Maria Mountain is a strength and condition specialist for elite hockey players and goalies. She currently trains OHL draft picks, along with AHL, KHL and NHL players, including the likes of Andy McDonald, Steve Rucchin and Jeff Hackett.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria about what players need to do to prepare for off-season training. For parents, you’ll want to pay attention to Maria’s expert insight about what age your son should start training, when he should get a trainer and how these factors influence his safety in the gym.
Maria Mountain Interview Transcript
Nick: Hey, guys, it’s Nick for the Junior Hockey Truth and today I wanted to do a special Google Hangout with a friend of mine. Her name is Maria Mountain and she’s a hockey strength and conditioning specialist for HockeyTrainingPro.com. She’s out of London, Ontario. One of the things that’s awesome about Maria coming on today is that she’s training guys who are pro players, NHL players, and European pros, guys that are all around the world. She also trains junior guys, OHL players in person in the off season, along with Midget, AAA and AA players, and all that good kind of stuff. She’s a real expert and I know that when it comes to physical training and off season stuff, it’s really important to have that down in your arsenal of getting ready for Junior hockey, so I wanted to bring someone who’s right in the forefront of that.
Maria, how are you doing today?
Maria: I’m doing great, Nick, how are you?
Nick: Good, good. I’m so glad to have you here to talk today and provide all that awesome insight and information that a pro like you is able to give.
Maria: Happy to do it.
Nick: Awesome! Well, why don’t we get started, Maria, and why don’t you tell everybody your background and how you got started in training hockey players. I know that myself, I’m an old goalie and you specialize in training goalies as well, too. Why don’t you tell everyone your story and how you got involved in the area that you’re in?
Maria: Yeah, I guess I’ll give you a little Reader’s Digest version. I went to University—I’m old enough that it was called physical education back when I did my undergraduate degree, and I got a job as a trainer working in meat-head gym and I really was passionate about helping people achieve their goals. I came to a bit of a crossroads where I decided I really wanted to pursue being a trainer as a profession. I wanted to be a fitness professional as my career. So I went to one of the big fitness chains in my home town and at that time, there really wasn’t personal training the way we have it today, so I was talking to the manager who was interviewing me for a job and I said, ‘I’d really love to design programs for people to help them achieve their goals. Like if somebody is a golfer, I want to give them exercises that will help them golf better and if they’re a hockey player, a program that will help them play better hockey’. She listened and indulged me—I was pretty young at the time—and then she smiled and she said, ‘You know, that’s really nice and everything, Maria, but our business is selling memberships’.
That was a turning point for me so I went back to university and I got my Master’s degree in kinesiology because I wanted to learn more of how the body worked. After graduation, that gave me the tools to work as the exercise specialist in sport medicine clinic at the University of Western Ontario called the Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic. That’s where it started and that’s where I really got working with athletes. What I found was, by working on the small muscles and the stabilizers and doing the things we had to do to get them back from these injuries they’d suffered, they would actually return to play and be better than they were before, more effective, more productive, without even working on the big stuff yet.
Nick: Yeah, I was always told by, when I was playing junior, whether it was our trainers dealing with injuries or whether it was the people we were working with to get us trained up and physically fit and recovering, he said, “Hockey players are always the most interesting athletes to work with because we use so many different parts of the body and work in such a different way.”
Maria: Yeah, and it’s so multi-planer. If you work with a triathlete, everything is sagittal. Whereas a hockey player, you guys are sagittal and frontal and transverse all at once. I just think it’s the most fascinating sport there is and I love training the skaters as well, but the goalie, that’s a unique position.
Nick: Very cool. Before we get into the specifics of training the goalies and that kind of stuff, let’s start a little bit broader. A lot of the people that follow me, the parents out there, and of course the players that are on my list and check out my site, too, there are guys that are in bantam and midget hockey, they’re looking to make the jump to junior and a lot of them are elite players where they take their training seriously. I remember when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, that that’s an age your body is going through a lot of changes, you try to get bigger and it seems like it’s a never-ending battle to put on weight and to put on some mass. Then I also too remember reading stuff: you don’t want to lift too much too early, you don’t want to hurt yourself, hurt your growth plates, all that kind of stuff.
