An Interview with Fitness Coach Andy O’Brien

Andy O'Brien

I recently had the opportunity to interview Andy O’Brien. If by chance you haven’t heard of Andy before, he is quite prominent in the world of sports training (and hockey training, in particular).

Our interview covered a wide range of topics, from fitness, to nutrition, to his star client Sidney Crosby, and we even found the time to talk about Rocky IV.

Andy has been Sidney Crosby’s trainer for over 10 years. He spent five years with the Florida Panthers organization as their stretch & conditioning coach, and he is now the director of high performance training at the Edge School in Calgary.

In addition to his full-time job commitments, he has been running a summer training camp for NHL players since 2006. TSN paid a visit to his most recent camp, in Vail, Colorado. Several NHL players took part, including Crosby, Jason Spezza, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, and Sam Gagner. Gagner feels that training with O’Brien this summer has him in the best shape of his life.

Andy’s so knowledgeable on how the human bodywork. There was some different stuff … it wasn’t, like, ‘OK, squat as many times as you can.’ It’s proper form, and every guy is individualized. I need that. I’m excited to see how it works on the ice.”

Andy doesn’t limit himself to training hockey players, either. Some of his past and present clients include Alex Rodriguez, figure skater Patrick Chan, and Olympic swimmer Dana Torres. He got a chance to work with several top NHL prospects this past summer as well, including Nathan MacKinnon and Hunter Shinkaruk.

Andy first started working with Crosby when the NHL superstar was a 13-year-old phenom playing in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.

“He was a guy that identified early in his career that he wanted to work on speed and I had a bit of an identity as somebody who knew a lot about speed training, specifically for hockey players, and it ended up being a really good fit.”

Crosby and O’Brien have a series of workout videos on Youtube – I’d highly recommend checking them out – not only to get an idea of what Crosby does for his own training, but to learn some new exercises to incorporate into your hockey-specific routine. I really like that Andy stresses movement over muscle – unless you are training to be a body builder, training movement is so much more important. Having big and strong muscles is key, but they need to be able to work together to create efficient movement (be it skating, swinging a bat, or simply running down the street).

In addition to his role at the Edge School, Andy is also a consultant to Hockey Canada. His role in helping Crosby develop into the best hockey player on the planet has been a significant one, and that includes the extensive work he had to put in over the past few years to help Crosby recover from his concussion/neck injury.

Crosby’s injury forced Andy to learn as much as possible about concussions.

“I’ve had an opportunity to work with a lot of different experts, who’ve educated me. The one thing about concussions is that it’s not just a headache or a brain injury that goes away once it’s healed. It affects your balance. It affects your movement. It affects your timing, co-ordination and your understanding of where you are in space and time. Those are very important things for hockey players to succeed.”

I could go on and on with more information pertaining to Andy’s training background, but instead I’ll direct you to this interview he did with Health Zone. It covers a lot of his training philosophy, his own athletic background, and more.

On to our interview.

Angus: What does a typical summer of training hockey players look like for you? Where are you based out of in the summer months? Do you move around a lot, or do clients come to you?

O’Brien: I do a majority of my work out of three cities: Calgary, Toronto, and Halifax.  I also travel with Sidney when he needs to, and we spent some time in LA this past summer.  I use these cities to meet clients and write programs, and the players take their programs back with them to wherever they call home in the off season.

You trained Matt Duchene this summer. Coming off a disappointing season – were his summer goals any different than in the past?   

I think Matt’s main limiting factors this past season were injuries. He’s very explosive and to make the types of plays he makes he needs to be uninhibited physically.  Our number one goal was trying to build some functional stability and improve range of motion, to allow him to be more durable this upcoming year.  We also did quite a bit of work on nutrition and recovery which I believe believe plays an equally important role in that process.

The players who were in attendance at your camp in Vail, Colorado loved it. Tell me a little bit more about the camp – what was the purpose of it? Where did the idea come from?

It originated in 2006 with Ed Belfour and Martin Gelinas. They suggested to me it would be beneficial to “get away” for a week prior to training camp to prepare mentally and physically for the start of the season.  When a group of like-minded players get together in a destination like Vail, it allows for a level of intensity that surpasses most other environments.  I’ve always tried to run it as professional as possible, so the player only has to worry about training and competing on the ice, and everything else is looked after on their behalf.

