Hockey Training with Kevin Neeld

Kevin Neeld is a sharp guy, and someone that I’ve followed for several years now.

Furthermore, hockey is a sport I know pretty much nothing about, but figure I’ll be watching it a lot this winter since there’s probably not going to be an NBA season!

As such, I figured it was time to introduce you, the RTS reader, to Kevin.

Here we go!Kevin, since this is your first time on the blog, would you just take a quick minute to tell us a little bit about yourself?

KN: I currently serve as the President, COO, and Director of Athletic Development at Endeavor Sports Performance in Pitman, NJ about 20 minutes east of Philadelphia. That’s a lot of fancy titles to basically mean that I’m responsible for structuring the assessments and training programs at our facility, as well as organizing our staff and generally leading the direction of the business as we continue to grow and develop.

What originally got you into strength and conditioning?

KN: The short story is that I was a reasonably skilled hockey player that was too fat and slow to compete at higher levels. When I was 14, I played for a coach that put a high emphasis on training, and the experience had a profound impact on my ability.

I knew then that I’d eventually pursue a career in helping to develop hockey players.

Looking back, the training we did was beyond excessive in volume. That coupled with my self-training in the following years set me up for a host of unnecessary injuries (double hernia surgery, broken clavicle, strained hamstrings on both sides, separated AC joint, torn trapezius off posterior clavicle, etc.) that still effect me today. Interestingly, I think it’s my experiences with these injuries that fuels my interest in assessments and injury prevention strategies.

That sucks, but I’m sure it’s played a pivotal role in your development as a coach.

Nowadays, it seems as though you’re 100% dialed into training hockey players. How did you end up in that niche?

KN: As I mentioned above, I grew up playing. Hockey was never a hobby, it was an obsession.

On Friday nights, I used to have my parents drive me 40 minutes to the rink so I could help run a power skating clinic and train for a couple hours. I always took pride in working while others were sleeping, playing video games, etc.

As late as my final year of college, I wasn’t 100% sure if I would make a career out of coaching/instructing, running strength and conditioning programs, or both. Up to that point, I was probably a better power skating and puck handling instructor than I was strength coach.

The pivotal decision in my career was when I passed on an opportunity to run off-season on-ice clinics and lessons in exchange for paying out of pocket to take a Functional Anatomy class at BU and intern at Cressey Performance. From that point on, it’s pretty much been all strength and conditioning.

Hockey is still my passion though, which is the reason that we’ve carved out a niche for that population in the hockey hotbed of South Jersey! It also helps that my business partner, who I met playing hockey ~12 years ago, has been coaching in the area for several years.

Most of the serious players within a couple hour drive find a way to train with us in the off-season. We’ve developed a great atmosphere with players as young as U-12 up through college and pro players all training their assess off to take the next step in their careers.

That’s awesome man! So let’s talk hockey players – what physical traits do the best hockey players in the world possess?

KN: The most successful players in the game bring a variety of attributes to the table. From a physical standpoint, speed is essential. The rules changed several years ago to prevent a lot of the obstruction that was common at the time, which has really sped the game up.

Speed in the game of hockey is less about 40-yard dash speed as it is about 5-10-5 speed. In other words, players need to be explosive in short bursts and be able to accelerate, decelerate, and change direction faster than their opponents.  Maybe quickness is a more appropriate term, but I hesitate to use that word because “quick feet” isn’t the goal; quick movement of the body’s center of mass is.

The top players are also highly skilled. A lot of this comes down to hockey-specific skill training, but it’s important to ensure that these players have the mobility, strength, and durability to express their skill sets. Losing a top player to a nagging muscle strain can have a crippling effect on that player’s development and the team’s success, and as you know, these injuries are often preventable.

I also think it’s important to point out that the best players see the game slow. They’re ability to read the play and anticipate the flow of everyone on the ice allows them to make smarter decisions both with and without the puck. This isn’t necessarily within the scope of strength and conditioning, but I try to encourage players to spend time watching as much hockey at the next level above theirs as possible. The more time players spend studying the game, the more automatic quality decisions become.

Those are great points, and I think “seeing the game slow” is a quality of elite athletes in virtually any sport.

Taking things a step further, what are the biggest issues you see when training hockey players? Where are their current programs weak or lacking?

KN: Most youth players either don’t train at all, follow misguided bodybuilding recommendations from their buddies, or follow an unstructured sprint, jump, and jog program. To be honest, I don’t think these are problems unique to hockey as much as they are indicative of general high school athlete tendencies.

From a programming standpoint, the ideas of postural awareness, push-pull balance, unilateral exercises, TRUE core training (e.g. training the muscles of the hips and spine to create appropriate stability), rotational power training, and even learning basic free weight exercise technique are lost on most youth players. It’s all stuff you’ve been talking about for years, but the message hasn’t quite permeated youth athletics.

From an injury standpoint, hip flexor and adductor strains are an accepted part of the game, which is completely insane. No 13-year-old should ever have a strained groin. That’s a symptom of a failed training/development system. Basic prevention techniques (restoring hip neutrality through specific breathing exercises, hip mobility exercises, psoas, lateral hip and glute activation work, creating balance in stiffness across the hips, etc.) can almost completely eliminate these problems in youth hockey, and help ensure that older players don’t miss much time if they tweak something throughout the year.

You mentioned assessments earlier, so tell me about your start-up process. New client comes in, wants to become a beast, where do you start with them?

KN: All our new clients fill out a health history questionnaire that provides us insight into their medical, training, and dietary backgrounds. This provides a great place to start a conversation on how they’ve recovered from previous injuries, what movements are uncomfortable or produce pain, and their overall stress management abilities.

