Jemma Pemberton is a sports therapist and strength and conditioning coach working in ice hockey in the UK. She also runs her own clinic working with athletes from different sports, including CrossFit, powerlifting, rugby, golf, and motor racing.
Pemberton studied sports therapy at the University of Kent and her MSc in strength and conditioning at Middlesex University. She has worked with the Chelmsford Chieftains ice hockey team for the past four seasons, leading the medical team and programming the athletes’ training. Alongside the Chieftains, she works as a regional strength coach with England Ice Hockey helping to introduce and develop the importance of S&C with junior hockey players. She has also worked with men’s semi-professional rugby teams and with the Saracens Development Player Programme in the UK.
FreelapUSA: What are the key strength and fitness components for successful play and peak performance in ice hockey? How do you approach identifying and analyzing the physical demands for the teams that you´re working with?
Jemma Pemberton: Ice hockey is a very physically demanding sport—not just the physicality required to perform well, but also to endure high levels of impact and collisions while balancing on thin blades and skating at 20+mph.
There are two key components that I focus on to maximize performance. The first is power: athletes must be explosive and strong to keep up with the demands of the game. Power has a direct transfer to an athlete’s shot power, puck passes, body check force, agility, explosive skating speed, and in some circumstances, it can help those who like to fight. When programming the athletes, I very rarely prescribe any pure strength movements or any 1 rep max testing, because I have found that it makes the players feel slower and heavier—which isn’t effective for the demands of the sport. The players respond well to the right balance between strength and volume. I like to keep the exercises in the middle of the strength – speed scale, as that seems to be the most effective.The players respond well to the right balance between strength and volume. I like to keep the exercises in the middle of the strength – speed scale, as that seems to be the most effective. Click To Tweet
The second component is speed. If an athlete can maximize their speed on the ice, then their ability to beat defenders to the puck, avoid heavy impacts, and position themselves to shoot the puck will be more effective. Rather than programming high endurance exercises, I focus on intervals, either on the treadmill or on a bike, to replicate the frequent bursts of speed that they produce on the ice.
Within the England Ice Hockey program, we hold conferences and assessment days with the athletes to conduct fitness testing to analyze the abilities in all age groups, ranging from under 13s to under 19s. Due to limited resources, the tests are kept simple. We test:
- 5-10-5 sprint test.
- Seated medicine ball throw.
- Standing broad jump.
- 3 single-leg hop.
This helps us cover the bases of strength, speed, and power. With these results, the plan for our education program is to identify weaknesses within age groups and educate coaches to help develop their athletes and introduce the importance of S&C within young athletes.
FreelapUSA: Ice hockey is a full-contact sport with a high injury risk. How do you prepare your players specifically for collisions and falls on the ice?
Jemma Pemberton: Collisions and hits within ice hockey are almost guaranteed in every game. Players always walk away with either a bruise or something more serious; for example, the most common injury in the past season was a subluxation to the acromioclavicular joint (ACJ), which is caused by a side-on hit where the player is wedged between their opponent and the sideboards of the rink.
Due to the speed of the collisions, the risk for concussions is extremely high. This can be caused from direct hits to the head or even hits to the shoulder that send a whiplash effect to the brain, causing a traumatic head injury. A lot of these situations can’t be controlled, as they are stimuli caused from an opposing player—with the nature of the game, you cannot guarantee the same outcome every time.
However, we can prepare the athletes for these situations in several different ways. Often, the more experienced players will be able to anticipate hits and oncoming impact, so they are able to react and avoid these collisions. Additionally, the aim of preseason is to prehab the body, building strength in the shoulder joints to help absorb impact and reduce shoulder instability and ultimately the risk of concussion. Building strength into the groin and adductors is important too, as they are put under a lot of strain both while skating and also keeping balance when hit.
Prehabbing the groin helps to strengthen knees and hips, which also take a beating during games and training. In the league the Chieftains are in, it’s very common that we will have two games a weekend. After a Saturday game the focus is to get as much recovery in as possible, whether that’s sports massage, ice packs, or using compression sleeves, as that reduces both fatigue and the risk of injury. For pre/post and during games, we provide isotonic tablets in water for the players to drink, which are effective in reducing dehydration and cramps, further helping to reduce the risk of injury.
FreelapUSA: You have a passion for sports on ice and have worked for British Bobsleigh. How does your typical competition day look like as a sports therapist?
Jemma Pemberton: I spent a week with British Bobsleigh as medical cover for one of their World Cup races. It was a great opportunity. My role was to be available for the athletes whenever they needed injury assessments or sports massage treatments, before, in-between, and after their races.
