Today you’re in for a special treat. I’ve been fortunate to connect with Ryan Van Asten from Hockey Canada. Ryan is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the National women’s hockey team as well as the conditioning coordinator for the National Luge team. Needless to say 2010 has been an exciting and busy time for Ryan. Read on as Ryan shares with us a little bit about his background to bring him to where he is, his training philosophies, with specific emphasis on hockey, what working for the National Team has been like as well as his dream team of practitioners and the best resources he has found to allow him to have had success with his athletes. So sit back and enjoy a one on one with Ryan Van Asten.
Chris Collins – Where did you go to school? What made you want to do this for a living? What was your sports background? Who were some of your mentors along the way? What are some of the interesting places you’ve worked?
Ryan Van Asten – Master of Science (Exercise and Health Physiology) – University of Calgary
– Bachelor of Science (Honours) (Subject of Specialization – Life Sciences) – Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario
– Bachelor of Physical and Health Education – Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario
– Certifications: CSCS (NSCA), Certified Exercise Physiologist (CSEP), NCCP Level 1 Olympic Weightlifting, FMS Certified
My sports background was varied as a child (i.e. hockey, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, alpine skiing, water skiing, wakeboarding, etc.) but specialized in Hockey and Lacrosse as a teenager. Eventually, just focussing on hockey I played Provincial Jr. A in Ontario, 4 years collegiate (Queen’s University), 1 year semi-professional in Germany – retiring at age 24 to peruse my graduate degree in Calgary. As a result of my sports background, dry-land training was always a part of my life and I loved every second of the training. While at Queen’s University I was fortunate enough to work with and play hockey with Anthony Slater (now a major part of a company called Athletes’ Performance in the United States). Anthony (although young himself at the time) put me on a training program one summer and the results were astonishing because for the first time in my life I was on a periodized program that wasn’t centred around bench press. After that I was hooked and couldn’t get ahold of enough information on training – I was digesting the stuff like it was my job…one problem: it wasn’t. At the time I was just finishing up my Bachelor of Science degree and wasn’t sure which direction to go…this had all changed by that point, I needed to work in sports performance. So the following year I enrolled in the Bachelor of Physical and Health Education program at Queen’s to bring me closer to my goals. It was in ‘Phys Ed’ where I met David Frost (a Mechanical engineer who also had a passion for training and biomechanics). Dave was a big guy who loved to train and knew a hell of a lot more about pretty much everything than I did – so I hung out with him a lot and since we were the old guys in a class full of 18 and 19 year olds we clicked right away. Training with Dave brought my strength to an even greater level, however, it was not necessarily do to the physiological aspects anymore – Dave was skilled at breaking down and assessing biomechanics and he tweaked pretty much everything I did and my strength went through the roof. This is when I realized that it is not about the exercise or the exercise selection; it’s about the coaching and the implementation of the exercise in an appropriate manner that are the important factors. Evidently, today Dave is finishing up his PhD at the University of Waterloo where he is mentored by Stuart McGill (now famous in the realm of strength and conditioning).
My first two mentors (and continue to be to this day) in strength and conditioning were Anthony Slater and David Frost. I then moved to Calgary and began my graduate research – working under Dr. David Smith and Dr. Stephen Norris (two of the most prominent exercise and sport physiologists in the world) my knowledge expanded even further. I was also fortunate enough to get exposure to excellent Strength and Conditioning coaches at the Canadian Sport Centre – Calgary (I am one of them now…ha)(Matt Jordan, Scott Maw, Mac Read, and Matt Price) – These are guys who have training numerous Olympic and World champions in both summer and winter sports and I have learned a lot from every one of them and continue to learn from them on a daily basis.
