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Possession changes occur every few seconds in hockey. Players must be able to start, stop, jump and change direction quickly and they must be able to do it over and over again.
"You have to be able to change direction quickly. Hockey is a game of stops and starts and changes of direction and the guy that can stop and start and change direction quicker is the guy that is going to get the puck," Whitesides said.
Tiger Woods enjoyed phenomenal success earlier in his career by following a workout program specifically designed for the needs of a golfer. Similarly, hockey players have to be ready for the lung-busting effort of a 45-second shift.
"There's nothing quite as taxing as a hockey shift with the speed, plus the holding and the banging," Whitesides said. "That's why these guys have to be in such good physical condition. You just can't slough your way through the summer and then jump into the season because it's hard and it's a grind. The players that don't train and don't get themselves ready are more prone to getting injured.
"There's a lot of rehabilitation work in my program to try to make those areas stronger so that they don't get hurt," Whitesides said. "I try to do a little 'pre-hab' before I have to do 'rehab.' I do a lot of stuff that physical therapists do after you've hurt your shoulder. I really focus a lot on that stuff."
Whitesides said it isn't hard to get compliance from players who spend the summer away from Boston. Today's players know there's a whole world of players ready to take their jobs if they're not prepared. Failure to follow a summer conditioning program is a serious black mark on that player's record and in the minds of coaches. So, many players hook up with a local fitness trainer and they often contact clubs for guidance.
"I deal with a lot of personal trainers. Some don't have a lot of specific training in hockey," Whitesides said. "The players go right from our program and their trainers call me and ask different questions. It's been good because I've brought some of them along to where we need to be. Some have a different theory, but we stress to our players that they should do it our way so that when they get to training camp you're ready to go and you're on our page and know what we are doing. I spend a lot of time talking to personal trainers and working with them and telling them what tests we do and how to train for them.
Gyms across North America bustle with young adults eager to maintain their physical condition. What do the hockey players do in their workouts that's different?
"In hockey, we're doing a ton of leg work because the sport is so leg-dominated," Whitesides said. "You're on your skates all the time. We do a lot of balance work because the players are balancing on two-centimeter blades all day. We're targeting areas where these guys are going to get hurt. We do a lot of shoulder work, a lot of work around the knees and ankles. These guys are working out hard for about 90 minutes, then we go out and run hard for 35 or 40 minutes.
"We do a lot of footwork and lot of conditioning that way. We do a lot of plyometrics, which is an explosive movement that helps your legs become more powerful. So it's really, really geared to the hockey player becoming fast and explosive. The average person who wants to stay in shape is probably going to bench and squat and do a lot of the stuff that we have in our program, but we do it to a greater extent."
Conditioning programs have helped players get bigger and faster. That has resulted in more injuries.
"As the average-player size changes and increases, the speed changes, the velocity changes and the hits change. You have a guy at 195 pounds who used to be 180 running into you, it's a whole different ballgame," Whitesides said. "That's why you are seeing a whole lot more injuries. Retired hockey players tell me they didn't see these injuries. They didn't see all these concussions. They didn't have the speed in the game then and the size of the players were smaller. With the increases in size and conditioning, these players are a lot more physically dominant. We're now seeing hockey players who are 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7, and who weigh 250 pounds. Size is increasing every year and we're seeing different injuries because of that."
Hockey executives and coaches long harbored a bias against large athletes, believing their response time was too slow and that they couldn't learn to skate effectively. That thinking has changed.
"I believe there are specific body types that we want to avoid in hockey. We don't want muscle-bound athletes," Whitesides said. "We don't want athletes that have low flexibility and get that 'gym look.' We want lean athletes that can move. We hugely stress flexibility, because as I said, our No. 1 priority is injury prevention.
"We don't want the body-builder look because that will detract from what you can do on the ice where you have to be fluid. If you're 230 pounds but you've got a nice lean build, good flexibility and you can move, then you can play at that weight, but we don't want athletes to go to 230 just to be 230. It's a whole different game than football where players put on size just to put on size. There's more straight-ahead movement in football, especially with linemen. Hockey players move in every direction and have to be fluid. We like our body fats to be down around seven percent. Nothing over 10. We like them lean and fast so they can move.
It's a real change to increase a player's weight without increasing his percentage of body fat. It takes an intelligent program, including nutritional advice, plus a serious commitment by the athlete.
"It's a challenge but there's so much money to be made in the sport and there are so many people coming into the sport that want to take their jobs that they're motivated," Whitesides said. "When they go home, they're eating right and living right. Half of my job, the hard part of it, is with the young kids, explaining the benefit of it and explaining how to live their lives. All the older guys in the NHL, they pretty well have it figured out. That's why they're in the NHL. They know that people want their jobs and can take their jobs. They know there are other people willing to go the extra mile so they do too. They're learning how to work and eat and live their lives right so they can be in the best physical shape they can be."