Helping the British Game Get Stronger
The National Hockey League’s rise from a $500m league to one worth billions has been well documented. The economic stakes have never been higher, and as a result teams are out to ensure they have the best people being employed by their organisation.
This includes the players, who, as part of that drive to be the best, get top notch health care and advice to ensure they train, eat and develop in to the best athletes they possibly can be.
Invariably what the best do soon trickles down to the minor leagues, then on to smaller hockey nations.
The science behind the sport gains traction across the hockey world.
One area, or should I say group, who have gained particular prominence in recent years are strength and conditioning coaches. Even in the hockey backwaters of Great Britain, the benefits are becoming apparent to clubs at all levels.
Whilst former NHL stars like Gary Roberts are now helping the current generation of superstars, like Tampa Bay sniper Steven Stamkos, the revolution is a little quieter in the UK. But it is coming.
Former National League goaltender Steve Nightingale is one of a small number of Strength and Conditioning Coaches working in the British game currently, and has noticed the increased awareness to the benefits dedicated coaching of this nature offers players:
“In general, strength and conditioning as a discipline has gained a lot of popularity in the last few years, especially in the States. Training and education has increased for practitioners and this is reflected in the results that teams are seeing in their athletes.”
Here, the winds of change are a little slower however, as other factors dictate the pace with which clubs embrace new ideas.
“Teams in the UK are a little slow on the uptake and I believe there is a combination of factors contributing to this” Steve told me, drawing on his own experiences within the game; “I’ve been involved in hockey, both as a player and working with teams in senior leagues, since 2002. In my experience little has changed in what is offered to players. The degree to which strength and conditioning is valued and/or utilised depends heavily on the opinion of the coach and management of each team.”
“Even today, whilst some Elite league teams work closely with strength and conditioning coaches, others give their players a gym membership at the start of the season and leave them to get on with it, unassisted. EPL and NIHL teams appear to have a similar approach – if the coach sees the worth in dedicated strength and conditioning training, they’ll go and look for it and incorporate it into training.”
Steve, like so many who are involved in or follow the British game, is acutely aware of one major factor which affects all clubs – “With the limited budgets teams work with, it’s little wonder that ‘extras’ like conditioning sessions get skipped.”
“Alongside this, when sessions are implemented, too often it is non-hockey specific and very basic. Sometimes these sessions are run by players with gym or personal training qualifications, which are very different. This goes hand in hand with the financial implications – experienced and qualified coaches don’t come cheap!”
After working with the EPL’s Peterborough Phantoms, as well NIHL outfits in Peterborough and Invicta, I asked Steve if he thought more teams would begin to work with strength and conditioning coaches in the coming years, as the benefits become more apparent to all:
“I hope in the future that improvements in the education of coaches be the EIHA can help to enhance understanding of strength and conditioning within hockey and the benefits it can bring.”
“The EIHA and Ice Hockey UK have taken some positive step of late, including the appointment of Mark Beggs as the Development Officer. Myself and Dr. Jon Hughes have come on board to coordinate all of the strength and conditioning for the junior national teams, both men and women, and they have a great team looking after the therapy side.”
Whilst the EIHA and Ice Hockey UK often come in for criticism within the sport here, it is heartening to hear they are working with people like Steve; who can offer the sort of coaching many of Team GB’s peers are also embracing now.
At this stage, the more difficult part may be seeing the same opportunities at club level:
“All of this is fantastic for the national teams, but I don’t really see this being passed on to a club-by-club situation.”
“Like I said, good strength and conditioning coaches come at a price, and whilst hockey remains a minority sport on very tight budgets, teams will go without to balance the books.”
Fans have long debated the idea of clubs spending a little more on coaching to improve the team on the ice, and it the idea of employing someone who could help everyone seems to make sense in so many ways:
“Of course, I’m of the opinion that it’s a false economy” Steve said, adding “If you can pay one person to improve your whole team, surely that’s more cost effective than bringing in one expensive player? But clubs often don’t see it like that, and it’s not just like that in ice hockey.”
Unfortunately, the same ‘restrictions’ or difficulties also exist in junior hockey. Whilst dedicated strength and conditioning advise to young players would put them in better stead when they embark on their senior careers, cost is a major factor – especially when it is often the parents who are funding their children’s love for the sport:
“As far as junior clubs go – it’s expensive enough for parents as it is; with kit, subs, coach travel etc. I’m not sure they would be happy with fees going up to cover the cost of an strength and conditioning coach.”
It’s not all ‘doom and gloom’ though. As well as greater recognition within the governing bodies here in the UK, Steve believes the guys (and girls) on the ice are taking notice as well:
“Strength and conditioning is becoming more visible to players – through summer camps, education (I know many players studying sport courses at college/university) and even TV shows like HBO’s 24/7) – so hopefully players will start demanding it and coaches will have to listen.”
With enthusiastic and experienced strength and conditioning coaches like Steve involved in the UK game now, I for one am hopeful clubs will start to look more closely at greater off ice support for their players, young and old, and the benefits it can offer.
Thanks to Steve for his time. You can follow him on Twitter: @snne83