What age should players start looking at training and taking it seriously and to what level should they do that?
Maria: This is a bit of an opinion question, so I’m sure there are going to be different opinions. There’s the science of it and then there’s the philosophy of it. Scientifically, your risk of injuring your growth plates and stunting your growth is no greater from weight training than it is from playing hockey itself. By that I mean, the injuries that cause a stunting of your growth is when there’s a fracture that goes through a growth plate, which could occur with weight lifting. I remember my next door neighbour and I when we were kids, we all had one of those crappy barbel sets, those York barbel sets with the plates that were filled with cement, like I remember us just loading it up and he was a big guy and I was saying, ‘Hey, I wonder if you can lift one hundred pounds over your head’, when we were like ten years old. We could’ve hurt ourselves and fractured a bone through a growth plate, which would’ve caused us to stunt our growth or we would’ve actually had to have surgery and have that pinned and fixed.
The same thing could happen in hockey. I could get checked awkwardly into the board and I could fracture through my growth plate or soccer or anything else. So there is no increased risk but kids can be a little bit crazy sometimes and maybe not do it exactly the way they should.
Philosophically, I would rather focus on developing a good little athlete until they’re about fourteen years of age. At my gym, at Revolution Conditioning in London [Ontario], I won’t start an athlete until they’re typically fourteen years old. I will start them the summer that they’re thirteen, if they’re going into high school because I don’t want a kid’s birthday to keep them out of training and then they might not make high school teams or things like that. But philosophically I’d rather see them playing soccer or baseball or lacrosse, doing martial arts, something like that until they’re about fourteen, then it’s like, “Okay, if you’re going to be a hockey player, then now you better be a hockey player and work your butt off.”
Nick: Yeah, you read more stuff nowadays and you hear more people talking and even I had junior coaches say that. You want to have a mix of things going on, when it’s hockey season obviously you’re focused on hockey but if you go hockey year round, it’ll either burn you out or you won’t get a chance to just recover mentally and physically and you need to be doing different stuff during the off season for sure.
What should guys be doing when they’re in bantam and midget, kind of a brief overview of what kind of training they should be looking at and getting into?
Maria: Well, that’s a really good question because you see so much and you’re like, ‘Hey, here’s how to train like a pro’, ‘Here’s how Sidney Crosby trains’. Well, that’s not how Sidney Crosby trained when he was fourteen years old, he trained like a fourteen year-old Sidney Crosby. They don’t have those years and years of training background. So what they need is to be mobile, which is often a problem, especially if they’re growing quickly, so that they can move their body at the joints where they need to move. They need to be stable, to reduce their risk of injury and to increase their capacity to produce force. Then they really need to be stronger. We’ll get it from coaches, or not so much parents, we actually have a really good group of parents that we get to work with, but Johnny has to gain fifteen pounds this summer and then you look at Johnny and he’s a beanpole and you just know that from a physical maturation perspective, he’s not there yet. He doesn’t have scruff coming in and he’s going to be a little bit more of a late bloomer. We can bust our hump trying to add mass to him and we usually will get some, but he’s just not there yet to add the mass, but we can make him a heck of a lot stronger and a heck of a lot faster. They need to be learning to lift properly, they need to be lifting consistently and they need to be lifting as heavy as they can with good form.
Nick: Fair enough. There’s obviously so much more that goes into training nowadays, too, than just lifting stone weights, between cardio and plyometrics was something I got introduced to later in my career that made a huge difference in stuff like foot speed. As a parent out there that might be listening right now, what should they be looking to put their kids toward at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen to get them ready to hit junior because I know once you hit junior hockey, you’re seventeen, eighteen years old, you’re finally getting into that kind of stage where you are bulking up, you are bigger, but you’re playing against guys who are twenty, who are like fully grown, too. What should parents be doing to get their guys on the right track?
