INSIDE THIS ISSUE…“Exclusive Interview with Strength Coach Matt Nichol – Toronto Maple Leafs”


CB: Matt, Thank you for the interview. Why don't you start by telling us a little bit about your current coaching commitments?

MN: I recently accepted the position of Head Strength and Conditioning Coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs (N.H.L.). I also continue to run my private consulting company working with a variety of athletes from different sports.

CB: What is your competitive background?

MN: Growing up I had a very well rounded athletic experience. My parents were both teachers and although they were not competitive athletes themselves they both enjoyed health and fitness and they made sure that my brother and I were always actively involved in sports. It didn't matter to them what avenue we pursued but it had to be active and we had to give it 100%.

They encouraged us to try a wide variety of sports and it seems as though we were always running off to one practice or another, all year round. As a result, by the age of 14 I had been a competitive swimmer, I had been involved in track and field, soccer, basketball, volleyball, wrestling, tennis...you name it! Strangely enough, ice hockey was probably one of the only sports that I never got involved in.

In high school I continued with basketball, rugby and track but my first love became football and this is where I focused all of my training efforts. In University I played varsity football and competed at the Provincial level in Track and Field. I currently compete in Powerlifting but this is more for recreation.

CB: Well you certainly must have a great understanding of the demands of these sports. You've also interned with Paul Chek. Can you briefly tell us some of the most important lessons you learned with him?

MN: Well, if you asked most personal trainers about Paul they would probably recognize the name..."Oh yeah, he's the Swiss Ball guy, right?" Let me tell you Craig, there is a whole lot more to him and his internship program than rolling around on rubber balls!

I became interested in his work when my football career was cut short by injuries that were untreatable through conventional physiotherapy but were successfully rehabbed through Paul's corrective exercise programs. Subsequently I learned (to my dismay) that I had actually brought these injuries upon myself through faulty training methods. For a guy who took great pride in his work ethic in the gym and overall training knowledge, this was a bitter pill to swallow.

However, it opened my eyes to the greater possibilities that existed for me as a strength and conditioning coach. I quickly realized that so many other people were headed down the same road I had traveled and did not even realize it. I was now in a position to help theses people improve their performance, but more importantly, eliminate many of the preventable injuries that plague training rooms and gyms all over the world today!

Through the CHEK program I have gained a new appreciation for the functional biomechanics of the human body. So often I see trainers and therapists who have become blinded by all of the misinformation and rhetoric that exists in the fitness industry. They are caught up in trying to stay abreast of the latest trends in exercise gadgetry or supplementation and they neglect to take the time to actually study the way that the human body operates.

Paul's courses teach the students to break human movement down to its most basic elements. As a personal trainer or strength coach, if you know how the body is supposed to work and you know the demands of the client's job or sport, designing programs to enhance their performance becomes much easier.

CB: Matt, your depth of knowledge really impressed me when we met. I'm sure the Leafs are benefiting greatly from your work. What's a typical day like for you with the Leafs when they are at home?

MN: Well, there are basically two types of workdays for me, practice days and game days. Also, my position here is somewhat unique amongst many of my peers as I am responsible for the re-hab of injured players, along with the performance enhancement of healthy players. As any Leaf fan will tell you the rehabilitation of our Assistant Captain Gary Roberts is mission #1 around here.

On a typical practice day I am at the rink by 7:00 a.m. to do any paperwork, scheduling, returning phone calls, etc. that needs to be done that day. By 7:30-8:00 Gary will arrive. We will do an extensive warm-up and then our training session will last anywhere from 60-75min in the gym.

Depending on the training day will either skate after lifting for recovery or light conditioning or skate first and lift second on a speed day.

By 9:30 the other players will begin to arrive. I usually make my rounds to greet the guys and do a little inventory and see how the players are feeling. It is an extremely long season and I can usually tell within 10 seconds what kind of shape these guys are in. Based on my observation I will often change their scheduled workout for that day or sometimes cancel it entirely.

The players will go through their pre-practice warm-up in our training facility and quite often we will actually lift immediately prior to practice. During practice I will stay in the room and do the re-hab of any players who are injured or if they are all healthy I will watch practice. After practice I will stretch some players out and take some others through their re-hab programs. Usually my practice day is done by 3:00 and then I am able to squeeze in my own workout or see any of my private clients.

