Strength Coach. Performance Coordinator. Strength Teacher (Thanks for that one, Scott Wilson). Dumbbell Guy. The athletes I’ve worked with have called me a lot of things in my career. To some degree, they have all had some level of accuracy. My actual title, Head of Hockey Performance, comes with a lot of hats. At the most basic level, I’m responsible for the physical development of our players. But this incorporates a lot more than just telling people to lift weights. I oversee the nutrition for our team, coordinating all our pre and post game meals, snacks before and during games, supplement purchasing and processing, even running to Costco every week to re-stock the fridge for smoothies. I am responsible for the coordination and implementation of all our recovery and regeneration strategies, after practices and games, to make sure that players are as fresh as possible the next day and before we compete. And I oversee our sport science program, where we collect, analyze, and utilize all kinds of information on and from our players. Everything from subjective wellness questionnaires, weigh in and weight out data, jump profiling and velocity based training in the weight room, to wearable heart rate and gps technology on the ice. Probably most importantly, I take it upon myself to keep egos in check…the chances of one of my players walking into the performance center and not getting chirped or called a “muppet” are slim to none, especially if they are playing well. Staying humble is a key to our success. To say there is a lot that goes into trying to make sure our players are not only able to compete at a high level game after game, but that we peak at the right time of the year, and also keep an eye on long term development would be an understatement.
However, the reality is that most of my players don’t know and don’t care how much thought, time, and effort go into everything that is my job. Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnapeg Jets played for us. He worked his ass off when he was here, and it showed (ya, that gangly, goofy Vezina contender). Pound for pound he was one of the strongest goalies I’ve ever worked with, but he didn’t start that way. And if you asked him today, I’m not sure he could even tell you what I do. All they know is that I’m the guy that tells them what to do in the weight room, and asks them to fill out some questions each morning on the app on their phone. And that’s just fine. It is important for guys like me to remember that not a single one of my players throughout my entire career has played for our team on a weightlifting scholarship. Not a single guy, even the ones who like training, would rather spend an hour in the weight room than an hour on the ice. Scott Wilson, who has two Cups with the Penguins, and Chad Ruhweidel who won a Cup with them too were like that…great in the weight room, worked really hard, but would have put the skates on before picking up a barbell any day of the week. That is how it should be. That is their passion for the game. But this presents a unique challenge for me. I know that all of the work I ask our players to do is in their own best interest. I know what kind of work away from the limelight it takes to become a professional athlete. I know how hard it is to grind away for weeks, months, years, in order to have a chance to pick up a trophy at the end of the season. But I know this because hindsight is 20/20. I’ve done this for nearly 15 years, and I’ve got experience on my side. However, my players don’t have that. For most of them, their frame of reference for training in season is a few sets of curls and maybe a little time on the bike a couple of times a week during their junior seasons. So it is up to me to convince them to work much harder than they probably ever have, for much longer than they’ve ever been asked to do, for something that they haven’t seen the results for yet, by doing something that many of them don’t really like in the first place.
That is a tall order. How do I convince 18-24year olds that lifting weights, filling out questionnaires, and getting in the cold tub are crucial keys to their development, and the ultimate success of the team? How do I get a guy like Christian Folin of the LA Kings to not only wear a heart rate monitor in practices and games, but become so interested in the data that he buys his own after he makes it to the NHL? It starts with building relationships. A key piece of advice I was fortunate to learn early on in my career is that “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” This quote is really the cornerstone of my coaching philosophy. Before I can get my athletes to give everything they have, and completely trust the process, and me they have to believe that I care about them, about their goals, and about more than just what they do on the ice. Athletes are smart…they can sense your true intentions. If they know that they are just another number, another body in the meat grinder, they won’t give you their trust. They won’t be all in. It’s human nature. That doesn’t mean that that’s not the reality a lot of times, but it doesn’t change the facts. Especially for someone in my position, who doesn’t control ice time, if my players don’t trust me and believe that I have their best intentions at heart, there is no chance for me to get them to do what I know they need to do.
Does this mean I’m soft on them? Does this mean we don’t work hard? Absolutely not. The week before the playoffs, we still had hockey players split squatting over 400lbs. We were still training with the intention of getting better, not just treading water. But, this level of buy in is only possible because my players believe that what I am asking them to do is going to lead to them getting closer to their individual and team goals. And to get to that point, education becomes key. I want…I need my athletes to know why we are doing what we are doing. This is a huge key to buy in. If I am going to ask one of my players to put 400lbs on his back a week before the playoffs, he needs to understand and appreciate what that is going to do for him. In my programs, we never do “work for work’s sake”. We never just do things because they are hard. Everything we do has a purpose. And when I’ve done a good job as a coach educating my players as to how our training is going to help them, they are much more likely to give all they can and get all they need from it.
In a lot of ways, the key to success is punching the clock, with an eye on getting 1% better everyday. I’ve seen a lot of athletes who weren’t regarded as elite talents just keep punching the clock, working hard, working with intent, and eventually become pro’s. But this is much easier said then done. Showing up day after day, doing what is hard, not what is convenient, and not loosing sight of their ultimate goal is difficult. It is my job to keep reminding them to stay on the path, to trust the process, to get a little better day after day. If they do that, it is amazing the progress they can have over time. As the Head of Hockey Performance at UMass Lowell, developing the relationships, which allow for trust, and give me the opportunity to push our player’s beyond what they ever thought they could do is really my job. I just happen to be the one telling them to pick up dumbbells, but hopefully the impact on their life goes far beyond sets and reps.
Devan McConnell is the Head of Hockey Performance at UMass Lowell. In his time involved with the program, Lowell has helped produce more un-drafted professional players than any other team in the country. You can read more about his methods in his new book; INTENT: A Practical Approach to Applied Sport Science for Athletic Development. Pick up a copy on Amazon.com or iBooks.