With the Chieftains, however, I am a lot busier. I get to the rink two hours before face off, where I will see players for 10-15 mins each—whether that’s to assess an injury, provide sports massage or taping, or sometimes just some stretching. Alongside my sports therapy duties, I also like to ensure the players have everything they need, whether that’s food or drinks, making sure all their kit is ready (I am also the team’s seamstress!), or sometimes even just making sure a player is okay and mentally ready to play.
Players usually conduct their own warm-ups or just play a game of 2-touch football. 40 minutes before face off, the players will go on the ice for a 20 minute warm-up, which gives me time to prepare for the game and to see any player that may be questionable to play. After warm-up, we have a very frantic 20 minutes to get the last preparations done and ensure everyone is ready to go. Then, it’s game time. Games are split into 3 x 20 minute periods, with a 15 minute break in-between. This gives the teams time to recover, and I have time to assess any injuries and keep the players hydrated. After games, again it’s time to assess any injuries and get the equipment sorted for the next game.
FreelapUSA: Bobsleigh athletes are repeatedly exposed to high g-forces. A sled usually accelerates 90% of its trip down the track and can reach speeds of 150 km/h (93 mph), putting enormous force and pressure on the athletes. How do you prepare athletes for this?
Jemma Pemberton: My role with the British Bobsleigh athletes was to keep them fit and ready for their races. I provided pre-race sports massage and helped with any stretching. Also, after a day of training or racing, I was there for the athletes for any help with niggles or just a maintenance treatment to get them ready for the next day.
As these athletes have been professional for several years, they conducted their own training in the week leading up to the races and their own set warm-ups and cool downs. I did observe that their training included a lot of heavy Olympic lifting, which helps produce strong powerful movements. They included a lot of stability core work with exercises such as Pallof holds and perturbation exercises to prepare their body for being thrown around inside the sled. One Olympic athlete I worked with, Ben Simons (who is also a strength and conditioning coach), programs a lot of the athletes and promotes the importance of neck strength to reduce the risk of concussion, which is prevalent within bobsleigh.Studies show that for every one-pound increase in neck strength, odds of concussion decrease by 5%. This can be transferred to any contact sport, such as rugby and ice hockey. Click To Tweet
Studies show that for every one-pound increase in neck strength, odds of concussion decrease by 5%. This can be transferred to any contact sport, such as rugby and ice hockey. Exercises to help build neck strength include flexion and extension isometrics, resisted flexion, extension and side flexions. A popular exercise within elite performance that is commonly seen in rugby (especially for front row athletes) is to perform weighted neck flexions to stress the neck under load.
FreelapUSA: For the last two years, you were part of the strength & conditioning team at the Wimbledon Championships and were able to watch some of the best tennis players in the world preparing for their matches. What are some observations and learnings that have fascinated you or have had an impact on your practice?
Jemma Pemberton: Wimbledon is a whole different world. It’s the most amazing experience I’ve had, and working within the on-site gyms gave me a front row view to watch all the athletes prepare for matches. The athletes are on site for a week before the championships start, as some have qualifying matches, but most athletes have come from previous tournaments so have a week to get any travel out of their legs and get prepped for an intense two weeks.
From what I observed during the practice week, athletes will complete any lifting or intense training in the first few days. The next few days will then include plyometrics and ballistic exercises; then, the last few days before the championships start, they will perform simple, light exercises just to keep moving and prepare for the weeks ahead. During the ATP tours, players tend not to lift any heavy weights, as they have already peaked within their off season. So, training is to keep the athlete at their peak and ticking over to keep fit for the intense match schedule. Talking to Novak Djokovic’s physio, Uli, they avoid any heavy lifting during tournaments to reduce the onset of DOMs, so he doesn’t feel fatigued or heavy when playing.
During the two weeks of the championships, the athletes’ pre-match warm-ups were all very similar. They often included some form of foam rolling and stretching, as well as banded shoulder warm-ups (repetitive internal and external rotations of shoulders and elbows, flexion and extensions and using the band to replicate serving positions and any overhead shots they would perform during matches). Some would use bands to perform crab walks and kick outs to warm up hips, knees, and ankles. Their warm-up would then include some form of medicine ball exercise, the most common being side steps, catching the ball and returning the ball, replicating a forehand and backhand stroke. Light plyometrics and some change of direction drills would be included, and warm-ups would often end with some reaction drills such as tennis ball drop catches or running to catch a dropped ball before its second bounce.
Watching the similarity within exercises was fascinating, but each athlete had their own individual way of performing them. That impacted my coaching by bringing in new ideas—I love using some of the reaction drills with a client who is a racing driver, and I program some of the plyometric drills and medicine ball throws with my team sports athletes as the power output is hugely effective. It’s amazing how many exercises are transferrable, and I have found that the focus of power and speed is the most common component within sports.