Choosing an Off-Ice/Strength & Conditioning Coach


With the abundance of Strength & Conditioning coaches and fitness professionals in the industry today, it can be challenging for hockey players or parents to choose the best coach for their son or daughter.

While most towns/cities have a handful of options of seemingly qualified coaches, it’s important to note that much like hockey – there’s a wide range of quality players in the industry. This creates the question: “What is a Good Strength Coach?”

Hopefully this article creates some context and perspective for parents and athletes to decide whether a coach is right for them and assessing

A few disclaimers before we jump in:

  • I’m a Strength Coach myself. That likely comes with some bias, but these are basic guidelines for how I would judge what would be considered a “quality Strength Coach.” Furthermore, this article is semi-selfish, as it lets me to articulate to my own future coaches/interns what I want athletes to expect of them.
  • The term “Strength Coach” is used through this article and it really denotes a variety of different titles including: fitness trainer, physical preparation coach, performance enhancement specialist, and wide variety of terms. This is mainly for ease, but it’s worth knowing that most of these titles most of these titles are self-created.


1) Education, Certifications, and Knowledge:

Educational requirements for Strength & Conditioning Coaches is often a contested issue, but I feel it’s a fair place to start in assessing a Strength Coach.

Like any profession, a university degree doesn’t prepare someone to a master of their craft. Despite this, I don’t think there is a Strength Coach at the University/Professional/Elite Facility level that doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree in a related field. Having a degree in Exercise Science or Kinesiology creates a strong theoretical understanding, while also giving students a wide range of knowledge in assessment, anatomy, physiology, coaching, and a variety of other topics through academic and practical courses. Much like you’d prefer a financial consultant to have a commerce or economics degree, a kinesiology degree is specifically designed to create competency in the health and performance fields.

Saying this, there’s many well-respected coaches who have degrees in related fields (ie. health, biology, etc) which they’ve then built on with advance degrees, courses, or internship – all valuable experience that shouldn’t be discounted.

Continuing education is a telltale sign that a Coach is serious about advancing their craft and delivering the best possible service to an athlete.

When it comes to certifications, there’s a wide range from weekend personal training courses to advanced coursework/practical certifications. The gold standard is really the NSCA’s Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (or CSCS), which requires a bachelor’s degree and an in-depth exam on Strength & Conditioning. This is a pre-requisite for nearly every Strength Coach job at the university or professional level, along with all the top facilities.

Education isn’t the only facet of being a Strength & Conditioning Coach but is certainly a valuable piece of the puzzle worth considering.

How to Find: Typically, Coaches will list their qualifications on their website.


2) The Coach Walks the Walk:

Most Strength Coaches are former high-level athlete’s themselves, and this experience (even if it was decades ago) allows for them to understand the demands of being an athlete and their physical needs of their sport.  While past athletic experience is invaluable, a good Strength Coach should still practice what they preach in some form.

I’m not suggesting a Strength Coach should be faster or stronger than their 20-year-old elite athlete (nor should they be!), but they should have their own current workout practice.

There’s a ton of value in going through the process yourself, and I think a Strength Coach’s active training practice translates into two clear benefits for athletes:

  1. Training Optimization – the best Coaches I know are constantly tinkering and trying new things in their own training to find better ways to do things. Before they give something new to their athletes, they want to work through it themselves to understand what it feels like, the response it elicits, and how to best use it.
  2. Coach-Athlete Relationship: As an athlete, I struggled to relate to the fat/weak Strength Coach. This might be an unpopular opinion today, but I feel that Strength Coaches (regardless of age) should have the training knowledge to maintain their own physical capacity. Many of the top Strength Coaches (Eric Cressey who still Deadlifts 600+ lbs comes to mind first) have kept Strength a priority. I find it creates buy-in and respect when from athletes to see their coach practicing what they preach.

How to Find: Just ask. A Strength Coach that has an active training practice will love to talk about what he’s trying these days. A Strength Coach that’s “too busy these days” might be a red flag.


3) The Coach Can Define What Believe In & Why.

If you don’t stand for anything, you’ll fall for anything”

This adage plays true in training, as a Coaches who don’t have a clear training philosophy often jump around looking for the “next best thing” often resulting in a variety of gimmicks or fads seen on Instagram.