I imagine you get a lot of questions regarding Crosby. His work ethic and skill level are of course unmatched. Is there one thing in particular about him that makes him stand out? I know you have mentioned his vision in previous interviews. 

Crosby and O’Brien celebrating the Stanley Cup victory in 2009.

His vision is very special, specifically his ability to track moving objects, but I think the characteristic that stands out the most is his lack of complacency.  In 12 year of working with him, he’s never missed a workout, and he’s never given anything less than his best effort.  He has a remarkable way of bringing his “A” game on a daily basis, which requires tremendous focus, determination, and mental toughness.  He’s extremely bright and very serious about his performance.  He’s also a fierce competitor, and takes advantage of his ability to intimidate his competition.

An example of Crosby’s incredible vision:

Nutrition is becoming a bigger part of the picture for pro athletes, just as it should be. What level of nutritional guidance and advice do you provide?  

There’s no question its a critical role. The first step is developing the discipline.  After that I believe it’s important for athletes to individualize their nutrition and supplementation strategies according to their personal needs.  here are vast differences in autonomic neural patterns, gut function, immunological status, training activities, and life stressors with each athlete.  The nutritional strategies should be designed to accommodate those factors.

I got to see Hunter Shinkaruk play a few weeks ago. His upside is obvious – a ton of skill, speed, and a real head for the game. Do you see any parallels between him and Sidney at all?  

Their bodies and skill sets are quite different, but Hunter’s has a similar type of determination.  You can see it in the way he tries to hang on the puck to make a play, and in his level of compete.  I think thats the area they would be most similar.  He also has a very inspiring love for the game and is a real student of the game, much like Sidney.

With so many amazing trainers in the hockey industry – what do you do differently?

It’s hard to speak for other trainers and what they do, but my area of concentration has been on understanding the movement variables related to performance, and how to manipulate physiological systems to enhance movement.  Traditionally, it is often assumed that if we increase power on a specific lift, or speed in a specific sprint test, that a generic capacity has been formed that applies to all movement, which is untrue.  Quite often, the physiology associated with movement in a team sport, which is a dynamic neurological environment, is vastly different from traditional training environments and the transferability is less than most people think.  I really enjoy the aspect of studying the sport and understanding the subtleties underlying performance.  I also am a firm believer in individualization.  My definition of a good strength coach is someone who can evaluate a variety of athletes, identify the differences between them and explain the variations required in their training.

How have you been able to be so successful with athletes across so many different sports? From Patrick Chan to Crosby, to Dara Torres, and so on.  

I really believe that every new athlete represents a new problem, and my job is to create a solution.  In order to be effective, you have to have good problem solving skills, deductive reasoning, and a wide knowledge base.  That’s the key to being versatile as a strength coach.  I often discourage young coaches from memorizing one system, or philosophy that applies to every scenario.  It is so important to learn how to think critically and creatively.

For weekend warriors who play beer league or rec hockey – what is the top piece of advice you would offer them to make their gym time efficient?

I usually find this demographic is made up of people who love to play sports but don’t necessarily enjoy working out.  My recommendation is to develop a really thorough warm up (like 30-45 minutes in length).  The warm up will increase the adaptive responses you get from playing the game, reduce injury, and if done properly, lead to some additional gains over time.

(Here is a very solid hockey-specific warm-up from Kevin Neeld).

What are some of the biggest changes that have gone on in the sports training industry over the past five years? Where do you see the industry going in the next five or 10 years?  

Some of the seemingly new concepts in recent years are actually older concepts that are resurfacing.  The Eastern European sport scientists of the early 80’s were extremely sophisticated.  I think the most significant changes are on the business side.  There is a huge market for strength and conditioning professionals now, and a lot of bright young coaches coming into the field.  In past years, athletes seemed to follow “Guru’s”, and I think in the future you will see more standardization of practice, sharing of information and validation of methodologies.  I also think there will be a lot of new education opportunities to accommodate young professionals, and education as a whole will be a bigger part of our industry.

Not a question, but I saw that you were first inspired to train through watching Rocky 4. Loved that – one of my favorite movies growing up (and still to this day).

Me too. Nothing gets me more jacked for a workout then the training montage from that movie.

That makes two of us. Thanks for the interview, Andy.