Maria: I mean, the best thing is to find a good strength and conditioning coach that has a proven track record. I think the job of a good strength and conditioning coach is to reduce the risk of injury, number one, and then to maximize performance. So don’t go for somebody who promises the world or ‘Oh yeah, I can add twenty pounds to your kid’. That’s just not going to happen. Ask them, do they follow a periodized program? You mentioned plyometrics, for example. Plyometrics are a great tool, but that’s something we do in about the third, fourth month of our off-season, it’s not where we start. There should be a step-wise progression and a trainer should be able to explain that to you.
If you don’t have access to a trainer, and there are some good websites over at Hockey Training Pro. I’ve got lots of videos up there, but really focus on using the proper technique, doing the right things, not just going to the gym and lifting weights on the machines and doing leg press and stuff that will make you tired but won’t help. Zero-in on the things that are really going to improve your strength and stability and then build from there in a step-wise progression. That’s a hard question to answer, but I hope that helps a little bit.
Nick: No, it makes sense. You want to get someone who’s qualified, who knows not only what they’re doing, what they’re teaching to a parent’s son, but also to someone who can help them do it properly, to get the right form and make sure that they don’t get injured and stuff like that, too. Because it becomes a thing, your son is an elite athlete, a top-level athlete, it’s not just like you’re going to the gym trying to keep in shape or work off some Christmas turkey. It’s a serious thing.
One trainer told me, I had a trainer who used to be a CFL [Canadian Football League] player and he told me, he said, ‘Your body is how you’re going to make your living. You have to treat it like it’s your most important thing’. I think that really resonated with me.
Maria, we talked about trainers and obviously you want to look for someone who’s reputable, talk to people, get one that’s good. Trainers sometimes cost money, they always cost money, what happens if a parent says, “Hey, maybe my kid will do CrossFit,” or a player out there sees something on TV like P90X, would you recommend something like that to help them out?
Maria: Not if they’re serious about being a hockey player, not if the purpose of their training is being a hockey player. For people maybe like my age, that that is their Olympics. Their Olympics is going and doing CrossFit or making it through the P90X program, that’s their challenge and that’s their Olympics and it’s nice and some people just love it and that’s great, too. But in terms of training for a sport, the program design and the step-wise progression that we talked about just isn’t there. CrossFit has a bit of a different program design philosophy, but for example, they might have high, high repetitions of Olympic-style lifting, cleans or snatches. Those really are a power development tool so it would almost be like a sprinter going out and doing marathon training, just because it’s hard. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean that it’s making you a better hockey player.
P90X has some intervals that will go on, explosive-type intervals that will go on for three minutes. After probably the twentieth second, you’re not explosive any more so you’re not building speed. You are working very, very hard, but you’re not building what you need to perform on the ice.
So yeah, I think for people who love them they’re great programs, but they’re definitely not the best way to maximize your performance on the ice, if that’s your goal.
Nick: Yeah, definitely. I think from my experience, having seen those programs, having roommates that do them, it’s more about the beach body kind of stuff and packaging something good than it is for an elite athlete.
You mentioned strength and power and those kind of things that come with the training, what is the number one thing that players need to focus on at that age where they are teenagers getting ready for junior?
Maria: I mean, the number one thing is learning the proper technique and laying the good foundation. Sometimes we’ll get an athlete come in who’s just out of high school or maybe has trained at another facility and their technique is very poor on exercise, say a front squat. Their technique is poor, and we educate them a little bit that they’re really putting a lot of stress and strain on their back and that that could lean to injury and their argument might be, ‘Well, it feels fine, I’ve never had a problem, it feels fine’. That can be the case for two years, three years, but then it’s a ticking time bomb. So the first thing is learning to do your techniques perfectly.
