Training an Athlete for Eighteen Years

Jun 22, 2022

I get criticized so often on the internet I sometimes think “why bother to explain”. However I also try to remind myself that I probably get more positive attention than I do criticism. Strangely, much of the criticism of our techniques revolves around our desire to keep our athletes healthy and injury free.

I repeatedly ask myself why so many coaches fail to see things the way I say things. 

The other day I realized a couple of things that are different about me and what we do. One, I'm nearly sixty and have almost forty years of actual coaching at the college and professional level. I've also had the unique experience of coaching the same athletes for up to eighteen straight years. I have seen athletes transition from healthy young men to grizzled veteran professional athletes.

What I have realized during this process is that they can still play the game but that they do not tolerate the training as well. 

My eighteen year old collegiate athletes arrived at Boston University with young resilient bodies. They were the filet mignon of the athletic world, the best of the best in their sport. In the 80's and 90's and, even into the 2000's we performed squatting movements, Olympic lifts and all types of presses and pulling exercises. I would have described us as having a relatively conventional strength program. Very few athletes complained about any of these exercises being uncomfortable. Over the course of four collegiate years most players stayed with the same program and gained size, strength and speed. 

For these young players the first professional (NHL) season is a bit of shock.

The season moves from approximately 35 collegiate games to 80 plus playoffs. The in-season period is now almost 8 months with three and sometimes four games per week. Playing eighty games plus playoffs takes a toll on the body and then leads to a mad dash in the summer to get healthy and regain strength. 

Sadly 100% of the players strength is rarely regained. For most of my NHL players the strongest time of their career will be the summer prior to their senior year of college, if I am lucky enough to keep them for four years. Each following summer will see them lose a little bit of strength as the length of season, number of games and wear and tear takes it toll. Somewhere around the third year in the NHL my athletes often realized that their backs do not seem to tolerate Olympic lifts and squats anymore. Usually this is manifested by a small back spasm that subsides in a few days but, I learned to read the signs. 

Now, our older established players are often on a program that features Trap Bar Jumps, Kettlebell Swings and lots of single leg work. It is not that I no longer wanted them to do the exercises I once favored, it is the realization that these exercises are no longer suited to the high mileage body of the professional athlete.  

My standard joke is that you start out like filet mignon but, finish up as beef jerky. 

As my clients progressed in age my job became rehab and reconditioning. The goal is to get healthy and get back in shape for the next training camp that seems to arrive all too quickly. Most of the things that I considered fundamental in the teen years and early 20's are no longer present in the program. 

I think the few coaches who get to train their athletes post college experience the same things I do but, fail to write about it.

Next time you choose to criticize another coach, ask yourself "How long have you trained someone other than yourself?"

Experience counts but, experience training yourself doesn't count as much. There are too many coaches who have done nothing but lift and fail to see first hand the effect that playing year after year takes on a player.

Trust me, my middle school kids still do hang cleans, bench press, squats and deadlifts but each year brings with it a “mileage” cost. The body is much like a car and, the miles add up.