You Can’t Fake Strong!

Published On: October 30, 2020Categories: Interviews
38 year veteran S&C Coach Peter Renzetti chatting to the players

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How appropriate that I took the time to write this article over the Thanksgiving weekend. As I reflect on some of the questions before me it is a perfect time for me to be so grateful as I look back on 38 years as a strength & conditioning coach. I can proudly look back as somewhat of a OG in the field and more importantly I am awed and grateful for the many mentors I have had and continue to have on this incredible ride.  

Truthfully I would say that my career really began when I was about 3 or 4 years old. You see my dad, an ex-athlete and Phys. Ed teacher was always playing with us and encouraging us to try new physical challenges. And it is important to note that he didn’t do this to make us better athletes or to prepare us (my brothers, sisters and I) for a career in the NHL, rather he did all this because he knew that it was healthy and most of all it was FUN FUN FUN till your daddy takes your T-bird away (check out the Beach Boys for the reference!). He was the unwitting pioneer of trashing our posterior chains – I dare you to find a better PC developer than hanging upside down from bent knees on the monkey bars. Pull ups? No problem – we could bang those out in our sleep. And muscle ups? Please …. Don’t bore me! Run, skip, jump, pull, push, throw, kick, catch, skip and giggle all day every day. I remember the neighbours looking at us like we had 3 heads when we’d go “jogging” through the hood. This was almost unheard of back in the 60’s.  

This is probably where Renzo’s Rules of strength coaching began. Rule #1 – be authentic and Rule #2 – you can’t give what you don’t own. You see my dad never asked us to do something that he couldn’t do and model for us. He lived and breathed it all. So, in my opinion you have to have been pinned under a 150 kg clean in order to be able to teach it to your athletes. You need to know what it tastes like, smells like, feels like and what it looks like when it leaves your body. Own it before you pass it on.  

Then when I was 12 I asked my dad for some weights. Without being a scientist, he knew (even going back to when we were doing all that resistance training as kids), that it was complete bullshit and utterly non-sensical about weight training stunting your growth. And so he cobbled together some adjustable DBs and a couple of welded BBs and away I went. He wasn’t really an expert on lifting at all but was really good at the basics. However, I already had the bug. Armed with a few copies of some of Joe Weider’s magazines like Muscle & Fitness, Muscular Development, Muscle Builder or Muscle & Power maybe??, and a book produced by Sports Illustrated on Body Building and with visions of legendary strongmen like Arthur Saxon, Louis Cyr, and Reg Park and then the new wave of stars like Franco Columbu, Serge Nubret, Frank Zane, Mike Mentzer and of course Arnold and Lou, I jumped off the cliff never to look back.  

Not long after I began voraciously reading everything I could get (mostly magazines) and training with the cobwebs and spiders in the basement and in the garage. I started training with some buddies. We got them all set up in their garage – their dad worked at the old Firestone truck tire plant and so he’d bring home the old cast iron brake drums that we would use as plates.  

Then I started training friends and at first helping my younger brother who I would later run a business with for years. Probably one of the smartest strength coaches I know.  

Lastly, 38+ years and still counting is a long time in any profession. I began when there really weren’t many S&C coaches out there in North America. The NSCA was just starting and most of the best sport strength coaches were behind the iron curtain. My brother John and I had started running the pro hockey program at the Olympic High Performance Centre within the Fitness Institute. That led to our first trip to the show with the Detroit Red Wings when there were no strength coaches in the NHL and so we began as consultants only. Eventually and several years later that morphed into me becoming the first S&C coach for the Wings. In addition to 3 tours in the NHL, I was also the first S&C coach for the Canadian Bobsled team and I’ve worked with countless Olympians and medallists from several disciplines including figure skating, track and field, downhill skiing, luge, wrestling, rugby, rowing, and synchronized swimming, but the vast majority of my career has been working with professional and more recently, OHL hockey players.  

In addition, I have been blessed to have been mentored by many many greats including Charlie Francis, Louie Simmons, and several Russian, East German and Bulgarian speed and strength coaches with names like Vitali, Vladimir, Dieter, and Slava. Often the language was an issue but their message was always clear.  

And so all of this I believe at least entitles me to have opinions. I will share some of these with you in this interview but I know that it is possible that you will not agree or like any or all of it. Please know that these are honest and sincere offerings so it’s ok to hate the message but please don’t hate the messenger.  

CSCA: How did you get your first job as an S&C coach?  