The second thing really is strength because strength feeds directly into power. Power is your rate of forced development.
If I don’t do anything to change how quickly I can fire a muscle, it’s actually a hard element to change, we can change it a little bit, but some of it also is hardwired into us. If I can’t change the rate that I produce the force at all, but I can change the amount of force that I produce, I’ll be faster on the ice. So that really is building up so that you can do some max strength training. Then we do work on teaching them to apply that force very, very quickly, but I think for that age group, we need to make them stronger.
Nick: Cool, that makes perfect sense. Let’s get into the fun part for me, Maria. It’s talking about goalies. Obviously you specialize in goalies, you’ve worked with big names, you work with a guy originally just to start with, Jeff Hackett. I’m sure you’ve worked with more guys since then. What is different for a goalie with training? I know from experience, a lot of times when you’re a little kid growing up you’re the goalie doing the same drills on the ice as the forwards and when it comes to off-ice training, sometimes trainers want to make goalies do the same stuff as the forwards and defensemen. What do you recommend for the goalies in the off season?
Maria: I get both side of the spectrum, some people say, ‘Well, they just need to do the same thing, it doesn’t matter, they just need to do the same thing’. Then some people who want something completely different, like somersaults and back flips and circus and tricks, they need to be better athletes, too. They need to be more mobile, more stable, stronger, more explosive, but they do have some special ingredients they need because their movement patterns are so different, so they need more hip internal rotation so that when they, for example, drop into a butterfly, that movement is coming from their hip. It’s not torquing through their knee. I see a lot of guys that get trouble with their menisci in their knees because they don’t have that hip mobility and they keep slamming down into the butterfly. Their agility patterns are a little bit different. They need a little bit more frontal plain agility than so much sagittal plane that a skater might need. The way we use read and react drills with their energy system is going to be a little big different so they get good at executing a pattern explosively but also processing information with their eyes and predicting how the play is going to develop.
Really, if I had to pick a percentage, I would say probably seventy to seventy-five per cent is going to be quite similar, but it’s that twenty-five to thirty per cent that’s their secret sauce that will make a big impact.
Nick: Yeah, absolutely. I love how you mention the agility drills and as far as stuff with hand/eye and all that, it goes beyond just lifting weight. I remember we used to do everything from, I used to train with a group of guys, some guys went on to NHL, some guys went on to college, all that kind of stuff, but we would do things like tracking drills to watch the puck come in and the balls and that and that goes way beyond just being able to be the best squatter at the squat rack, definitely a different kind of game.
You know, this has been a great talk, Maria. Is there anything else you want to add, you want to tell the guys as a parting word of wisdom, something for parents out there?
Maria: Yeah, I think the most important thing is being consistent. I’d rather have somebody do fifteen minutes of work five days a week than go out and do an hour-and-a-half twice a week, so working on something consistently. Then you have to want to do it yourself. Sometimes parents ask me about a program and often I’ll just refer them to one of my programs that’s a monthly program and it’s cheaper and say, ‘Give them this for a month’, and see if they actually will do it. You can have the very best program in the world, but if you don’t do it or you don’t do it the way it’s outlined, it’s not going to help whatsoever. At the age we’re talking about, that has to start coming from you, not from mom and dad. That’s what I see as the keys to success.
Nick: Yeah, absolutely. The training only becomes more important as you go along and everyone is so well trained nowadays in every area of the game. Maria, where can people go to get more information about your programs and about HockeyTrainingPro.com.
Maria: They can just head straight over to HockeyTrainingPro.com. There are articles and videos all for free, for skaters and goalies. There are some little programs that are put together. That’s the best resources where they can catch up with me.
Nick: Great. Thanks a lot for joining us today, Maria. I really appreciate it.
Maria: My pleasure. Thanks Nick. Talk to you soon.
If you are interested in seeing more about what Maria’s training programs, head over to her site, Hockey Training Pro.
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