Kevin Neeld — Hockey Training, Sports Performance, & Sports Science

7 Considerations when Designing a Sports Conditioning Program

On April 2nd-3rd, we’ll be hosting Joel Jamieson’s Certified Conditioning Coach course at Endeavor. I’m incredibly excited to take the course, as Joel has had a significant impact on the way I view sports conditioning.

In fact, being introduced to Joel’s work ~3 years ago has led to more changes in the way I design programs than any of the other courses I’ve taken or books I’ve read.

Certified Conditioning Coach

Keeping with the conditioning focus, here are 7 things to consider when designing a sports conditioning program:

1) The Athlete’s Position

Most people think of energy systems work in terms of the sport. I would argue that the sport is irrelevant if individual positions aren’t considered. The energy system demands of a football punter are drastically different from an offensive lineman, as they are for a pitcher in a 5-day rotation vs. an outfielder playing everyday, and goalies in every sport compared to other positions. Conditioning programs should be written based on the most relevant needs of that athlete, which will certainly be influenced by their position.

I wrote down a quote while listening to a lecture from Charlie Francis a few years ago that says, “Watch the player, not the game.” I refer back to this often.

From a position standpoint, work to rest ratios simply don’t provide an accurate portrayal of the demands on the athlete. This is especially problematic in hockey, as many conditioning programs are designed around the fact that a typical shift may last ~45 seconds and many teams rotate 3-4 d-pairs or forward lines. Using this logic, the goalie plays 3 20-minute shifts with a 15-minute rest in between. If you actually watch the goalie, you’ll get a much different perspective.

2) The Athlete’s Role

In addition to the athlete’s position, the athlete’s role will determine their specific conditioning needs. For example, a 4th line player that only logs ~10 minutes per night will benefit from spending more time focusing on alactic power and capacity to maximize their speed and power, which will help make their shifts more impactful.

This is different from a defenseman that logs 25 minutes per night or a top-6 forward that is playing 20 minutes and getting special teams opportunities. These are simplified examples, but understanding the role a specific athlete plays (or needs to play) will allow for a deeper level of program individualization.

Bench Riding

If you’re riding the bench, your conditioning needs are much different than someone logging big minutes (Image from:

3) The Athlete’s Individual Barrier to Success

Once you have an understanding of the specific demands the athlete needs to be prepared for, it’s important to assess what is most limiting the athlete from being successful at the level they’re competing at or hoping to compete at.

For example, consider a high school soccer midfielder who plays the entire game. An analysis of the demands of this player’s role and position will strongly point to the importance of a well-developed aerobic system. However, if the athlete’s speed is the primary barrier to his or her success, the program should be designed with this focus in mind. From an application standpoint, this may mean allocating an extra block of the off-season to a speed/power phase and/or using aerobic training methods that support high threshold motor unit output.

4) The Coach’s Philosophy

From a team perspective, the systems that the coaches implement and the tempo they want the team to play at can have a significant impact on the energy system demands for the players.

Living in South Jersey, a convenient illustration of this concept lies in how Chip Kelly’s “up-tempo” offense changed the conditioning needs of the Philadelphia Eagles offense, who needed to be prepared for short, high-intensity efforts with minimal rest for several minutes at a time, and the defense, who spent drastically more time on the field when the up-tempo offense couldn’t convert on 3rd downs.

Become a Certified Conditioning Coach Today!

5) Sequencing/The Goal of the Phase

In training, as in construction, the larger the foundation, the higher the potential peak. One of the biggest mistakes many novices make is over-focusing on work that “looks” like the intended goal.

As one example, performing sprints looks like speed training, so if the primary goal is to get faster, the athlete should run sprints all off-season, right? Not exactly.

Speed may be better developed by spending early phases emphasizing strength and high-load, low velocity power development first. Similarly, an early emphasis on aerobic training methods will allow an athlete to reach a higher peak in alactic capacity work later in the program by improving their ability to recover from high intensity efforts. Knowing how to appropriately sequence training blocks will lead to more progress than simply hammering the same quality repetitively.

Reverse Lunge

This is speed training, and may be the best form of speed training for many youth athletes.

Just as importantly, it’s important to clearly define the goal of a given training phase. Attempting to simultaneously develop high levels of speed, strength, and aerobic power will lead to poor improvements in all areas.

Training is a stimulus that leads to a cascade of events within the body leading to some form of adaptation. When athletes train several different qualities simultaneously, the processes of adaptation directly conflict with one another so the body can’t adapt strongly to anything. For example, when you perform alactic power work, you’re telling your body that you need to be able to produce high amounts of power, repetitively, as quickly as possible. If you also perform lactic work, like 30-second intervals, you’re telling your body that it needs to be able to sustain lower levels of power for prolonged periods of time. These two stimuli lead to different changes in enzyme production/activity, and the rate at which the nervous system will activate the working musculature, among other things.

6) Movement Demands

Making sure athletes are prepared for the specific movement demands of their position is paramount to maximizing both performance and durability. There are a lot of different ways to analyze movement, but a few basic considerations are whether the athletes are running or skating, the degree to which the athlete moves in lateral or rotational patterns, and the importance of vertical jumping. To build on these considerations with applied examples, athletes that skate and/or move in lateral directions will benefit from including slideboarding or lateral shuffling into their conditioning programs; rotational athletes will benefit from rotational med ball throws; athletes like basketball and volleyball players will benefit from activities like jumping rope that help improve stiffness and repeat jumping ability.

Low position strength and lateral movement are essential in ice hockey, along with many other team sports.

7) Time of Season/Competing Demands

The focus of a conditioning program should be heavily influenced by the time of the season. When athletes are in-season, the overwhelming majority of their training stresses will come from practices and games. Any additional work should be designed to support in-sport development by focusing on physical qualities that aren’t targeted through the sport and/or to facilitate recovery to allow for more purposeful practice.

For example, if a baseball player has batting practice for an hour, he probably doesn’t need more low load, high velocity power work in their in-season training program. He would benefit more from strength work to support their power output, mobility/motor control work to maintain optimal health and function, and some conditioning work to support their recovery.

I tend to think of in-season training as “anti-sport-specific training”. The training should support, but not mimic the demands of the sport. This is in contrast to the off-season where in-sport demands are much lower, and the focus transitions to preparing for these demands.

Wrap Up

There is a lot to consider when designing a sport conditioning program. While this is not a comprehensive list, it provides a few key considerations that will significantly impact the transfer of your training efforts into sport performance. The most important thing to realize is that EVERYTHING impacts conditioning. Every component of your program is tapping into some energy system and providing a stimulus for that energy system to either adapt, or not. As a result, it’s essential to program your speed/power, strength, and conditioning work in a way that best supports the targeted adaptation.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to do this, I’d strongly encourage you to join me and the rest of the Endeavor staff at Joel Jamieson’s new Certified Conditioning Coach course in April.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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Kevin Neeld

Kevin Neeld Knows Hockey

Kevin has rapidly established himself as a leader in the field of physical preparation and sports science for ice hockey. He is currently 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 2 years as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the San Jose Sharks after serving as the Director of Performance at Endeavor Sports Performance in Pitman, NJ. He also spent 5 years as a Strength and Conditioning Coach with USA Hockey’s Women’s Olympic Hockey Team, and has been an invited speaker at conferences hosted by the NHL, NSCA, and USA Hockey.