ve dismissed arguments before even hearing them. Now, at least I understand the arguments, and come out of the discussion educated on a totally different perspective than mine.

 

Golden Rule #2: Make sure everybody knows about it

This fall I completed Jon Goodman’s Online Trainer Academy. Early on in the course, he introduces what he calls his two golden rules. Rule #1: Do a great job, and rule #2: Make sure everybody knows about it. Early on in my professional career, I’ve consistently neglected the second rule. Learning about this led me to creating my blog and my instagram. Now, people know me as a fitness guy. The more we do to showcase the great job that we do in our field of choice, the more we’ll come up when people are ready to buy that particular product or service. One personal goal for 2019 is to post more regularly. But, this year I’ve realized its importance and begun to put myself out there more as a professional.
I understand the argument that if you just do great work the audience will follow. In most situations this is true. But, the audience might not be as big as it could have been. Or, you may not find the perfect customers for your product. If our goal is to help as many people as we can, then it’s essential to have some means of reaching a greater audience, and that means making sure that people know about the great work we’re doing.

To give another example, because this is my last year of junior hockey (20 & under) eligibility, all of the kids my age need to find schools to play for next year. Although, I made my college decision a while ago, I’m now watching several of my teammates stress about not having schools knocking down their doors. And, make no mistake about it, these kids are great hockey players. But, they’re not putting themselves out there to the recruiting process. They’re not emailing coaches and looking deeply at where they actually want to go. They’re hoping that the perfect coach from the perfect school just shows up and tries to recruit them. And for some, this will happen. A coach will see them play and it will be a great fit. But, I fear that others will end up at a lesser school because they simply did not put the time in to make sure the schools they were interested in were seeing them. They’re crushing rule #1, doing a great job, but neglecting rule #2, and it’s hurting their chances of going to the best school for them. I’ve learned this year that rule #1 is not enough to reach our potential. If you’re crushing your work right now, but the audience isn’t where you want to be, think about how you can make sure that everybody knows about the great work you’re doing.

 

Authoritative coaching doesn’t create real trust

I’ve never been one to yell while coaching. As an athlete this coaching style never made me work harder. I like to coach the athletes who do the work without needing a kick in the butt. However, this is not the reality of the coaching world. Lots of times there are athletes who don’t want to be there. At Fit 2 Excel I’ve been fortunate to not deal with many of these people. Almost everyone comes completely out of their own free will. They’re already motivated, and yelling at them is just ineffective coaching. But, this fall I’ve been in charge of the strength and conditioning for both Vermont Lumberjacks junior hockey teams. These kids don’t choose to come to the workouts, and so many don’t want to be there. What’s even more difficult is that our Junior A team is my team. I’m training my own team. To get buy in from my team I have to explain the purpose for almost everything clearly and concisely. Unlike the middle schoolers, who I feel I have strong credibility with because I’m a fairly high level athlete, my teammates are on the same level as I am. Why am I the one helping them get better? What the hell do I know? I can’t take a “do as I say” approach. They would begin to resent the workout sessions and view me as just another person abusing power. That’s why I want them to understand the “why” behind the exercises. Admittedly, there are many of teammates who I don’t think trust my expertise in strength and conditioning. They say they have routines and things that work for them, and I understand that perspective. However, doing this shows the other guys that they can do their own thing too. The result is a whole group of athletes not getting the most out of the workout as they could. And, although I technically have the authority to discipline them and make them do as I say, I believe that long-term that is helping nobody. This will only further alienate them. For these guys, my goal is to show them why we need to do things this way or that way, and show how that overall makes our team better. As the season has gone on, many guys have realized this and it has improved our team sessions.

Lots of my teammates have completely trusted me, but not blindly. It’s because they’ve listened and absorbed each of the lessons, and have understood the principles behind what we do. Our captain is like this, and when the team sees him buying in, it rubs off. I also think he’d be the first one to talk about how much he’s gotten out of our team workouts this year. Although there’s still a lot of room for improvement, being a coach who’s open to to questions and feedback from the athletes has led more athletes to buy in. This coaching strategy has also led me to learn a few things. I often hear from our guys something like, “my coach back home says…” Sometimes I disagree and explain why, and other times I realize they have a good point, and adjust accordingly. The coach and athlete relationship should not be authoritative; It should be one of mutual respect and openness.

 

Among each of these there is a common theme: Listening. Being overall a better listener has been one of the keys to my professional growth this year. If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, allow me to offer this as a suggestion. Cultivate the power of listening this year. In each interaction be the most attentive listener you can be, and each time strive to be better. Over the course of a year, we could all learn so much by focusing on listening and learning from others. Let’s make 2019 the year we learned how to listen.