Last week, I was fortunate enough to get introduced to strength coach Mark Fitzgerald. Mark trains a host of young hockey players at his facility in Whitby ON, Elite Training Systems, and he's the head S&C coach for the Toronto Marlies (farm team for the Leafs). He's a young coach with a wealth of knowledge but realizes that there's always room to grow.
Let's hear what Mark has to say about working with young athletes, the evolution of S&C and more...
Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me Mark, really appreciate it. Can you start off by telling us a little bit about your background/position and your path into S&C?
After playing football in university, I made my way back to my hometown of Whitby, Ontario to look for work. I was disappointed to find that there were not a lot of jobs for strength coaches! I started supply teaching and coaching football, which lead to training players on the team. I continued to train more and more athletes, eventually taking on some hockey players. That led me to an introduction to Whitby native and NHL’er Adam Foote. He approached me to help run his facility and train him for his upcoming season, which opened the doors of opportunity within the Durham Region as his facility was ahead of its time. From that point it has been a bit of a blur! I began working with athletes from all sports, especially in hockey, and was fortunate enough to have a ton of help and support along the way from many different people who gave me opportunities in the hockey world. I began working with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology men’s and women’s hockey program as well as the Oshawa Generals (OHL). These experiences lead me to an opportunity with the Toronto Marlies (AHL) with whom I am currently in my fifth season.
Sounds like a fun journey! Seems like you've had the opportunity to meet a lot of coaches over the years. Personally, I’ve really been enjoying the work from some of the younger S&C coaches in the field, like Cal Dietz for example. Is there anyone that you look to for feedback?
There are so many great coaches out there now and its amazing to see what some of these guys are doing. Cal is a guy that I speak with as often as possible as he is way ahead of his time when it comes to long-term development and power/speed development . I also look to guys like Ben Prentiss who have been in the game for close to 20 years and have a ton of invaluable experience for any coach. I am a lifelong learner so really I look to learn from anyone I can, one of the reasons I love what I do.
When we first spoke you told me that your sport growing up was football but you mentioned that you work more with hockey players. What are some similarities and differences between these 2 sports in terms of program design?
The majority of athletes that I work with now are in hockey. I still see other sports such as football, lacrosse, soccer, and judo, however, hockey tends to dominate as my facility is located in a 6-pad arena. My new role with the OHL as the Training and Nutrition consultant also leads more young hockey players into our programs as well. As far as program design, I don’t see a ton of differences in what the athletes are doing in the gym. My programs are designed to enhance athletic ability. A better athlete means a better football or hockey player and I don’t think you have to complicate it. I consider myself and my staff ability builders; speed, strength, power, explosiveness, flexibility, and mobility are all attributes that we focus on improving. I also educate our athletes on the idea of progression. Proper training takes time and at ETS our athletes don’t progress unless they are able to hit certain criteria such as technique. When it comes to the actual programming there are some movements that would differ among the two sports but they would be minimal as I firmly believe in mastering the basics such as squatting, deadlifting, pushing, and pulling.
I agree with you 100% Mark. Now, considering there is a growing debate whether or not ‘lifting’ is healthy and appropriate for children, do you have your younger athletes squatting and performing Olympic lifts?
I do utilize Olympic lifts, however, like I mentioned above, it’s all about progression. The athletes at ETS do not just jump into power cleans and back squats, they learn the basics and are coached from day one on mastering those basics until they can graduate to the more complex and athletic movements. Healthy, injury-free athletes are the best kind, and that’s both mine and my coaches jobs at ETS to keep our athletes healthy so they can continue to build their abilities.
Ok so we know that each athlete adapts to stress differently, what are some methods that you see coaches using to determine if they’ll push an athlete or pull back?
I think one of the biggest keys to stress implementation is reading your athletes. This obviously comes with experience and being in the trenches and working with athletes every day and its crucial when it comes to getting the most out of your athletes. At ETS our athletes are monitored using the HRV system as well as more simple measures such as food journaling and tracking weight, reps, load, and overall volume or tonnage. However, at the end of the day I always greet my athletes as they walk through my doors as I find the visual assessment can tell you a lot about their last 24 hours. Complexion, body language and of course the eyes are great indicators or good or poor choices as it related to recovery.
How do you see the field of strength & conditioning evolving?
I see the field of strength and conditioning evolving when it comes to technology. I believe that technology will lead our field into the future. Testing, monitoring, rest and recovery strategies will help us continue to learn about how our training methods affect our athletes and how we can improve our methods. I believe that as a strength coach my job is to find the most efficient way to produce the results that are necessary to perform at the highest level and technology is the key to that efficiency. I am excited for our profession as there are some great minds currently working on innovative tools that will help with this step into the future, such as PUSH!!
Last question, I've been a Leafs fan since I can remember, do we have a chance to bring home the Cup this year?
We always have a chance! I am very fortunate to be a part of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for the last five years. It’s a company that is filled with passionate people who ultimately want to win. Its only a matter of time before the leafs bring the cup to this great city.