Talking Training & Matt Duchene with Andy O’Brien

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Colorado Avalanche

Andy O’Brien is primarily known in the hockey world as Sidney Crosby’s trainer, as they have been working together for over a decade. O’Brien also trains a variety of other athletes, including Canadian figure skater Patrick Chan.

And last summer, he started to work with Colorado center Matt Duchene. Duchene was coming off of a poor season statistically, and he was looking to get back on track. That started with training and nutrition, as O’Brien basically rebuilt Duchene in a lot of ways.

Read on for an interesting interview.

Angus: Was it essentially starting from square one with Matt last summer? Obviously not slighting his previous trainers, of course. You mentioned when we talked last time a big thing with him was a few nagging injuries that had built up.  

O’Brien: Yeah that was a major focus.  He had sustained a couple of acute injuries last year and we could see a pretty clear change in his on-ice movements post injury.  We had to first establish a decent level of neuromuscular balance, re-train some basic movements to eliminate compensation, and then re-establish optimal playmaking habits on the ice.

His previous trainer, Lorie Kah, stayed involved actually and was a big help with Matt’s training in July when he was back in Haliburton.  Darryl Belfry, Matt’s on-ice coach, was instrumental in the process as well – but I give Matt a lot of credit for understanding what needed to happen conceptually and adopting those changes into his game, that’s not easy to do!

There isn’t much in depth in the mainstream media about Duchene’s training last summer, but some of what I have read mentions a focus on “core.” Expand a bit on that if you can.

I think the word core gets used in the media a lot because it’s easily recognized by readers, but a big part of enhancing Matt’s movements involved increasing functional range of motion at the hip.  In athletes with limitations in hip ROM, a majority of the compensation comes though the lumbar spine (low back).

We spent quite a bit of time developing stability through the lumbar spine, and learning to stabilize the spine during locomotion, which essentially forces extension of the hip and increased support from the gluteus maximus.  There’s so much more to it than simply doing glute activation exercises, it’s really about building detailed movement progressions with a lot of coaching.  From that perspective, you could say we emphasized those principles continually for several months.

Say you get a new client, like Matt. What is the very first thing you do? The FMS (functional movement screen) or a similar corrective exercise test? Do you have your own developed?  

I’m a big believer in doing a thorough needs analysis.  The first step for me is watching the player play, learn about their game and identify the kinematic variables relating to their play. Then I’ll talk with the athlete and ask their perspective on how they can improve, discuss their history and get a feel for their personality.

From there, my movement assessment involves clinical assessment identifying passive ROM, joint characteristics and antagonistic muscle relationships.  Then I do a 12 point screen of my own, similar to the FMS, but with a sport-specific theme.

Finally, I do a series of dynamic movements involving locomotion.  I truly believe in order to create change in a dynamic, locomotive environment, your analysis needs to incorporate information at that neurological level.  The movements used by classic screens tend to lack influence form the cerebellum and the vestibular system – which are particularly important when screening athletes.  This is why I added the locomotive component.

O’Brien (far right) with Crosby, Duchene, and several other NHLers

What were the biggest changes you made with him? Training related? Diet related? Both?  

We made A LOT of changes in both areas.  True sustainable improvement for any player requires change in a multitude of areas – training, nutrition, therapeutic, sport psychology, and so on.  It really boils down to understanding human behaviour, knowing the individual, and integrating physiological systems.

What is your level of interaction with him like during the season? I guess that question could be applied to all of your NHL guys. 

This one tends to vary from player to player.  Some players I talk with almost every day while others I might talk with once a month.  About half of my guys follow in-season programs of mine, while others have basic routines or work with their team strength coaches.  I watch a lot of video and I love breaking down player’s movements on the ice, so quite often I’ll provide feedback on what I’m seeing.

In many cases, players look for insight on how to adapt their warm ups and activation protocols at various points in their schedules – no shortage of scheduling challenges this year!

Did you do anything particularly different with him compared to your other clients?  

There are quite a few difference with every player actually.  I try to create programs that are suited to each athlete’s individual needs.

With Matt, one of his limiting factors was having too much vertical movement during accelerations, particularly during crossover accelerations.  We spent a lot of time teaching him to stay low and move laterally, and we limited the amount of vertical jumping movements in his training.

We also spent a lot of time on ankle dorsiflexion and maintaining centrifugal equilibrium during transitional movements.  It’s been cool comparing his video from this year to last year, the changes are very easy to see.

Look at Duchene’s impressive speed, agility, and ability to control his body in motion:

What is your level of nutritional/supplement guidance like with Matt?

I’ve been very involved with Matt’s nutrition and supplementation.  It was great training in Santa Monica where access to a healthy lifestyle couldn’t be easier.   

What supplements would you recommend for hockey players (assuming their diet is in order)? What is popular among the NHL guys?

Aside from the typical protein/carb combination post workout, I also recommend BCAA’s, Magnesium, L-Arginine, Beta Alanine, trace Minerals and a good fish oil.  Depending on the athlete’s needs, I also get a lot of use out of L-Tyrosine, L-Theanine, Acetyl L Carnitine, and Phosphatidylserine.  

Do you see personality similarities between the guys that really “get it” with training? Could be consistency, determination, that sort of thing.   

I definitely see similarities.  To sum up the qualities I see in successful players, I would have to say detail orientation, workethic, and the ability to differentiate quality vs. quantity.    

That last point is a really important one. Too many times athletes and regular folks training at the gym will worry more about quantity and simply “doing” the sets and reps instead of really focusing and maximizing the quality and impact of each repetition.

For all of Matt’s fans out there, one thing that makes him stand out for me is his intense love for the game of hockey and a true passion for playing the game.  He’s a very special player and I think his upside is much greater than many people realize.

Thanks for the interview, Andy.

Some more thoughts on Duchene (mine, not Andy’s):

Duchene is one of the most explosive players in hockey, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he struggled last season when he couldn’t move around the ice as well as he wanted to. He had only 14 goals and 28 points in 58 games last season, and he has already surpassed that point total in less than half of the total games (31 points in 27 games as of March 19th).

Andy won’t take all of the credit, but Duchene’s improvement speaks to his expertise as a trainer. Duchene looks phenomenal this season – he’s back to being his dynamic and creative self with the puck, and his game away from the puck as improved leaps and bounds, as well. It is only a matter of time until he flirts with the 40-goal mark.

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