15 Things I Learned in 2015 - Next Level Athletics

15 Things I Learned in 2015

What a year it has been.

Since April, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as strength & conditioning coach for a youth hockey organization. This includes working with numerous young hockey players between the ages of 14 and 20 each week.

Nothing makes me happier than watching an athlete put in the work and gaining another step towards fulfilling their potential. And several of our guys have certainly done that.

Urho Vaakanainen, Joonas Niemelä and Samuli Rasilainen have already made their debuts with Blues Espoo in the Finnish Elite League. Vaakanainen cracked the lineup at age 16 and was the first ´99 born in the entire country to play in the top Finnish professional league.

Contrary to many pre-tournament predictions, Kasper Björkqvist played his way into the Finnish roster at WJC 2016 and scored a goal in last night’s 8-3 victory over Slovakia.

Finland U20

Photo credit: Leijonat.fi

Many others went on to don the Finnish national team jersey with the U17, U18, U19 and U20 national teams in international tournaments over the past few months.

While the individual success of our hockey players delights me, this has also been a continuous learning process on a personal level.

I’m always pondering how I can tweak our training system so that the athletes get even better results faster.

Here are 15 things I learned (and re-learned) in 2015…

1. Staying Healthy Is #1 Priority

What’s the best way to win games?

Having your best players healthy and able to play.

That’s what former Boston Bruins and Boston University strength coach, Mike Boyle, said in one of his Functional Strength Coach DVDs and this thought really resonated with me.

3 Cups in 6 years... You want to keep these guys healthy

3 Cups in 6 years… You want to keep these guys healthy and producing on the ice

Losing your top goal scorer or starting goalie to an injury chasing arbitrary numbers in the weight room doesn’t help you win.

Keeping the guys healthy and ready to perform when it’s go time does.

2. Stick to the Basics

I believe an effective strength program will be built around pushing, pulling, squatting and carrying heavy weights.

With smart programming and by varying exercises to some degree to prevent boredom and overuse injuries, you can get brutally strong over the years.

But balancing on a Bosu ball and doing foo-foo exercises with resistance bands?

That’s how you create athletes who are weaker than a wet paper towel.

3. Form Is Everything

Good lifting form is the base for everything that goes on in the weight room.

When an athlete has got form down pat, we can load him safely, knowing that he won’t bang up his joints or pull a muscle when the program calls for heavy weights.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had players join us from other clubs that use bad technique and move like shit because they haven’t been taught how to lift properly.

All you need to do is watch how they perform key movements. Partial range squats, power cleans that look like reverse curls, hips sagging and elbows flaring out on push-ups, knees caving in on split squats… the list goes on and on.


Do it right and THEN you earn the right to add weight.

4. Good Enough Is Good Enough

In point #4, I can immediately contradict myself.

Yes, we strive to lift with perfect form. But I realize that with high shool athletes, acceptable form is sufficient. Getting overly picky about the nuances will only frustrate guys.

You can’t badger a 15-year-old to engage his lats during rack pulls every two minutes. Kid probably doesn’t even know where the lats are located, let alone what “engaging” them feels like.

No biggie. He’ll get the hang of it eventually.

We want to develop great athletes who are tehnically sound lifters.

Not professional lifters. There’s a difference.

5. It’s Not What You Know, It’s What You Can Implement

Being a coach, I realize a big difference between ideal and reality. Many times I can have a program planned that I see as ideal for my athletes.

However, if we don’t have the equipment to carry out the program as written, then clearly that program won’t be ideal. Simple as that.

The reality is that more often than not, you need to make concessions. At the college or NHL level, you can get all the power racks, chin-up bars, med balls, sleds and specialty bars you want to include in your “perfect program”.

Ideal? Yes. Realistic? Hardly.

Ideal? Yes. Realistic? Hardly.

But with junior players, you gotta make do with what you’re given.

At times, I’ve had to devise training sessions around dumbbell and bodyweight exercises because we didn’t have access to barbells. So what. Guys still got stronger.

6. Overuse Injuries Are NOT Normal

When I asked each player on our U17 team about their previous injury history back in April, the list quickly became rather extensive – concussions, broken collarbones, fractured ankles, wrist injuries…

All things you’d expect from guys who have played the game for years.

But what concerned me most was the frighteningly high amount of knee and low back problems that several of the guys had experienced. Two players had been diagnosed with a stress fracture in the low back – one of them twice. Few others told me they feel knee pain during running, squatting and jumping.

How is it possible we have 16-year-olds who can no longer run or jump without pain?

And how come we’ve got kids feeling so beat up they’re thinking of hanging up their skates for good?

How could that ever be considered normal?

Those of us working with youth athletes need to raise our standards BIG time.

I realize many off-ice workouts in younger age groups are run by volunteer hockey parents.

It’s one thing if you don’t have the skills to make a guy stronger or more explosive. Leave that to a strength coach.

But getting a kid injured because you were using improper training methods for his age and fitness levels?


7. Atmosphere Is Everything

At the high school level, we’re dealing with kids who generally don’t even want to be in the weight room.

Yes, there will be a few guys who like lifting but the majority of young athletes want to play their sport. What happens off the ice can rarely hold a candle to the joy of playing hockey.

That’s why you need to create an atmosphere where the athletes at least enjoy what they’re doing and feel like they’re getting better. Good luck getting the most out of a kid if he loathes every second he spends in the gym.