Jump to 1982. I had just finished my second year in Phys Ed at U of T and I desperately wanted to get working as a strength coach. And so on a whim I went and applied at an elite private club called the Fitness Institute. It was the first of its kind in Canada. Combining a newly created executive fitness stress testing and fitness training program and elite high performance training it was led by the late Lloyd Percival. A bachelors degree was the minimum entry level standard at the time with most coaches there having their masters degrees and some either working on or already having completed their PhD programs. Long story short, with great timing, a little luck, and a lot of bravado I managed to get hired. What a Godsend – there I met some of my earliest and greatest mentors, Beau Kent, Rick Pardo, Tanya Parsley, Steve Hartley, Wayne Shepherd and Dr. Frank Berka. All of these folks were way smarter than me, incredibly selfless and supportive great leaders in their own fields.  

At the same time I was still in training myself as a high performance athlete. I was jacked and I could lift a house. A group of guys in the gym noticed what I was doing and asked for some help. Turns out they were part of the Canadian Bobsled team. At that time, the funding was almost zero and so after training them for free I was offered a small honorarium and expenses to become the strength and sprint coach for the National team.  

The strength part I figured I had covered but the sprint coaching, I knew I needed help. I can’t remember who set it up for me but Charlie Francis offered to teach me everything he could get through this rock head of mine. What an opportunity. There is no question that Charlie was and probably still is the greatest sprint coach of all time. I got to stand trackside and watch him develop Ben Johnson, Angela Taylor-Isssajenko, Desai Williams, Molly Killingbeck, Tony Sharpe etc etc etc. This was as good as it gets.  

More than learning how to be a sprint coach I learned how modest, humble and sincere Charlie was to share his vast knowledge with me and he never asked me for anything in return.  

In a similar fashion, while travelling on the World Cup Circuit with the sled team, I was so blessed to be able to learn Olympic lifting and strength techniques from some of the best Eastern Europeans who were equally selfless and generous with general training info. Obviously any sled technology or technical info (including “Russian vitamins”) were like state secrets at the time but nonetheless what an education I received.  

Renzo’s Rules #3 – “you can’t live a perfect day without doing something for somebody who can never repay you” …… John Wooden.  

Renzo’s Rules #4 – Don’t just talk about it, BE about it! Take action.  

CSCA: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your role in pro sports?  

In my opinion, at least in the NHL, the strength coach is the bottom of the food chain. I always tried to create an environment where basically I was the team hair dresser. The players needed to have a safe place to land every day and a place where they knew it was safe to “park their shit”.  

In my opinion, building relationships and counselling/mentoring are way more important than your exercise selection on any given day. It’s learning to deal with the athlete as a human first that leads to establishing the deep level of trust that then leads to being a truly effective performance coach.  

My first trip to the NHL was with my brother John. This was at a time where I believe there was only 1 team with a strength coach. At that time, the athletic therapist served as both the trainer and the strength coach. This was really an impossible job because even if they were any good and knowledgeable about S&C, (and most were the Canada’s Food Guide equivalent as strength coaches) the trainer’s room is always full and so its impossible to be 2 places at once. Thus the workouts were written on the board for the players to follow.  

Be that as it may, we faced tremendous push back from the AT’s when we first arrived because I think they felt like their turf was being invaded and also at that time the AT’s thought that all S&C guys are just Ronnie Coleman wannabe rockheads! Similarly getting the doctors on board was even more challenging. They really didn’t understand strength training at all and frankly they were scared of it. Their answer to everything was, no deadlifts and just do “physio”. I remember one of the team Docs insisting that one of our players could only do push ups but not bench, DBs or even cable pushes?? The doctor and the therapist would say, “Renzo, when does a player ever need to lie and his back on the ice and push?” Well let me tell you, this guy’s main job was to stand in front of the net and push all the big gorilla’s out of the way so that the goalie could see the puck. No pressing strength required in hockey? C’mon now!  

Since it was so new to everybody, having to carve out a role with the team and having to earn the respect of the entire staff, let alone the players, (most of whom didn’t really want to start to train in season), was a really tough task. Again, it was all about building bridges and building relationships.  

Eventually the rest of the league got on board but the Wings were the last to make a full-time commitment to S&C as we just continued to win. When the trophy case was filling up, in spite of the players’ and eventually the coach’s requests, it didn’t seem necessary to management, and ownership to add more full-time staff. And so once the position eventually went full-time I had to once again go through a lot of growing pains. Through it all the players were very supportive and they were absolute work horses.  

The Stanley Cup is arguably the hardest trophy to win in all of pro sports. It really is a war of attrition and so the teams who are banged up the least and/or who have the most warriors who can play being held together with duct tape, a paper clip and a piece of gum, are ultimately the ones who prevail.  