For example, we know that someone that doesn’t sleep well or enough and/or doesn’t eat well or enough is going to have a difficult time recovering from training-related stresses. Knowing that up front gives us a better picture of the athlete walking through our doors and what recommendations we’re going to need to give them to help them achieve their goals.

From an assessment standpoint, we rely on a variety of tools including the Functional Movement Screen, tests taken from the Postural Restoration Institute (adduction drop test, modified Thomas test, GH flexion ROM, unilateral diaphragm function, etc.), and other complimentary range of motion tests that help us get an idea of the structure and function of the athlete. Last off-season, we were able to identify a shocking number of hip structure abnormalities amongst our players that guided our corrective approach, program design, and the way we coached certain lifts.

We work with a lot of players with a history of hip flexor and adductor strains, hip labral tears, FAI, sports hernias, etc, so being able to get a picture of their hip structure is important in ensuring that we don’t irritate the joint (and surrounding joints) and to “injury-proof” the athlete moving forward.

That is awesome! Your athletes are lucky to have someone such as yourself with such a deep knowledge of assessment.

I’m assuming you also work with a wide variety of ages and skill levels. How do you program and/or coach differently with a young athlete versus a more seasoned veteran?

KN: Absolutely. We have some mid-20’s guys that are fighting for NHL spots, and some younger  kids that probably rank hockey 5th on their list of favorite activities behind eating, sleeping, video games and eating.

The important thing is to understand where each athlete is coming from and coach accordingly. Because we’re in a private sector, we get kids who are there because their parents force them to be. For those kids, it’s all about making the experience fun. The greatest service we can provide them is a good confidence boost. More advanced/serious players need that too, but the stakes are higher so the motivation typically is too.

Programming for newbies is all about teaching the basics. I want everyone to know how to hip hinge, set and stabilize a neutral foot and spine (including cervical spine), set their scapulae during open-chain pushing movements, retract their scapulae during closed chain pushing and all pulling movements.

These aren’t just skill sets that will allow them to improve their performance and durability within our program and their sport, these patterns will help them in everyday life. It’s just proper movement. (Note from MR: I LOVE this comment!)

Unfortunately, phys ed classes, in the areas where they still exist, focus on teaching sport or exercise, but completely fail to teach movement, which is the foundation of everything we do.  Once proper movement is mastered, we can progress to “sexier” training strategies, including more advanced exercises, more variety, more attention to individual needs.

You recently released a product, Ultimate Hockey Training, which sounds pretty legit. I’m not exactly a hockey conossieur so tell me a bit about it.

Are there other hockey training programs out there? And if so, what does this one have that others don’t?

KN: I’m really proud of Ultimate Hockey Training. UHT outlines my entire training philosophy-age-appropriate training guidelines, how to alter training emphases based on the time of season, how to progress and regress exercises for every physical quality (speed, power, strength, conditioning), how to design individual training sessions and progressive training programs, common postural adaptations,  specific injury prevention strategies, etc.

Everything in the book is supported by a sound scientific rationale, but also includes a ton of practical examples so readers that don’t have a scientific background can still apply all the concepts. A comment that I’ve consistently heard is that the book outlines a training system that can be applied to everyone, not just hockey players.

My goal in writing Ultimate Hockey Training was to make it the most comprehensive hockey training resource available today. I think where UHT excels over some of the other available resources is that it’s not a 12-week program that can be used once and may or may not even be appropriate for whoever buys it (depending on the age, playing level, and training experience of the athlete). UHT is a complete system, so players and coaches can use it to train through the off-season, pre-season, in-season, and post-season year after year and continue to make progress.

I also have some great bonuses from Sean Skahan, David Lasnier, Eric Cressey, Maria Mountain, Kim McCullough, Rick Kaselj, and Charlie Weingroff. If people are interested in learning more, I encourage them to check out the three videos I recorded on transitional speed training, hockey conditioning, and comprehensive hockey training program design HERE.

Sounds awesome and I’m definitely going to check it out!

Ok, last question – where do a lot of up-and-coming hockey strength and conditioning coaches go wrong, and what’s a simple tip they can use to get better at their craft?

KN: A lot of young hockey S&C coaches are former players. This can be a very positive thing, as it helps them understand the demands of the game and how to speak the language with players.

Unfortunately, it can also be a negative, as they tend to think that whatever they did as a player is the best option for the players they train.

Hockey playing and hockey training are two completely different skill sets. The best advice I can give to an up and comer is to dedicate a significant amount of time learning from the people that do the job that you want the best.  I apologize for the shameless plug here, but I run a membership site called HockeyStrengthandConditioning.com with Sean Skahan (Anaheim Ducks), Mike Potenza (San Jose Sharks) and Darryl Nelson (USA National Team Development Program) that would be a great way for young coaches to gain exposure to how Sean, Mike, and Darryl design and implement their programs. Those guys are the best in the business; I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from them every week.

Kevin, thanks a ton for being with us here today. Could you let everyone know where they can find out more about you?

KN: Thank you for the opportunity. For more information on me, people can check out my personal site KevinNeeld.com, which is where I post weekly articles and have my newsletter. People in the Mid-Atlantic area may also want to check out Endeavor’s site.

Awesome man – thanks again for taking the time and best of luck going forward!

2 Comments

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  1. Good interview. From reading Kevin’s blog, I’ve learned a lot and especially like the hockey focus, being from Canada and focusing on training hockey players myself.
    Conor

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