For the better part of four decades, Mike Boyle has been a pioneer in the field of strength and athletic performance training at the highest levels of hockey.
Over the years, of course, so many landscapes have changed drastically: participation and athlete commitment levels, personal training and skills coaching, the expenses, aspirational returns on the “investment” and parental involvement, just to name a few.
And we haven’t even mentioned how the games have changed.
Boyle is a professional with one of the most impressive client rosters you’ll ever see. As a trailblazer spending untold hours in the evolution of training — and even as a parent — he’s seen so much of what has come and gone.
“Initially, it was weight training,” said Boyle, who founded Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning in 1996. “Then, it was strength training. So, it went from the idea of just lifting weights to the idea that you’re supposed to lift them to get stronger. And then it went to strength and conditioning, because people started to realize that there’s more to it than just getting stronger. Now, probably within the last decade, it has become performance enhancement. People are starting to realize that there is a process here. And the idea is to get better at, in this case, hockey — not to just get bigger or not to just get stronger, but to improve performance.”
Still, that message hasn’t exactly been inculcated across all the demographics that make up the landscape of hockey.
“We definitely know more [now],” Boyle said. “I think in the beginning it was very well-intentioned. Now, I think it’s probably still well-intentioned but often badly implemented. I think, unfortunately, there are still a lot of people who want to help their kid, but they think they have some idea of how to do that — and one of the things I’ve realized is that there is a reason we go to a doctor and don’t diagnose ourselves, and there’s a reason we have a lawyer and don’t represent ourselves in court. It’s recognizing expertise.”
Boyle has served in strength and conditioning roles with Boston University for more than a decade, with the Bruins in the 1990s and with the Olympic U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey Team.
Though he has plenty of experience, he knows it can be tough for others to find guidance.
“I think it’s both a philosophy and the execution of the philosophy,” Boyle said. “There are a lot of people who are just doing it to get bigger or to get stronger — we’re still dealing with that. I liken it to a bell curve in that there’s 20 percent at either end of the curve, doing it right on one end and completely wrong on the other. And then 60 percent in the middle who are maybe muddling around in the dark.”
Parents may need, in some cases, a hand in coming out of the dark.
“I always say they’re going to party like it’s 1999, we’re going to lift weights like it’s 1999 … or 1979,” Boyle said of the throwback approach. “That’s how I started, in the basement with a set of weights, the Joe Weider set. And that was state of the art [then]. I think there are probably people still doing things like that.”
But where should parents have their kids focus? Lower body? Upper body? Core?
“It should be all of that,” Boyle said. “The difference is we still see people, and still get people talking about, ‘You don’t need to do lower-body work because you’re skating; you should be working on your wrists.’ There’s still a lot of old wives’ tales. We want to prioritize lower body, yes, but mainly because people don’t prioritize lower body. Most people, when they think of weight training, they think, ‘I’m going to make bigger what I can see in the mirror.’ I think there’s a lack of specificity.”
For Boyle, though, that doesn’t mean the specificity should be so narrow.
“I don’t think there is hockey specific strength and conditioning, but I do think there is good strength training and bad strength training,” he said. “Bad strength training is what we would have considered to be good strength training 20 years ago. So, what I was doing 20 or 30 years ago was really progressive in terms of having guys doing squats and cleans and things nobody else was doing with hockey players. That was really progressive [then]. Now, when I look at it and see someone doing that same thing, I think, ‘Wow, you are really behind.’ We almost never do conventional back squats anymore or power cleans from the floor. Things have become more targeted.”
Parents can learn from the lessons Boyle has picked up on over the years.
“We had a lot of guys with back pain, and [we were doing] a lot of back squats,” Boyle said of his earlier days. “And our emphasis was to get a strong lower body. At that time, that meant to squat as much weight as you possibly can. I think we realize now you want a really, really strong lower body, but we look at it as simplifying it. Squat as much weight on one leg as you possibly can for six to 10 reps.”
Specificity and targeting is less about the muscles, or even something like a more catch-all term of explosiveness.
“No, I think it’s that we’re trying for best practices,” Boyle said. “What is the current state of the art versus what was good maybe 20 or 30 years ago? We’ve maybe gotten away from ‘heavier is better.’ The biggest thing we’re looking for is that it needs to look good and it needs to look safe.”
That’s an eye test for parents.
“If you’re watching people in the weight room and you get the feeling that it doesn’t look right, that’s because it probably isn’t, more than likely,” Boyle said. “One of the things I say to people is to go and watch some workouts. If you’re watching athletes lifting weights and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want my child doing that,’ your intuition is probably correct.”
Boyle also understands from a parent perspective that he might have to put some of his own theories to work with his daughter and son. This includes avoiding over-training and avoiding over-playing.
Was it hard for Boyle to follow his own advice?
“Yes,” he said. “It was hard, but we did it. There were times where I did compromise. My daughter got to the highest level you can get to without being in the Olympics, but she didn’t play a summer hockey game until she was 13-years-old. Everybody said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re going to be left behind and everybody’s going to pass her by.’ We went to practice and we went to skill work, and even both U12 and U14 skills because she could play up, and she’d go and do both back-to-back, but no games. And she’d be almost in tears. I said, ‘You need the time off.’”
Playing more sports was encouraged, too.
“I literally made her play soccer,” Boyle said. “Then people say, ‘She’s so good with her feet,’ and I say, ‘Of course she is, because she played soccer.’ She was an exceptional athlete. She could get knocked down and tumble. Well, she was in gymnastics. A lot of these kids are lesser athletes and they kind of fell by the wayside.”
There’s also an underrated take from a parent with two very talented young athletes from the same house, including a son playing college lacrosse.
“Let kids be kids,” Boyle said. “I think part of the problem is that we’re professionalizing this at such an early age. There’s a massive human element with these kids that we miss. Whatever fraction of these kids are actually going to play in college, less than that are going to get money to play in college. The purpose of sports, hopefully, is for your kids to become better teammates, better functioning members of society, not to get a scholarship.”
When it comes to hockey, Boyle has trained some of the best over the years.
“For one stretch, we had the second-fastest guy in the NHL,” he said. “You know who the second-fastest was? Mike Sullivan. One year, we had Sully and Tony Amonte and Shawn McEachern, and all these guys who won their team competitions for fastest skater. We had Jack Eichel and Chris Kreider when they were probably middle school kids. On the women’s side, there was a day where I think we had five Patty Kazmaier winners at the same time. We’ve had Aerin Frankel and Megan Keller, Elizabeth Giguere, Alex Carpenter, Kali Flanagan and Kendall Coyne.”
Yes, those are some of the best skaters in the world.
In the process of players training for performance, the game has improved — along with the players’ focus on it.
“I think the game has changed for the good through training because you see the speed of the game,” Boyle said. “If you went back to watch a ‘70s Bruins game, it looks like a men’s league if you put it on TV.”
Looking ahead to the future, the best way to set a young player up for success from a physical standpoint, once they’re ready, may be through better training.
“I think what we’re looking for, if I were talking to people, is that we need to achieve the bare minimum — and that’s two full-body strength workouts per week,” Boyle said. “That’s the lowest conceivable bar and you need to figure out how to fit that into your schedule.”