A good Strength Coach should be able to articulate their first principles and the process they would go through to take an athlete from A to B (and why). Most high-quality Strength Coaches love to talk about process, so opening a conversation about how they would create the process to support your training goals should be welcomed before signing up or committing to working together. Good coaches are typically so thoughtful about the process that they could explain why each exercise selection is in your program, so asking for their thoughts on the process should be easy.

How to find: Before you commit to a Strength Coach you should try to have a conversation about how’d they train a hockey player and their training principles. A Coach that can articulate their process and beliefs is a good sign.


4)  The Program & Practice Isn’t Gimmicky

I was going to include this in the last point, but feel it deserves its own point.

Today with Instagram and social media, it’s easy to get swept up in the latest and greatest things that look cool and flashy. There’s 1000 training tools and gadgets and impressive looking exercises – but a lot less tried and true training practices.

One of the best examples of this is all the videos of athletes balancing on swiss-balls.  Last summer a clip quickly went viral of an NHL player jumping onto a Swissball and doing squats. Various News Outlets praised how intense and impressive his training was, but his Strength Coach (who trains dozens of pros) quickly jumped the conversation to say that he wasn’t happy his gym/training was showcased this way, and that this player had been goofing around after a training session. Good Strength & Conditioning doesn’t rely on gimmicky exercises or training tools.

This can be extended to technology. I love tech (in fact my company has it’s own training app) but a lot of latest technology is focusing on the micro instead of the macro. I find that a Strength Coach that relies to heavily on technology and is constantly in pursuit of the latest gadgets is typically compensating for some element of their coaching or process.  Technology can absolutely aid the training process, but a coach or gym who promotes that their main selling feature is the latest flashy training tool is likely focusing more on the sizzle than the steak.

How to find: Is a Coach’s main selling feature the training tools/tech they use? Does the Coach talk more about their equipment than their process? Do you see people in their gym or on their social media doing gimmicky exercises? Both are red flags.


5)  The Coach-Athlete Relationship

This is really the one that triumphs all the others.

This is a relationship that’s really unlike any other. A Strength Coach is someone who’s going to push you, support you, and invest in your goals alongside you. Having a Coach you want to join your journey is the ultimate determinant of whether or not you should work with them.

I know of a Strength Coach who I’d consider an industry leader. He leads a University S&C program, has a master’s degree and has contributed valuable research to the field. I’ve personally read his programs and they’re incredible. All of this goes to waste though because his athletes just don’t connect or like him so much that many athlete’s rather train at the local Goodlife on their own. What a waste.

Relationship is one of the most significant elements of finding the right Strength Coach. I strongly suggest athlete’s “tryout” a Coach to make sure they’re the right fit, and if it’s not – find someone who is.

How to find out: When an athlete wants to work with me, I always tell them – let’s just commit to a month. At that point, you can get rid of me (or I can get rid of you) if we’re not a right fit. I feel this is a fair process for all athletes, you should want to find someone who’s you want to build a relationship with that’ll truly support you in getting better.


In Conclusion:

Hopefully this creates some context for beginning to assess whether a Strength Coach is right for you. There’s absolutely no need to rush into a long commitment. It’s helpful to reach out to coaches that have a good reputation, ask other players who they work with and they would recommend, and message/chat with local coaches about their process. A good Coach wants to help you get better and will gladly talk training with you!


Kyle Kokotailo is the Founder & Director of Performance of Relentless Hockey, a company that specializes that Strength & Conditioning for hockey players. Located in Burlington, ON – Relentless Hockey trains top prospects and junior/university/pro players, along with delivering programs to plyers players internationally through the Relentless Hockey App.


Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

About Jamie McKinven

Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

View all posts by Jamie McKinven →

2 Comments on “Choosing an Off-Ice/Strength & Conditioning Coach”

  1. Hi Jamie,
    Thanks for the awesome post. It is always pleasure to read your posts. It is very detailed and educational.
    I always feel that you are on my side.
    Thanks a lot for spending time to educate people like myself,

  2. Jamie, Just came across this article and thought it showed some great insight. Sounds like you adapted very quickly. Loved your comment about the penalties and how quickly you both adapted and appreciated the benefits of not throwing your body at everybody.

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