At the tail end of my Masters degree I was looking for ways to hone my coaching skills to bring me to the next level – then I ran into Mark Verstegen and Kevin Elsey (both from Athletes’ Performance – although I knew Kevin from Queen’s University) at an Adidas Conference at the University of Calgary. I asked them about the possibility of an internship and that got the ball rolling. So at 27 years of age, I dropped everything to move down to Pensacola Florida to do an unpaid internship at Athletes’ Performance for four months. This decision turned out to be the best thing I have done in my career. At AP I learned how to coach and I learned about physical movement. Up to this point I prided myself as being an expert in the weight room – but put me on a field or track and I was lost in terms of coaching and drill progression. I had to be on my game at AP, working everyday with NFL pro-bowlers and other professional athletes and watching some of the best coaches in the nation work. I really learned the value of watching other people coach and looking at things from a number of different angles.
Right before my Athletes’ Performance internship was almost complete the Canadian Sport Centre – Calgary called and told me there was a job opening and the rest is history.
At the same time the University of Calgary offered me a position as a lecturer in Kinesiology for a sports performance class. I lectured for one school year and evidently got too busy working with Hockey Canada and the Canadian Luge team that I reluctantly had to give up my duties as a lecturer.
I Attended the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics as the head strength and conditioning coach for the Women’s national Hockey team which won the Gold Medal and was the strength and conditioning coordinator for the Canadian National Luge team which posted the best result ever at an Olympic games for Canada.
CC – What type of a coach/trainer are you? What aspect of the training continuum (rehab, conditioning, strength, power, speed) are you most passionate about? What few pieces of equipment can you not work without? If $$$ didn’t matter how would you spend it to benefit your athletes?
RV – My personality is pretty laid back and therefore I am not a the type of coach that is extremely vocal unless required. I treat all my athletes with respect and work very closely with them to do what is right for that particular individual. With regards to the training continuum – I am passionate about optimizing performance. So depending on the athlete that might require a higher percentage of one variable over another, and that will be different for every athlete. On the personal side of things – I am most passionate about gaining strength. I love to lift heavy.
I love the Keiser training equipment, however, these are not necessary tools for training. The few things that I can’t train without include: Barbell and weights, dumbbells, kettlebells, cable machines, medicine balls, and foam roller/lacrosse ball/soft ball. Pretty much everything can be done with minimal equipment. Personally I travel with a TRX and it is a tool I utilize with all my athletes. Stability balls and adjustable benches are also on that list as well.
With an unlimited budget I don’t think I would change a whole lot to tell you the truth – the basics will still be in place and will always be. I would utilize the Keiser pneumatic technology, whole-body vibration technology (in certain instances), different recovery modalities (i.e. pneumatic compression, EMS, contrast therapy, cryotherapy, etc.).
Training for hockey
CC – During the off-season what are 3 things an amateur youth hockey player should focus on? Is there anything hockey players could do a better job of with their training? (maybe improved technique on lifts, or better warm-ups, more soft tissue work, better programs in general etc).
RV – This answer obviously has an infinite number of possibilities – here are a few:
A well balanced approach to training with logical steps and progression (i.e. learn the requirements and importance of a proper warm-up, movement training, power/strength training, conditioning, cool-down/recovery techniques) – athletes need to know that it is not OK to skip steps and do the “cool” or “flashy” exercises because this will not make them a better athlete. In fact, it might make them worse in the long run by perpetuating poor movement patterns and mechanics… and worse, when you add speed or strength to these poor mechanics it is a recipe for disaster.
Most of the young hockey players I know have awful nutritional habits and performance nutrition habits. They will not reach their full potential until they are educated and understand how important nutrition and exercise nutrition is.
All hockey players should work on their single leg strength and stability in a low position. Along with this many of the hockey players I work with have inhibited glute max muscles partly due to tonic hip flexors – get these athletes off the bike in the summer and have them sprinting. Work diligently on mobilizing the anterior hip complex and subsequently activating the posterior chain. If the athlete is not using their posterior chain muscles adequately during skating it is likely that they will put too much volitional stress on their adductors/hipflexors putting them at risk of strain and improper stride mechanics may also lead to presentation of sports hernias and hip labial tears.
