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Power train

by Mark Witten

Andy O’Brien, BA’02, loves the challenge of training elite athletes from diverse sports and using a sport-specific approach to prevent injuries and boost their performance. As a premier strength and fitness coach, his high-profile clients have included NHL superstar Sidney Crosby, Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, Olympic gold medalist swimmer Dara Torres, Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington and world champion figure skater Patrick Chan.

“The best thing about my career development is that I’ve been able to work with athletes in multiple sports. Every time I had to work with an athlete from a diffe ent sport I had to study the sport and tailor my approach,” says O’Brien, who took on a new role in 2015 as Director of Sports Science and Performance for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team.

O’Brien first developed his sport-specific philosophy and aptitude for training athletes from a variety of sports in the gym and the library as a Western student. While studying psychology and kinesiology, he also trained regularly in the gym for the world junior power lifting championships, which he won in 2000.

“I started a performance lifting club and got involved with training athletes from different sports around the university including football, hockey, and track and field. I remember thinking of the university as this tremendous overall resource,” says O’Brien, who spent many hours in the library in those pre-Internet days reading books and articles on the science of high-performance sports training for athletes from the former East Germany and Soviet Union.

The PEI native came to Western after playing four years of Junior A hockey to get an education and chart a new career path. As a mature student in his early 20s, he soaked up science knowledge of how the body works from kin classes and of human behaviour in psychology classes as well. “In the summers, I went back to PEI and worked with local athletes there applying what I’d learned,” he says.

While teaching one summer at an elite hockey school in Summerside where he had trained himself, O’Brien met a young player who was said to be the best 13-year-old in the world. He and Sidney Crosby hit it off. Shortly after, O’Brien was hired to work with Crosby for six hours daily through the summer.

“I’ve always been interested in the development of an athlete’s speed and movement efficiency. This was a unique opportunity to begin my career and have a chance to spend a lot of high-quality time working with someone who was a gifted athlete,” says O’Brien, who continued one-on-one training stints with Crosby for the next five years.

A key to O’Brien’s approach was to work on movements that transfer directly to the ice. He knew that hockey skaters use different muscle groups in different ways than athletes in other sports. Rather than doing weight training that builds bulk, he worked with Crosby on strengthening lower stabilizing muscles like the gluteas medias and lateral hamstring that skaters use for balance and propulsion. He also used exercises developed for track athletes to analyze the mechanical correctness and efficiency of osby’s lower body movements, and worked on coordinating the angles of his hips, knees and ankles to engineer a smoother stride, with explosive acceleration.

O’Brien was fortunate that his first full-time client was highly motivated and open to new training methods that could help to maximize his development and performance as a hockey player. “Studying psychology at Western I learned how people are motivated and influenced in different ways and how complex human behaviour is. Some athletes like Sidney have this great appetite for learning and are very open, while others have more difficulty absorbing new information. I adapt my coaching style to their way of learning,” he says.

His intensive sessions with Crosby laid the groundwork for training other elite athletes, like Alex Rodriguez after he had hip surgery. “We worked on trying to change his body position when setting up for a swing so as not to create pain in the hip. Very few baseball players do rotation exercises and we did rotation exercises to work on his rotation power,” he explains.

O’Brien tailors his training approach to the specific sport and the particular athlete’s limitations to performance, which he identifies by watching video clips and the individual in action. He worked with twelve-time U.S. Olympic medalist Dara Torres, helping her to make a comeback at 41 and win three swimming medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. “I have no preconceived idea of what a particular athlete needs. I had to understand the limiting factor to Dara’s performance, which was pain in her shoulder while training. We worked on that with strength training, so she had less pain, more range of motion and could swim faster,” he says.

O’Brien also worked with Patrick Chan when he had a torn calf muscle in 2009. “We changed Patrick’s mechanics when jumping to put less pressure on the calf. He also had issues with his hip and lacked range of motion. We did strength training to create more mobility in his hip so he could jump better,” says O’Brien.

For Hayley Wickenheiser, former captain of the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team, O’Brien wrote training plans for an entire season. These were designed to help one of the world’s best female hockey players prolong her career by maintaining her competitive advantage in speed and endurance, and be more resistant to injury.

O’Brien now has the opportunity to share andapply his high-performance training knowledge and methods on a broader scale than one-on-one, as director of sports science and performance for the Penguins. Keeping a team rich with talent healthy is a priority, since Pittsburgh ranked third in the NHL in man-games lost to injury (320) last season and first (509) the previous season. He is responsible for training and preparing the players to maximize performance and minimize injuries, which includes educating them with the best information on training, nutrition and rehab.

“It’s a new kind of challenge that’s exciting for me. Because I’ve worked with 25 players around the league, I have credibility with the players,” says O’Brien, who hired his sports performance associate Alex Trinca as the Penguin’s strength and conditioning coach to help implement his philosophy and innovative methods with individual players.

Just as he pushes athletes hard to lift their performance, O’Brien benefits f om them driving him to perform.

“To be successful, you can’t hang your hat on your current knowledge base, you have to continue to expand on it,” he says.

This article appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Alumni Gazette
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