Siobhan Milner believes we’re made to move. She has more than a decade of experience working with everyone from Olympians and national-level athletes to clients in the clinical population. She uses her expertise to help athletes improve their sports performance and prevent, manage, and recover from injuries.
Siobhan is currently a strength and conditioning coach with TeamNL (Dutch Olympic team), training S-1 short track speed skaters and the national curling team. She also works with several independent athletes, primarily in endurance sports and dance, and with clients seeking her knowledge in injury rehabilitation.
Siobhan Milner is a believer in evidence-based exercise prescription, but she also strongly believes that all training should be athlete-focused: specific to their goals, their needs, and their likes and dislikes. Most of all, she loves seeing changes in her athletes’ lives—whether it’s at the level of function, pain, or performance.
Freelap USA: You are currently a strength and conditioning coach for Team Netherlands, the Dutch Olympic team, and work with short track speed skaters. Can you give us an overview of how you identify the sport’s physical demands and injury risks and your programming considerations for speed skaters?
Siobhan Milner: A lot of it comes down to looking at the way the athletes move on the ice. I look at joint angles, forces experienced, and repetitive movements or held positions for an idea of what they need physically and what may be at risk for overuse injuries. Of course, we also have a lot of data on our athletes over the years, so we can take stock of what kind of injuries are popping up (and when) to get an idea of how we can be proactive in preventing them.
One big consideration for programming is that in short track speed skating, there’s a lot of lumbar flexion involved and incredibly high forces. When this is coupled with periods of frequent time on the ice, it can mean being particularly careful not to overload the spine in strength training sessions while still ensuring that the back gets enough stimulus to stay strong.
Freelap USA: You’re not only the strength and conditioning coach for short track speed skating but also for the national curling team of Team Netherlands. Curling is an Olympic sport where most people probably don’t automatically expect the athletes to spend much time with strength training. What does the seasonal preparation of a curling athlete look like, and what is your main focus for them?
Siobhan Milner: It’s a super interesting sport to work with! I sometimes wish I could work with all the “weird” sports because this is where you learn so much as an S&C coach.
I think curling is also experiencing a big shift where the importance of S&C is being recognized. When I look at the upcoming curling teams around the globe, they’ve all got a serious S&C program involved in their development. I think that any curling program that doesn’t will be seriously hindered in the future.
My curling athletes are super strong. I have not worked with them for a full Olympic cycle, as I took over from their former S&C coach earlier in 2021. So, I can only speak to how we’ve worked in the lead-up to Olympic qualifications in 2021.When we combine this with the fact that it’s a really cognitively involved sport in relatively cold conditions, curling quickly becomes quite an interesting puzzle for an S&C coach. Click To Tweet
Curling is essentially an endurance sport when we look at both the heart rate data from games and that a game lasts roughly 2.5–3 hours. However, short bursts of power are involved, primarily from the upper body during sweeping. When we combine this with the fact that it’s a really cognitively involved sport in relatively cold conditions, it quickly becomes quite an interesting puzzle for an S&C coach.
In the weight room, we’re usually more focused on muscular endurance in the preparatory season, with specific exercise selection for coordination and balance (sometimes specifically to just train the ability to focus and be present). There are times in the season where we’ve worked on hypertrophy because we know that when there are a lot of back-to-back games, curlers can lose a fair bit of weight. Therefore, we want to have some wiggle room there to avoid losing too much muscle mass.
We do a fair bit of basic endurance training for conditioning, as this reflects their energy system demands on the ice. But we also incorporate higher-intensity work, especially as we have seen from the research in recent years how beneficial this is for endurance athletes.
Regarding injury risk and physical demands, curlers require a great deal of hip extension and a lot of hamstring strength. When they throw rocks, one leg ends up in a super low lunge, while the other foot is really tucked in under the body—the hamstring seriously fires up here when this is done well. Like many other ice sports—hockey, short track, and long track speed skating—the adductors can be a weak point. What’s interesting with curling is that we have to find the sweet spot where we keep the adductors strong, but we don’t make them tighten up too much and impact their mobility on the ice in these deep lunges.
Freelap USA: You have a huge variety of sports you work with, coaching athletes in cross country skiing, curling, and speed skating, but also professional dancers and endurance athletes. What are your recommendations for young strength and conditioning coaches working with many different sports, especially sports they don’t know much about initially or haven’t participated in themselves?
