Freelap Friday Five with Kevin Neeld
Kevin Neeld is the Head Performance Coach for the Boston Bruins, where he oversees all aspects of designing and implementing the team’s performance training program, as well as monitoring the players’ performance, workload, and recovery. Prior to Boston, Kevin spent two years as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the San Jose Sharks, and before that he was the director of a private sports performance facility in New Jersey for seven years, working with pro, college, junior, and elite level youth hockey players. He has also served as a strength and conditioning coach with the U.S. Women’s National Ice Hockey Team for the last five years.
Freelap USA: What are the key strength and functional qualities that tend to make an athlete fast on the ice, and how does this contrast to sprinting on land?
Kevin Neeld: In the interest of simplicity, there are two key elements that determine a player’s skating speed—skating efficiency and the ability to produce high amounts of force, quickly. Skating efficiency is dictated by the athlete’s ability to get into and control optimal skating positions and patterns. From a training perspective, this can be addressed by ensuring the athlete has foundational capacities like ankle dorsiflexion; hip range of motion in flexion, abduction/adduction, and rotation; and control, strength, and endurance in single-leg stance. If a player possesses these capacities and still isn’t a good skater, they likely need more time with a skating coach.
The propulsive phase of the skating stride is concentric dominant and characterized by a much longer “ground” contact time than sprinting. For example, ice skating contact times typically hover around .35s for linear and crossover skating patterns, while the longest ground contact times in early acceleration phases of sprinting are only around .17s. This propulsive phase is also initiated at relatively deep angles of hip and knee flexion, whereas the foot hits the ground in only slight hip and knee flexion in sprinting.
While the stride pattern looks like a ~45-degree angle backward push, the reality is that as the player accelerates, the push is much more horizontal, but forward momentum results in the stride lag moving behind the player toward the 45-degree position. In other words, the push is more lateral, even if the end position is more diagonal. With these things in mind, exercises with longer ground contact times that are initiated from deep hip and knee flexion angles and integrate lateral and diagonal pushing patterns will likely have the best transfer to skating, while exercises designed to improve stiffness in the support phases of sprinting can be under-emphasized (but not completely neglected) in hockey.
Freelap USA: How do you divide specific joint actions in skating in the weight room (if they can even be replicated) versus showing someone the opposite action? What is the rationale and timing of either mode?
Kevin Neeld: Generally, the first phase or two of the off-season is designed to help address some of the undesirable adaptations. Skating throughout the season creates extremely high volumes of rapid hip motions, often at or approaching end range. These movements are layered on top of a lifestyle that involves a lot of sitting—on the bench, in the locker room, in the car, on the plane/bus, playing Xbox, etc. It’s not uncommon for a player to lose 10-15 degrees of hip rotation throughout a season.It’s common for an ice hockey player to lose 10-15 degrees of hip rotation throughout a season, says @KevinNeeld. Click To Tweet
The goal of the early off-season phases is to unload the structures that are highly stressed throughout the season, while also restoring optimal movement capacity at specific joints throughout the body. From a metabolic standpoint, hockey practices and games rely heavily on both alactic and lactic energy systems, whereas the aerobic system is minimally emphasized. Improving aerobic qualities concurrently with the aforementioned “movement” aims is consistent with the overarching goal of restoration. In a lot of ways, this is “anti-sport-specific training.”
Around the middle of the off-season, I start to integrate more lateral and rotational movement patterns, progressing toward higher velocities as the off-season progresses. The goal during this time is to sequentially progress from exposure to improving maximal capacity to sport transfer. As players start to ramp up their on-ice work, I decrease the amount of off-ice work we do in similar patterns, particularly at the very end of the off-season and pre-season.
Freelap USA: What do the greatest training needs and issues for hockey players tend to be?
Kevin Neeld: In a word—individualization. Players succeed and fail for different reasons. Some players succeed on high-level skill but fail (or don’t succeed to their potential) because of insufficient speed, strength, conditioning, or durability. It’s rare that a player with any training background is lacking in all of these areas, so it’s important to have a diagnostic system to better understand how training can best help the player. In general, I think most players can be placed into one of four buckets:
- Good speed/power, but poor repeatability;
- Good strength, but insufficient speed/power;
- Aerobically gifted, but lacking speed/power/strength; or
- Physically prepared, but major movement quality/durability concerns.
Of these, I think the athletes in Category 2 may be the most overlooked, especially in hockey, because identifying these players is complicated by skating proficiency. Typically, these players have invested a lot of time and energy into strength training, but not as much in lower-load, higher-velocity strategies to access high-threshold motor units. As a result, their ability to produce force quickly isn’t commensurate with their capacity to produce force.
Freelap USA: How has your process on movement screens changed over the years with your athletes?
Kevin Neeld: I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to many different movement assessment systems and I think they all have value. With that said, the more I’ve learned, the more apparent two things have become:
- Logistically, it’s not feasible to run every system’s screen on each athlete, and
- Almost every athlete is going to fail one of these system’s tests.
Movement screening can be used to help provide insight into potential injury risk, but the relationship between movement and injury risk is complicated by a number of other factors. As a result, most movement assessment methods produce a lot of “false positives” if viewed purely from an injury incidence perspective. However, movement screening can also be used to help “clear” athletes for certain movements within a training program and, when limitations are addressed, potentially to improve performance within sport by allowing the athlete to access and control more desirable positions.Most movement assessment methods yield many ‘false positives’ if viewed only for injury incidence, says @KevinNeeld. Click To Tweet
Over the last 10 years, I have expanded and trimmed my personal assessment process based on the needs of the athletes and the logistical constraints of the environment, but I’m really developing the process to answer three key questions:
- Are there any notable limitations that would prevent the athlete from performing specific exercises with optimal form?
- Integrating feedback from the athlete, coaches, etc. with population norms, does the athlete present with limitations that may prevent them from accessing optimal positions and producing optimal patterns for their sport?
- Are there any major red flags that are known or likely to contribute to future injury risk potential?
Freelap USA: How do you approach rotational training off-ice for hockey players?
Kevin Neeld: I think of rotational training in a few different contexts:
- Does the athlete have the foundational capacity to effectively perform rotational patterns (i.e., do they have optimal hip and thoracic spine rotation)?
- Can the athlete separate/dissociate lower/upper body rotation?
- Can the athlete produce power in rotational patterns?
Foundational rotational capacity is assessed through the movement screening process. Limitations can be addressed through specific mobility/stability exercises or, in the case of purely structural limitations, the athlete can be taught to move around the barrier coincident with ensuring that all non-structural limitations are addressed to provide the cleanest possible movement opportunities. In hockey, as in most sports, there are times when the hips need to rotate under a relatively stable upper body (e.g., shoulders stay square), and times when the upper body needs to rotate under a relatively stable lower body.I program rotational power primarily through different #plyometrics and med ball exercises, says @KevinNeeld. Click To Tweet
Assuming mobility is cleared, specific exercises like chops and lifts, hip turns, and an exercise I call a “2-way skater” can be used to help teach the athlete to dissociate between lower and upper body rotation. Lastly, I program rotational power primarily through different plyometrics and med ball exercises. Med ball throws can be performed from front-facing and side-facing positions, which changes the lower body contribution and transfer of energy, as well as from more dynamic lead-ins. During certain phases, these exercises may be performed as “primary exercises,” whereas in others they’re performed after a strength exercise to elicit a potentiation effect.