Human Performance, Performance | Jul 27, 2020
Mike Potenza of the San Jose Sharks says that he attempts to paint a picture and build relationships with all of the team’s key stakeholders.

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By John Portch

The San Jose Sharks have not played a game since March 12 but the team’s commitment has not wavered.

Mike Potenza, the team’s Strength & Conditioning Coach for the past 14 years, has been harnessing the players’ desire for self-improvement since the NHL suspended play earlier in the year.

He says: “I told the players, ‘let’s not wait and put it off or take a long break. We don’t have to slam our foot on the training gas-pedal right now but we have to train with purpose, train intelligently and set a decent foundation for when we can go into open facilities and really start our summer program.’”

It is still early in Northern California when Potenza takes our Zoom call, but he quickly delves into the Sharks’ efforts to mitigate the NHL’s shutdown, from ensuring the players had access to gym equipment to providing each player with bespoke training programs. Relationships have been key, perhaps now more than ever. “I’ve always wanted players to know I am in the foxhole with them,” he clarifies. “If you’re all business all the time then they’re never going to buy into what you’re saying.”

Potenza has had steadfast backing from above. “For our organization it’s been a top to bottom approach,” he explains. “Our General Manager Doug Wilson, Head Coach Bob Boughner, and I have conveyed the message that we don’t want to lose any time. Our athletes are important and if they’re hurt and out of the lineup, they’re not going to be producing and they’re not going to be helping our team.”

As the Sharks’ S&C, Potenza’s work is based around efficient rehab and reducing injury risk, with player availability his most pressing concern, as well as enhancing physical performance out on the rink.

“I feel like our players are well-prepared, our rehabilitation is very detailed for guys who do get injured long-term,” he adds, while highlighting that S&C is just one of the departments that contributes to player availability.

Here, Potenza walks us through his time at the club and explains how he and his staff seek to provide coaches and players with the information to make informed decisions.

How have challenges in S&C evolved during your time with the Sharks?

MP: The challenges of the past were that we were under-staffed; we didn’t have enough coverage. You had one S&C coach per team, no assistants, and maybe an intern. Then we saw a great influx of teams knowing how valuable the strength coach is and knowing how much work they have on their plate and how many departments they have outreach to. Then we saw full-time minor league positions open up, we’ve seen full-time assistant positions open up in the national league, and now we’ve seen directors of performance positions – very few right now but they’re growing – and now we’ve seen sports science positions and analytics positions come into the fold as well.

Training programs were existent even 25 years ago but I don’t think the culture of the players knew how valuable it was at the time. Now it’s been so ingrained into the young athlete that are coming up, the development athlete that’s playing in the minors or playing at college or juniors, they just expect it; they know it’s part of the routine now. If you came into our weight room and spent a week you’d see, OK, this is a big part of the culture and the players are 100% bought in; this is part of hockey now.

Data must have had an impact?

MP: Absolutely. Another challenge is what can we do with all that we’re capturing; what’s the best picture that we can paint for managers and coaches? We have all these things we can test but if we test them and don’t intervene when it needs to be intervened upon, then the data becomes useless. We have 14 years of testing data, both in-season and offseason, on prospects, minor league players and seasoned NHL veterans; in fact, some of them are still playing well into their late 30’s and early 40’s. About five years ago, I had help in creating normative values for our team based on what we’d done over the years. Those set our benchmarks for how we’ve seen players matriculate and develop into an a ten+ year veteran player; maybe even come up from the minors and earn a steady job in the National League.

Are training programs the result of conversations with players?

MP: I’m always asking them how they feel physically, are they getting the response from training that they want and are there things about their game that we need to work on. We set our program up and we explain it to our players by saying: ‘this is what we feel is important in terms of injury prevention; this is what we feel from a performance standpoint needs to be included for our group to be strong, fast and powerful; and with our warm-up routine here’s why we need to do this every day. It’s tedious, I know, but at the same time it’s going to keep us ahead of any injury risk and potential.’

I tell them, if there’s things that you want to work on, if there’s things in the past that you’re confident in, let’s find a common ground and how we can mold it into the process. I don’t want to take away an athlete’s interest or excitement for something that they do in the gym. I want to value that. I want to harness that type of energy because then my job becomes easier. We as strength coaches need to find a way to get guys in the gym when we’ve had three games in four nights, we’ve been on the road for several days, their motivation level is low, or when we have a scheduled workout the next day after they arrived into a city on a late night flight the night prior. I bring them into the fold because I want to know what they are experiencing. They’re intelligent about their game at this level and I’m still trying to learn about the intricacies of the game and their professional perspective.

