USA Hockey: Can you talk about the importance of coaches making sure their athletes are getting into the gym and working out this summer?
Darryl Nelson: Obviously I think it’s a huge component, especially for anybody that is working with teenagers. For kids that have reached their adolescent growth spurt, strength and power are the most trainable traits. They’re kind of getting beyond the windows of trainability for skills and things like that, so at that point in time, anybody that is working with teenagers, their top priority should be trying to make them stronger and faster and more explosive, because that’s where they can improve the most.
USA Hockey: What’s your focus and what should coaches emphasize when it comes to strength and conditioning work?
Nelson: Quality work is the most important thing. What we’re really trying to focus on, what we should be trying to focus on with these players, is making them fast and explosive. A lot of the more popular mainstream workout stuff right now is lots of high reps and lots of fatigue, but that’s not really for athletes that play a team sport. If you want slow and sloppy, then do slow and sloppy training. If you want your team to be fast and explosive and crisp, then all of your training should be fast and explosive and crisp. Quality is paramount. Also, in that same line, if you make somebody really fatigued and you try to use weights, you are significantly increasing your risk of injury. Strength training and fatigue don’t really mix. Fatigue is a byproduct of strength training, so whenever we do our strength training, we always have long rest between sets. We don’t do things in a fashion where the guys become really heavily fatigued. We always want lots of rest, so we’re trying to break up their workout so they’re fresh at the start every set, that they can lift challenging weights every time.
USA Hockey: Explosiveness is a buzzword right now. What are some of your favorite exercises to help a player become more explosive on the ice?
Nelson: Explosive exercises are certainly done in the offseason part of our year. We do lots of jumping and plyometric-type exercises, like Eric Heiden (five-time Olympic gold-medal speed skater) ice skater jump, ladder and diagonal bounding off one foot. Things like box jumps and hurdle jumps and more conventional two-legged plyometrics are still okay. Those are good exercises as well that we use. For our strength training, we use more of the stuff that we’re doing year-round. That would include Olympic-style lifts, single-leg squatting, using various kinds of resistance sprinting, whether it’s like a partner resistance sprint with a band or it’s using some kind of a bobsled or even some on-ice sleds. That’s where we’re getting most of our explosiveness and power. Medicine ball throwing is another great upper-body explosive exercise as well.
USA Hockey: How do you convince athletes that there’s more to it than just building your body to look good at the beach – that there’s a particular way they should be training?
Nelson: In general, we spend time educating the players when they first get here to make them understand the difference between training for performance and whatever popular culture or bodybuilding training might be out there. Those things are really hard for athletes when you talk about the difference between training to be athletic and some other mode of training. I think one thing you can really hit home with teenagers, especially for a teenager, is that they’re really plastic, they’re really moldable, and with the right type of training, you can actually change the ratio of muscle fibers that they have. You can increase, or if you do the wrong type of training, you can decrease the number of motor units they have to possess fast-twitch characteristics. We want to have the highest number of fast-twitch motor units that we can, so if we do the right types of training, we can increase that. We can increase speed and we can also increase our nervous system’s ability to recruit large numbers of motor units in a really short time. That’s what power is. That’s what someone who can shoot a puck with a wrist shot really hard has, or someone who’s really explosive in their first step or their first three steps that’s really fast and it gives them separation. That difference isn’t just the size of their muscles or how much weight they can bench press, that difference is their nervous system and how good their nervous system is at recruiting muscles to work. The timing and sequencing of the motor units contracting also contributes to that.
USA Hockey: What are some of your favorite motivating tactics?
Nelson: I think my favorite form of motivation is education. If the athletes know why they’re doing what they’re doing, they’re going to buy in. If they don’t understand the point, then it’s going to be a really hard sell. You know some coaches will use exercise – push-ups, running, etc. – as a form of punishment or a form of discipline, and in my opinion, if you do that, you’re making the player not want to work out. You’re making working out a negative aspect, so you’re never going to get buy-in at that point. That’s really how we motivate our players, mostly through education, so that they understand why.
USA Hockey: Not all coaches have athletic training backgrounds. What would be some words of advice for them?
Nelson: With technology now, it’s easy to get information; it’s easy to learn. Try to absorb a couple of books from some good strength and conditioning coaches. I really encourage all the coaches out there to view all of the information that the American Development Model has online. Windows of trainability and development, there’s a vast amount of resources available, but I think a lot of coaches aren’t absorbing the information and aren’t exposing themselves to it. Those would be some great places to start.