What I Learned From Devan McConnell

In June 2018 on a Saturday morning, I found myself at the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s annual Vermont State Clinic at the University of Vermont. 

I was especially excited for one of the morning’s speakers, Devan McConnell. Familiar with him through podcasts and websites like hockeystrengthandconditioning.com, I was drawn to his accumulated hockey wisdom, I remained captured by each moment of his admittedly scientific lecture about data science. His presentation lived up to my anticipations.

After the talk, I introduced myself.

I made a note of his book: Intent: A Practical Approach to Applied Sports Science For Athletic Development.

Me (left arrow) and Devan (right arrow) at the 2018 NSCA VT State Clinic

That fall, as I was thrust into leading the strength and conditioning of a team for the first time.

as strength coach of the Vermont Lumberjacks, Intent was there to support me. The book is about how Devan and his co-author, Justin Roethlingshoefer use data and sports science to help their teams, and how any coach can do the same. 

From the book, I implemented a daily subjective questionnaire with the Lumberjacks. The questionnaire gave us feedback from the players, and let our coaches and I know how guys felt. As the season persisted, it allowed me to go to Coach Mosso, our head coach, and tell him guys were fatigued, and needed a lighter practice. It also helped me identify, and then help, certain guys who were consistently struggling in areas like nutrition or sleep.

It was simple, but it made a big difference.

In one pre-practice meeting, as Coach Mosso and I were discussing the questionnaire, he inquired, “Have you thought about doing an internship with Devan?”.

It was a great idea. 

So, I emailed Devan and asked if I could be an intern. After some back and forth, it was a done deal.

As in other areas in my life, like talking to strangers in Barcelona, all I had to do was ask. 

When the calendar turned to July, I packed my belongings to move to Massachusetts for the summer. 

My first day, the excitement and nerves boiled up. I walked in to see Devan laughing and telling stories with his “pro group”—a workout group of former Umass Lowell players now playing professional hockey.

As I later saw from the team, Devan gets along well with everybody. And, as simple as it sounds, it’s a big part of why he’s a great coach. It’s why the pro guys train with him, because, on top of having an excellent workout program, they love being around him.

From Devan, I saw the impact of being a great listener, a great communicator, and a nice guy had on his athletes. They knew if they trusted him, the results would come. That’s a testament to his program, but more so it’s a testament to him as a person.

This affirmed what I’d learned earlier in my career. The technical and scientific aspects of coaching are the easy part. Figuring out sets, reps, and methods are all important, but coaching is an interpersonal discipline—

It’s about relationships

It doesn’t matter how good my program is if you hate me and don’t want to do it.

After the first session, Devan addressed the team. “This is not my team, this is not [the head coach] Norm’s team. This is your team. It is up to you guys to figure out why you do this. What’s our why as a team?”

It’s easy for a coach to lecture about their reasons and motivations. But it’s much more powerful for a team to identify these purposes for themselves. We all respond better to our own incentives, and Devan recognized this and gave them the freedom to decide.

As the days went by, I realized his questioning of “why” is habitual.

Often when I would ask something, he would flip the question. “David, why do you think we do it that way?” 

Starting with why is how he leads. 

He recognizes the fundamental reality of human nature that without incentive to do something, we’re much less likely to do it. Explaining the why, and helping the players understand, provides the incentive they need to execute. 

In his book, Devan talks about how he uses data to quantify what they do in the weight room. 

We tracked sprint times, vertical jumps, heart rate, and even the speed of the bar on main lifts. 

As the maxim goes, what gets measured gets managed.

After sessions, we would go through the data, and see how it fits into everything else. We saw based on the heart rate data what their overall workload was, and how it compared to other days. 

During the season, this data helps the entire coaching staff decide how hard to make practices and training sessions, keeping them aware of the team’s overall workload. 

Jump and sprint data helps us look at each individual, quantify their growth over time, and identify their strengths and weaknesses. 

But, the biggest magic in tracking data is how it motivates athletes, one set at a time. 

In week 4, we were doing our vertical jumps on the jump mats—what we use to assess jump height. Each athlete was trying desperately to jump higher, to surpass their previous personal best, or compete with a teammate just slightly above them.

Just seeing the data makes athletes work harder. For exercises like jumps and sprints, maximizing effort is the only way to improve the explosive capacities they require, and tracking their scores assures that.

But, as valuable as the data is, Devan knows it’s about blending it with human intuition.

It was only the second week, stress and soreness levels were high, but as expected. Guys were banged up, especially the freshmen, none of whom had ever trained this hard before. Devan decided to cancel the conditioning planned for the end of the workout. 

Here, I witnessed the integration of the art and science of coaching. The data was telling us the guys were tired, but not overly tired. Yet, Devan saw the morale of the team, the aches here and there, that needed the shortened workout more than they needed the conditioning session. 

There’s no question it was the right decision.

This week I’m wrapping up my internship, and Devan is wrapping up his impressive tenure at Umass Lowell. 

He recently accepted an offer to be the Director of Performance Science and Reconditioning with the New Jersey Devils. He’s going to take all he’s learned and apply it to the highest level of hockey, the National Hockey League. 

I can’t express my gratitude enough to Devan and the rest of the Umass Lowell hockey program for allowing me to come learn. 

I’ll miss the guys, but I’m excited to see what they accomplish. There are lots of bright futures in that room, and hopefully a Hockey East championship or two.

To go from a high school kid who just loved training, to learning from an NHL coach in just two years is something I can hardly believe. 

It has been an amazing summer.

Up next: New York City.

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