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INSIDE LOOK: The Endicott Men's Ice Hockey Strength & Conditioning Process

Photo by Endicott Strength
Photo by Endicott Strength

By Jon Williams
Endicott's Assistant Athletic Trainer and Strength & Conditioning Coach
Published on 
The Small School: The Benefits & Challenges Of Being A Part Of A Division III Program 

In the fall of 2015 the Endicott men's ice hockey program embarked on its first varsity season, and I was appointed to serve as both the team's strength and conditioning coach and athletic trainer. To give you an idea of the situation that I walked into try and picture 20-30 freshmen, from all around the globe, meeting for the first time in hopes to mold together in just six weeks. Top that off with the fact that the school only has part time strength and conditioning coaches (ex. secondary responsibilities of sport head coaches, ATs, GAs, etc.) to service the 700 total student athletes; I knew there was going to be some challenges. However, with any challenge come many benefits as well. In this article I will discuss some of the benefits and challenges that I have encountered at the Division III level. 

Let me start off by talking about the culture of Division III vs Division I. I have previously been a part of three DI institutions in Quinnipiac where I went to undergrad, Ole Miss where I was a graduate assistant and UMass Lowell where I spent two years before moving onto Endicott. Speaking in terms of hockey only, there are probably more similarities than differences. The majority of DIII hockey players are coming to college after playing two to three years of junior hockey, or they are transferring in from another school. At the DIII level per NCAA rules the hockey coaches are only allowed limited access to the athletes in the off season. All off season and preseason workouts are voluntary and the hockey coach is not allowed to be given information about who is attending the workouts and who is not. It really comes down to myself as the strength and conditioning coach, and the captains of the team to hold everyone accountable and get everyone on the same page.

Some may view this as a challenge but to me I have viewed it as the greatest benefit of all. In the book, The Hard Hat, Jon Gordon talks about the importance of a team knowing how they want to be defined. As a whole our coaching staff wants our players to focus on positive energy, embrace the work that needs to be done and understand the meaning of well-done is better than well said. From April through the end of September, I am able to drill these thoughts into the minds of 18-24 year olds which is an extremely rewarding experience.  

At Endicott we have two facilities to work from. One is a small axillary room that is only for varsity athletes. The challenge with this space is that only about 15-20 athletes can safely and adequately train at a time. The other space is the school recreation center, which due to the volume of students on campus using the facility, the space is let's say “limited.” Another obstacle initially was the equipment that was available to us. In the space that we utilized most often there were no physio balls, no kettlebells, only about five mini bands, and a limited amount of mobility tools such as foam rollers. To combat a scenario like this it can be beneficial to make connections with other departments on campus. For example, I contacted the other athletic trainers on staff and asked if I could bring extra mini bands, foam rollers, tennis balls and lacrosse balls to the weight room. In exchange I asked for their input in our team warm up routine and prehab portion of our training sessions. I also contacted the exercise science department and was able to utilize their jump mat and skin fold calipers for testing results. After getting through our first year, we were able to purchase some of these products so that we can have them in the weight room permanently.  In the book You Win in the Locker Room First former Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith talks about the importance of connecting with everyone in the organization and showing them that they are a part of the success of the program.  This is a trait that epitomizes the Endicott community. The close knit relationship between students, faculty and staff is an invaluable benefit to being a part of a small college like Endicott. 

With the equipment in a DIII environment not being that of a large Division I Institution, it took some serious thought to decide begin to build the program. Step 1 was taking the team through a movement screen.  The movement screen that I utilize is a combination of the function movement system, some mobility tests that I learned from USA Weightlifting, and special tests from my athletic training background. I had never met any of the members of the men's hockey team before the initial testing period so I wanted to get as much objective information as possible. Now assessing all of that information on 30 athletes by yourself is not ideal.  Fortunately, this was another area where the relationship between myself and the other departments paid off. I was able to have some students in the athletic training education program assist me with implementing the screen to make it more time efficient. One way you may be able to get your athletic trainers to assist you is to offer them the results of the screen for their own prophylactic or rehabilitation program. At Endicott, I use the screen to not only help build the program but I also keep a copy in each players health file so that as an athletic trainer I can use the information to treat the athlete when they do have an injury.   