8. Same Shit, Different Player

I hear all the time from parents that players should have individual training programs because “every player is an individual and has different areas to develop”.


Marian Gaborik

Regardless of the name on the back of their jersey, 95% of young athletes I see come in with weak glutes, no hamstrings, horrible hip and ankle mobility, internally rotated shoulders, weak upper back, tight hip flexors, anterior pelvic tilt, and on and on we go…

What hockey player (or athlete in general!) wouldn’t benefit from getting stronger, faster, tougher and more mobile?

9. Individualize, But Stay True to the System

Having said that, I do acknowledge the need for tweaking a program around each athlete’s situation based on their injury history, technical proficiency, mobility, structural limitations, etc.

It’s just very different from what most people believe “individualized training” should look like.

You individualize a training program in a team sport setting by first picking your “big rocks” that you develop your program around – for me, those would be a power exercise, some sort of a squat variation, a hip hinge/posterior chain exercise, a horizontal push and pull, as well as a vertical push and pull movement.

With those main elements in place, you can then choose the most appropriate exercises for each athlete within a movement pattern.

Need examples? Here we go…

For one athlete, his “big squat day” could mean front squats and for another, you may go with hip belt squats or rear-foot elevated split squats.

Likewise, your heavy horizontal push pattern may well involve barbell benching, incline DB benching or 1 arm DB floor pressing – all depending on an individual’s background and what we deem the best solution for him.

Furthermore, an athlete demonstrating limited shoulder mobility and/or pain during the FMS test, we will forego snatches, and use cleans and pulls as our Olympic lift variations instead. Or if he’s too jacked up for that, we’ll pick a med ball or jump variation for developing power.

That’s how you individualize a program in a training system that produces results.

10. Physical Development Takes Time

Watching a guy fly on the ice after a successful off-season training program never fails to bring a big smile on my face.

But you can’t work real magic in the span of a mere few months. A smart coach will always look 3-5 years into the future when assessing where a player will end up.

Watched this kid play for Jokerit Helsinki a few years back. Talented but physically immature. Now a top offensive D-man in the NHL.

Watched this kid play for Jokerit Helsinki a few years back. Talented but physically immature. Now a top offensive D-man in the NHL.

Unfortunately, many junior hockey players try to rush their development. They want to get more ice time on special teams, jump up to a better league, or sign a pro contract, when you can clearly tell that they’re physically not ready to earn any of that just yet.

11. Athleticism  Gym Numbers

As you must know by now, I’m big on pushing, squatting and pulling heavy weights. Seeing players hit PR’s in the gym makes my day.

But gym lifts are not the only part of developing true athleticism.


You need to jump, sprint, change directions, pick up heavy stuff and carry it, and move your bodyweight through space for that.

Which brings us to the next point…

12. Training Like a Strength Athlete Is Not the Smartest Way to Train an Athlete

The overemphasis on maximal strength, the shortened ranges of motion, the imbalances created, the injuries accumulated…

Many conventional training programs you see floating around on the internet will actually be more detrimental than helpful for an athlete. Sure, you may end up with decent gym numbers if you keep at it long enough.

But what good is achieving a 400 pound squat if you can’t lace skates without your low back reminding you of that recent squat session the other day?

And what does all that leg strength do for you when you get gassed out 15 seconds into a shift because you allowed your conditioning to suffer?

Or when you pull a hip flexor during a post-practice 2-on-2 drill with the boys, and need to limp off the ice because you have neglected single-leg and prehab work targeting common problem areas in hockey players?

13. You Can’t Teach Heart

As a coach, I see red when a guy who is supposed to be one of your top players on the ice half-asses it in the gym.

Watching a young athlete piss away their talent makes me sad. But I also understand that not everyone is cut out to be a success.

Rocky Balboa

They may eventually wake up and seize the opportunity. Or they may not.

As much as I wish it weren’t true, what an athlete does with his given ability is out of my hands.

14. Hockey Players Are the Best Athletes to Coach

I’m fortunate to have the chance to work with so many hockey players because I believe they’re the best group of athletes to coach – hardworking, non-complaining, competitive, resilient.

We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That’s how our teams play.

(Props if you caught that Brian Burke reference from his Maple Leafs years. Just had to throw it in there.)

And barring a few exceptions, guys realize the importance of proper off-ice training for having the ability to showcase their on-ice skills.

Whenever a player returns from an international tournament or a stint with the men’s team, the first thing they’ll tell you is that the game is faster and guys are stronger compared to what they’re used to.

Next, they will say: “I need to get stronger and faster to excel at that higher level of play.”

Talk about getting buy-in for what you’re doing!

15. Expectations Dictate Results

Raise the bar in everything you do.

Strive for excellence.

And demand more from yourself as a coach, as well as your athletes.

This is something I need to do a better job of in 2016.



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Yunus Barisik

Yunus Barisik, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for an elite junior hockey organization based in Espoo, Finland. He has trained hundreds of hockey players at the junior, college and pro levels, including NHL Draft picks and World Champions. An accomplished author, Yunus has had articles published on top fitness and performance sites, including STACK and Muscle & Strength. He also wrote Next Level Hockey Training, a comprehensive resource for ice hockey players on building athletic strength, size and power, while staying injury-free.