Game days are a little longer. I am usually at the rink by 9:00 and I will help to stretch players out. A few guys will lift the morning of a game and for those players I have their workout scheduled and the weights prepared and then I will take them through the training. All of the players are usually gone by 12:30. I then have about 3 hours of downtime until the guys start to slowly filter in again around 4 p.m.

Our team warm-up begins about 1 hour before game time and I have established an individual warm-up routine for each player. No two players are the same physiologically or psychologically and no two players have the exact same protocols, but typically we use a 5-10 minute general warm-up followed by dynamic flexibility work and some specific medicine ball drills.

During the game I am training any of the players that were scratched from that night's lineup. Usually our training session is done by the start of the third period, which gives me enough time to make up the post-game recovery drinks for our players and prepare the gym for the onslaught that is to come.

When we are at home, post-game is our most common training time for several reasons but primarily because with the exception of back to back games it is the only time when the players will have adequate recovery time between the workout and the next game. The challenge is that the players do not want to waste any time training after a home game. When they lose they are angry and don't want to be there and when they win they are excited and want to get out of there and go celebrate with friends and family.

I really love these post-game training sessions. I have a very small window of time to accomplish some important training goals and when you get 20 NHL hockey players all in one small weight room, jacked up over a big win at home, the atmosphere is electric!

CB: Toronto readers are also very happy when you have post-victory training sessions! What about when they are on the road?

MN: The road is an entirely different story. My morning duties (stretching/rehab) are pretty much the same but since we rarely have access to proper training facilities, I am more of a spectator once the game starts. I try to help out Scott and Brian (our equipment guys) any way I can because they have such a tremendous workload and they really appreciate the extra set of hands.

CB: Great. Let's get back to training for a minute. What are the most beneficial training exercises for elite hockey players in the off-season?

MN: If I have contributed anything to the field in my short career as a strength and conditioning coach in hockey it is the understanding that hockey is not an aerobic sport. For a long time the off-season training of hockey players consisted of playing golf and drinking beer. Then came the introduction of aerobic training and the VO2Max became the gold standard of fitness around the league. Things have definitely changed for the better, but I still think there is a long way to go.

A time motion analysis of an NHL hockey game will clearly show that this is a POWER sport, not an AEROBIC sport. In fact, there are some players in the league that average less than 10 minutes of total work time spread out over the course of a 2 hour NHL game. Not to mention the fact that less than 50% of that ice time is spent performing any demanding physical activity. More and more players are beginning to realize this fact and they are trying to capitalize on the benefits of proper training to improve their quickness and speed on the ice.

Is it a coincidence that the NHL's fastest skater is also the league's strongest squatter? Marion Gaborick who recently won the single lap speed race at the NHL All-Star game is able to full-squat 500lbs at a bodyweight of 190lbs! That is better than 90% of the professional football players that I train!

There is no question that to be successful in the NHL you must possess great skill, a high degree of flexibility and high anaerobic endurance to handle the demands of an intensive 45-second shift. But I am merely suggesting that strength and power should receive more attention in the off-season training of hockey players.

CB: What about for the younger player, aged 14-18?

MN: Learn how to squat! I know this sounds too simple but it amazes me that there are so many professional hockey players that have never been taught proper squat form. Every time they train they are compromising the health of their spine simply because nobody has ever taught them proper technique. I think this is the result of the bodybuilding culture in North America because I do not see the same problem with European and Russian players. North American kids seem to equate muscle size with athletic ability and follow programs that are completely non-functional for their sport.

If I were working with players this age I would want to ensure that they could all perform squats, multi-directional lunges, deadlifts, power cleans, snatches and jerks, pain free with flawless technique before I would worry about adding weight to the bar or teaching them any other exercises. Medicine Ball training and flexibility work should comprise at least 25% of the training time. This will go along way in preventing future injuries.

CB: Do you take a different approach when training females?

MN: Yes, there are many differences when training females as opposed to males. They are completely different psychologically, physiologically and biomechanically. As a result, the training must be different. This is not to suggest that females do not require or benefit from development of the same biomotor abilities as males do (speed, strength, balance, flexibility, endurance, etc) but the methods that I use to develop these traits is different.