I felt strongly that I did not want to go the route of a “one size fits all” program which would have been easy to justify given the space and the time. However, I have the belief that one size fits all rarely actually fits for everybody. The key was to find the balance between simplicity and variation. I wanted to be able to keep my “big rocks” while also knowing that I would need to adjust to the equipment and the space. Every athlete needs to be able to move fast, push and pull with their upper and lower body and stabilize their core. For example, doing chops and lifts while holding a plate instead of a cable or a Keiser machine isn't ideal. However, I found that focusing on the cues of how I wanted the athletes to perform the exercise became vital and my communication skills have greatly improved because of this. In terms of individualizing the program, it really came down to the athlete's current and previous history of injury. For athletes who may have had a recent disc injury, I decided to train them on a mainly single leg basis in order to de-load the spine and prevent any further injury. For an athlete with a wrist injury where they cannot catch a power clean, I train them with barbell squat jumps, clean pulls and trap bar deadlift jumps in place of power cleans. In essence I keep the same template for the workout and just plug in different exercises were it is necessary based on health and training level. Most good coaches know how to adjust to the needs of their athletes, the point being I am still able to accomplish this in a small space with limited resources. 

Another challenge especially once the hockey season begins is the use of analytics. At the Training for Hockey Conference at NSCA Headquarters in Colorado Springs, CO during summer of 2016, I learned a lot of great information about how to track load, heart rate variation and adjust practices and training sessions. The problem at the DIII level is that it is unlikely that schools are going to have the funding to be able to have this information available to them. Without the ability to get analytic information throughout the course of the season, communication between you and your athletes becomes vital. To quote Jon Gordon one more time: “communication builds trust, trust builds commitment, commitment fosters teamwork and team work delivers results.” A coach that I met through USA weightlifting told me that he used to try and greet every athlete when they walked into the weight room. He would shake their hand and say “hello” each day. He would try and get used to their tendencies of how firm their handshake was and their general mood day to day. If something seemed off one day then he would take the conversation a step further. This really goes to show the amount of information you can obtain just from a handshake a conversation. 

This year to increase our communication we implemented a survey, in collaboration with athletic training that is emailed out to the team three times per week. This readiness questionnaire asks questions about stress level, fatigue, motivation, diet, and rate of perceived exertion to name a few. This helps initiate conversations with the athletes and get an idea of how fresh the team is reporting that they feel going into a game day.  In terms of the survey responses, I currently withhold the individual information of each player from the head coach, and just give him general information about the team in hopes that that will get the team to answer more honestly. I am also experimenting with using RPE scores to create an estimated numerical training load. With a few team members, I utilize their resting heart rate and put it into the Karvonen formula to determine what their average heart rate would be during a training session based on their RPE score. I then multiplied that number by the duration of the session to create a numerical training load. For a 21 year old ice hockey player with a resting heart rate of 60 who reported an RPE of 7 and practiced for 2 hours it would look like this: 

Load for the day=((220-21)-60)*.7+60=157    157 x 2= 314 

Now I am certain that this is not a perfect number and I have not yet determined if doing this will make a definitive impact on our team. Furthermore, I am not sure if this is something I will be able to calculate for 30 players on my own each day. However, I think the great thing about sports performance training at any level is that it gives you the chance to be creative and try and find solutions to make things ideal for your athletes.  

One last topic that I want to touch on is PRI or postural restoration. This has become a mainstay in our program. The course that I took was called myo-kinematic restoration. The theory behind this is that the body sits in a left anterior inferior chain pattern or left AIC. This means that most commonly the left hip is rotated in external rotation, abduction and flexion, which puts the left knee in a varus positon and the left ankle in an everted position. The right side of the body would then be the opposite of the left. The course teaches exercises that incorporate breathing to activate certain muscles on each side of the body and correct these postural abnormalities. So far I have seen a decrease in hip flexor and groin injuries, and a decrease in time missed for players who do have these injuries. There is also a performance portion of this. The Hruska Adduction Lift test is taught in the course, and the instructors show the improvement of the testing score before and after being repositioned. In training whether it is single leg squats, bilateral squats or power cleans I have seen a noticeable improvement with balance and landing position after doing reposition exercises compared to not doing them. I have also found it to be a simple and effective way to have an impact on a large group of people, which is necessary for the DIII level where the ratio of coach to athlete is high. 

I hope this article has shed some light on some of the benefits and challenges of being at the Division III level. I truly believe that no matter what level you are at, no matter what equipment you have or what program you are doing, the key to success is connecting and effectively communicating with your athletes. 

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