That being said, if the athlete is under the age of 14-15 years old they should not be specializing in “hockey” training in the offseason. They should be playing as many sports as possible and becoming athletes. It is far too often that we push these kids into specialization because someone is out there telling parents this is what their kids need to do in order to make it to the NHL – the reality is these guys just need a pay check in the summer and they’re not doing what is best for your child. Both Hockey Canada and USA Hockey are taking this stance with their long term athlete development models urging kids to be playing multiple sports and gain a wide sporting experience. Become an athlete first before you become a hockey player.
CC – What has 2010 been like for you? What are some of the behind the scenes challenges you’ve faced? (scheduling, facilities, injuries, travel, budgets) How is it different working with the women’s team? Goals for the future?
RV – 2010 was an unbelievable year. There were a lot of great times with the winning of the Olympic Gold medal and a lot of tough times as well. As a strength and conditioning it was a year of tremendous growth for me in many aspects. Managing 35 athletes from two different sports was not an easy task given our travel schedule and some of the facilities we had access to for training (which on many occasions was nothing). With the National Women’s Hockey their on-ice practice and game schedule was extremely hectic and demanding. It was like walking a tight rope when planning appropriate physical stress and recovery off-ice. But, in the end we could not have done a better job preparing our athletes physically for the Olympics. They went into the Games knowing their preparation was superior and that confidence in knowing you didn’t leave any stone unturned goes a long way as well.
The travel schedule during the 2010 season with Hockey Canada was pretty intense. Starting in May 2009 we were on the road pretty much 2-3 weeks a month with games and training camps.
Budgets with Hockey Canada aren’t too much of a concern but we always try to optimize our spending to make sure it is going in the right places.
Working with the women’s is not much different that working with a men’s team. They basically played a full NHL game schedule last year, on the road most of the time. The athletes were all unbelievable in terms of their work ethic and dedication to winning the gold medal considering they had lost the previous world championships. And it showed – we played the USA 10 times before the Olympics with a record of 7-3 with all seven wins coming consecutively leading up to the Games. Two of the three losses were in August while we were still in the infancy stages of our on-ice training, the other was in November.
With Hockey Canada there is only one goal always and that is to win every tournament. On the physical side of things we can still get better as a whole in many areas… even though we are Olympic champions we need to prepare as if we’re the underdog.
With the Canadian Luge team our goals are similar on both the men’s and women’s side. That is to be a top 10 contender every race and to podium in every race.
CC – If you could assemble the practitioners of your choice regardless of availability or cost who would you choose as a:
RV – s&c coach – I already work with some of the best strength and conditioning coaches on the planet – the Canadian Sport Centre Calgary athletes routinely account for the majority of medals won at Winter Olympic games (i.e. 58% of medals won for Canada in Vancouver were won by athletes who train with the Canadian Sport Centre Calgary).
– nutritionist – Not sure
– physio – Gray Cook, Kent Kobelka
– massage – Dominic Manchisi
– motivator – Dr. Peter Jensen
– wild card – Dave Frost (Strength Coach and Biomechanist – University of Waterloo)
CC – What has been the best:
RV – conference attended – European College of Sport Science Congress 2008
– book on training – Supertraining by Mel Siff and Yiri Verkhoshansky
– blog you follow – Too many to list
– colleague to call with a question – The fellas from the Canadian Sport Centre – Calgary
For everyone reading this post please take a few points from the interview with Ryan. In particular:
Notice that he paid his dues. He did all the schooling and even took an unpaid internship to improve his coaching abilities.
Practice what you preach. Having theoretical knowledge is great but also being able to step up to the bar and demonstrate is equally important.
Surround yourself with and seek out great mentors. Find people that will teach, inspire, challenge and support you.
For young athletes focus on becoming a better athlete first. There are foundations to training and you can’t simply skip ahead to the sexy drills and exercises too soon. Failing to do results in less substantial results and potential problems later.
No one piece of equipment makes a hockey player great. Focus on the basics. Look to develop single leg strength, mobile hips and strong glutes.
Recognize the value of regeneration and recovery both during the off-season by practicing other sports and in between training sessions as well.
Ryan thanks so much for taking the time to do this. Please keep us posted on your developments with Hockey Canada and anything else hockey related.
For more info check out Ryan’s site athletesadvantage.ca.
All the best,