For example, the menstrual cycle has a profound impact on the rate of recovery and regeneration from training and it can also wreak havoc emotionally on a female athlete. I know that many female track athletes will cycle off of their oral contraceptives because their cycles do not coincide with the date of their Olympic competition. Strength and Conditioning coaches must take this into account and expect that training will not always fit into a tidy periodization scheme as it might with their male athletes.

I think that the most important thing that strength coaches should do is to get to know their athlete. You should be comfortable enough with each other that you can discuss issues such as menstrual cycles and how they affect performance.

If I had to generalize, the area that most of the females that I have dealt with needed to improve upon was absolute strength. In other words, they are weak. I don't know if this is the result of their aversion to lifting heavy weights or if it is because they have been subject to lowered expectations on the part of their previous strength coaches. But it never ceases to amaze me. I have seen world class gymnasts that were unable to squat their bodyweight...not because they were genetically inferior but just because they had never been pushed to achieve their potential.

There has also been a lot of attention given to the increased potential for ACL injuries in female athletes as a result of the greater Q-Angle (Hip to Knee) and the resultant valgus forces on the knees. I think this is an area that needs to be a focus. It seems to be most prevalent in those females that participate in sports with rapid changes of direction (basketball seems to be most prevalent in my experience but I do not know if this is represented by the data overall). Without sounding like a broken record, I think this could be prevented through greater levels of eccentric strength and increased core strength/stability.

I have never had any problems dealing with female athletes, in fact, I find that quite often they are much easier to deal with than males...certainly easier than dealing with 21 year old football players. They are generally much more coachable and they are much more willing to utilize proper lifting technique because their egos are not as dependant upon their ability to lift heavy weights. All too often I see young male athletes that are so consumed by how much they can bench press that their development as a whole athlete suffers. This has not been the case with the females I have worked with.

CB: And finally, for the real youngsters, under 12, what do you recommend they do in the off-season?

MN: Kids under 12 should focus on increasing their general athleticism by playing a variety of sports at a high level. Skill development, flexibility, mobility and co-ordination should be maximized. Strength and Power training are not yet relevant to their long-term development. As these children are growing their skeletal structure and body height is increasing much faster than their muscle mass and will not benefit from the training protocols used with older athletes.

For all hockey parents, if you absolutely must have your 11 year old doing strength training, they should begin with developing their strength endurance using 2-3 total body exercises for 1-2 sets of 15-20 reps with 40% of their 1rm. Most importantly...KEEP IT FUN! For all of you adults out their that are unfamiliar with the terminology, fun is that good feeling you used to get when you were younger and you did things that you enjoyed doing for no apparent reason. Swiss balls and light medicine balls are excellent for this.

CB: Very important points and well put. Matt, active recovery is an up-and-coming area of research, and advanced coaches are using it with great success. What type of advanced recovery methods do you use with the Leafs?

MN: This is in my opinion, one of the most underrated or overlooked aspects of strength and conditioning. What good is the workout you have periodized and planned if the athletes are not yet recovered from the last one? If the coach or therapist is willing to invest some time in these methods they will pay off with a greater number of training days per year and subsequently, greater results from the strength program. Here at the ACC we use several recovery techniques. Everything from the very basic cool-down ride and post-game stretch, to massage, to contrast cryo-therapy (the alternation of hot and cold water baths). We also use the steam room as a method of relaxation and regeneration.

CB: What can the average reader do at home to enhance performance?

MN: Most recreational hockey players expect to put zero time into training or conditioning for their sport yet they expect to be able to jump out on the ice after 6 months off and play like Mats Sundin in their first shift. It ain't gonna happen!

Ice hockey is not a natural activity for the human body. You must invest a little time before the season starts to improve your flexibility and strength so that you are prepared for the season. Even 30 minute 3x/week will make a big difference if you start early enough.

Another area for improvement for the average recreational hockey player is in pre-game warm-up. Many of these folks will sit at their desk all day in front of the computer, fill their body with lousy food, hop in their car, race over to the rink, throw on their gear and be out on the ice 2 minutes before the game starts. In a best case scenario this will result in a poor performance, however, what is more typical is an injury that could have been easily prevented through making an effort to perform a pre-game warmup. Even 5 minutes of light calisthenics (leg swings, arm circles, jumping jacks, light stretching) goes a long way to preventing muscular injuries on-ice.

CB: Awesome! Thanks for all of your time Matt. Good luck with the rest of the 2003 season.







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