Your roster includes overseas players. Do you find they tend to have had different performance focuses prior to their arrival?

MP: They have a great foundation of training and education. They have good experiences for me to learn from. What’s new to them when they come in is how specific we want to get. We are very much a speed-power oriented training program and that’s the proverbial bucket that we have to fill for them.

The high levels of absolute strength, speed and power, they spend time doing that but not a lot, whereas we’re really tipping the scale to those three qualities because I believe that’s the foundation of what every hockey athlete needs.

Every shift in hockey is 35 to 45 seconds. I don’t believe that you should just train in that zone, that energy system, in that specific time frame.

You may be on the ice for that long each shift but, at the same time, that shift is made up of eight to 20 different sprints and accelerations and decelerations. So we really want to break it down and train the elements of that shift, not just a shift of continuous movement. Training continuously in that anaerobic endurance zone isn’t really true to the demands of ice-hockey shift length, not when you have eight to 20 sprints, accelerations, decelerations, puck battles; that’s a different type of training altogether.

How important is athlete education in S&C?

MP: I don’t try and over-educate or over-coach them on the science. Part of what I do want to come across with is teaching and coaching them why we’re going to use this terminology as opposed to other terms that they’re hearing on the internet; it’s really trying to filter that information for them.

I want them to know the “why” behind the program I’ve set up. I want them to understand energy systems and the physiology that goes into our preparation. If they do too much anaerobic then this is what we lose; we lose speed quality, we push fatigue through the roof, and then it’s taking our time away from maximizing power and performance related qualities.  I’m not saying the anaerobic energy system is not important! I’m saying it should be dosed systematically.

It’s funny you ask that, because what’s new now is that we’re trying to educate our coaches on energy systems as they relate to certain on-ice drills and how they can formulate practices similar to how we formulate workouts.

Do players approaching you offer their own back?

MP: They do and that speaks to the level of trust that we’ve built with them. I always tell them that I want to be a resource for them, someone who can sniff through all the BS out there in the training, supplementation and nutrition world and they can come to me with questions; that’s why I’m here. At least it shows they’re listening, whether they’re coming to test me or not I don’t know, but at least they’re listening!

Older players have trust in me to keep them playing the game they love.  I think they feel my program is going to help keep their engine running and provide them with physical durability. There’s young players that may be talented but they definitely need to commit more to the physical side of the game because they were talented and fit for the level that they came from but they’re not fit and strong enough for the NHL despite their talent.

What have been some of your biggest lessons at San Jose?

MP: I’ve been taking a really hard look at what the daily practice looks like on the ice and what qualities we could be performing infrequently. The next step is to have those hard conversations with the coaches and try to implement the schedule in a practice setting.  Keep in mind, you are also dealing with coaches who have been coaching for more than 20 years and maybe even 25 years and you’re asking them to step outside of their comfort zone into trying something new.  It’s hard to try something new when your ass is on the line for wins and losses. When you explain it the right way, find common ground, then you have that trust to work off of and you can see how effective it is when implemented.

I’ve learnt more about recovery and travel and how it relates to our team over the last five years.  I know it’s always been important, but now it’s a higher priority because we recognize that we are one of the most traveled sports teams in north America, we’re running the engines of these players hard and its critical that you put them back together for the next day.

There’s a nutritional side as well that we’ve done a deep dive into, looking at more specific load work and certain intervals of the season to see what we’re missing nutritionally.  I want to be able to top the athlete’s tank off and make sure it’s fueled properly from a supplementation standpoint.

Can you predict how S&C may continue to develop in hockey?

MP: As you look now, a lot of coaches are asking how can I do a deep dive into player performance profiling to see what they need specifically. We’ve gone from an era of jump testing and speed testing with lasers, but now we’re at a point with force plates where we’ve taken them out of the lab and now we can utilize them to measure athlete ground reaction forces and whether those forces are symmetrical or asymmetrical. There have also been some great technological advances with speed and power testing on-ice so we can view the skater very similar to a sprinter in track.

Planning is always critical, but taking a look at how often you skate, how hard you skate, what types of workloads are your players experiencing on the ice will dictate your recovery strategies and if you can keep these race cars durable and resilient throughout the season.

Looking for more performance insight?

Performance 21 is available for download now and leads with a selection of insights lifted from our At Home With Leaders podcast series, which has featured the likes of England Rugby’s Eddie Jones, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Mark Shapiro, and Chelsea’s Emma Hayes speaking directly from their home offices.

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