Siobhan Milner: I started out mainly coaching endurance athletes—triathlon, marathon, cyclists—because that’s where my own sporting background lies. But what I found was that most strength and conditioning training for practitioners is geared toward team sports. Team sports, of course, tend to be much more speed- and power-based. So really, the initial thought was, this is where the jobs will be, I have to be adaptable!
I think it’s really important to conduct needs analyses of the sports we’re working with, but then go beyond that. The TeamNL curling team offered to take me out on the ice and teach me how to curl, so I took them up on that. It was great because whenever they corrected me (and I finally did it right!), I’d have a new “aha” moment about their movement requirements and capabilities.
Especially when working with more experienced athletes, we’ve got to humble ourselves. Know that the athlete knows their body better than you ever will. Take a whole lot of notes, listen to what they tell you, watch their sport, and ask a ton of questions.Especially when working with more experienced athletes, we’ve got to humble ourselves. Know that the athlete knows their body better than you ever will, says @SiobhanCMilner. Click To Tweet
Freelap USA: Injury rehabilitation is your main educational background; you have done an MSc in Rehabilitation Sciences at McGill University in Canada and worked with elite athletes from different sports, but also individuals with lower back pain, chronic lung diseases, and cancer. What are the main differences and similarities in your rehab approach? What did you learn when working with patients with cancer or chronic lung disease that can be applied to performance settings?
Siobhan Milner: I’ve definitely got a colorful educational and work history! I also did a BPhEd (Hons) in Exercise Prescription & Management, which had a big focus on athletic performance and athletic injury, and I worked for a while for Siliconcoach on video analysis software for athletes. But during that BPhEd degree, I also pursued courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels in clinical exercise physiology. This got me curious, and then a scholarship came up for that position at McGill.
The MSc was a super interesting program because I was the only one with an exercise science background. My colleagues were medical doctors, physiotherapists, even some psychologists. I learned so much from being involved in such an interdisciplinary program and getting to bounce ideas off all my colleagues.
I still work with a few clients specifically for rehabilitation. The most obvious difference is the rate of progression in their loading. The athletes tend to reach plateaus a lot easier, and we’ve got to keep challenging them and pushing through. My rehab clients often need to go at a much slower pace of progression than even your “standard” everyday client. Sometimes the pace can be so slow that your S&C brain might think, “Is anything really happening here?” But it is, and it does. It’s a big reminder of the existence of the minimal effective dose.My rehab clients often need to go at a much slower pace of progression than even your ‘standard’ everyday client… It’s a big reminder of the existence of the minimal effective dose. Click To Tweet
The biggest thing I’ve taken with me from my work in rehab into S&C is “patient-centered care.” I don’t coach from the standpoint of me being the one who calls the shots. Of course, I’m willing to do that when needed, and I obviously write all the programming for athletes. But what I mean is I come in genuinely curious about the athletes’ experiences, and I want to make sure that we’re getting the intended result.
For some athletes, this can take getting used to. Sometimes they’re used to being told “just do it” when something doesn’t feel right (or “just skip it!” with no alternatives offered). I’m always interested in how we can make the program work for that particular individual. I’m always asking how things feel, what they’re noticing, how their body is responding, etc. I think body awareness is hugely underrated, and it is so important for athletes both inside and outside the weight room.
Freelap USA: Injury history is a significant factor in prescribing strength training programs for athletes. What’s your approach in considering injury history, and what principles do you follow as a rehabilitative exercise specialist when working with an athlete who has had one or multiple severe injuries before?
Siobhan Milner: I always want to know the basics of when the injury occurred and how. I also want the diagnosis and grading where relevant, and I want to know what their physical therapist has worked on with them and what the injured area responded well to (and not so well too). In particular, my education in pain science during my MSc made me realize how multifactorial injuries are. So, I like to dig a lot deeper, especially for athletes who still experience pain from an injury—whether intermittently or chronically.
We know that there’s a huge psychological component to pain, which doesn’t make the pain any less real. But sometimes, athletes really need to be reassured and educated on the pain system, and they need to be empowered to learn about pain in their own bodies. I’m sure many coaches have had experience with those athletes who are given the “all-clear” from a tissue health perspective, but there’s still something going on at the level of pain.
This can be a complex issue, where you have to work closely with the team physiotherapist. I’m grateful for great relationships there. A big consideration is finding out what makes the athlete feel fearful and working with and around that. We often have to overcome a particular fear of movement, so again, educating them on pain signals, reassuring them about their capabilities and tissue health, and being patient. Injuries are frustrating for athletes, so it doesn’t help them if we also get frustrated during the recovery process!
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