And so creating a culture of savagery with a relentless pursuit of excellence at all costs is absolutely necessary. This is where I have a really hard time with the modern day spoiled, entitled kids/athletes and the “sports scientists” who are ruining the game. Morning wellness questionnaires on an iPad and load management (which as it is applied means days off) is absolute garbage in a league where your rosters are limited, there is a salary cap and where you play on average 4 games a week and then playoffs are every other day for 2 months. What the hell can some lab coat who uses studies from soccer and cricket, offer a guy who’s in a scoring slump, whose job is on the line, who has to travel 2 time zones and play 3 games in four nights all with a torn labrum in his hip?  

I’m sorry but I just don’t see what gosh-darned difference his FMS score matters here. First the player doesn’t want to come out of the lineup so often they hide their injuries.  Especially the fringe guys who fear that they will lose their jobs. And what difference does it make if a guy’s left glute is shut down when he has new twins at home, he just got put on waivers and he can’t shut it down after games without Ambien?  

At least in hockey first and foremost we need to create absolute savages. Sometimes your training needs to be hard just for the sake of being hard. If you want your athletes to be able to go to places where they have never been then you’d better take their bodies and minds to places where they have never been. We need to teach them to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  

A navy seal was asked, why do you train in such extreme conditions? He replied, “Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, rather you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” I’m not saying that sport science doesn’t have a role to play but the scientists belong in the lab. It should be the S&C coaches call to seek out info and decide where and when to implement all while being the team barber.  

“One has to be able to thread together scientific knowledge and sport technique while listening to one’s own feelings and the feelings for the particular athlete in question – it is at this point that coaching ceases to be scientific and becomes an art.” …….. Charlie Francis  

In addition, the pro game is all about wins and losses. When you’re winning, everything is easy. The water tastes better, the strength coach is a genius etc etc. But when you’re losing, watch out! That’s when the vultures start circling. Salesmen, therapists and practitioners of all sorts come out of the woodwork looking for an opportunity. They all figure that pro sports teams have no budgets and a bottomless pit of money to throw around. They will try to get anybody’s ear that they can. Sometimes they get to a player and convince them that the team’s medical staff is useless and can they try to get them hired. Sometimes it’s an air salesman who comes in to cure your loses with surgical grade air, etc. At the very least it is your job to stay on top of the latest supplements, treatments, training techniques so that you can have an intelligent discussion with your players, coaches, medical staff or your GM when these vultures show up.  

And remember, it all starts from your relationships with your entire staff, players included to be able to weather the inevitable storms that will come.  

The 5 – 10 – 5 Rule 

 I would also say that there is a big difference between what you do in your summer off season training vs. working with a team. In the summer, players from all over come to me by their choice. They implicitly trust that whatever I ask them to do is going to help them get to another level.  

However, on a team, the players didn’t choose to come to you. You just came with the team. It has been my observation over the years that on every team you have 5 guys who are all in no matter what. They are the first ones in everyday and just say “what we got today coach?” and then they just go ahead and kill it. Then you have 10 guys in the middle who are mostly in. They know they need to do your workout but if given the choice they could easily go play Xbox. They might ask one of their buddies if they’re going to do it and then they both come in. And finally, you have 5 guys who absolutely hate the gym. They will do anything and everything to get out of the workout and they are just flat out a pain in the ass.  

When I was younger, I thought that I could save the whole world and so I’d spend an inordinate amount of time on trying to get the bottom 5 into the top 5. Let me save you a lot of time and effort and tell you to just forget it. Spend your time with the gym rats, the top 5 who are all in and then spend some time on the middle 10. Over time the top 5 will pull a few of the 10 in with them and maybe you’ll get the bottom 5 into the middle 10, but those guys will never be your stars. A train will always have a caboose!  

With the Red Wings this was a formula that worked really well. Our best players and our team leaders were our hardest workers and so everybody else just fell in to line. This was the culture that was built over a long period of time and the results are unquestioned.  

CSCA: What are the 1-2 more meaningful successes you have experienced as an S&C coach?  

Obviously working with so many hall of famers, Stanley Cup champions, and World and Olympic medalists is very humbling and a real blessing. But I would say that truthfully the fact that for so many years having the opportunity to impact the lives of athletes has been amazing. At the end of the day, it is way more important to me that whenever my time with an athlete is done that they will go out in to the world and make it a better place. It’s the long-term relationships that to me are the most meaningful.  

Also, I would say that the during the 2012-13 NHL season we started the year with a long work stoppage. During that time, I went down to our AHL affiliate and implemented a full-time S&C program with our team. We had a very young team full of some of our top prospects obviously and I am most proud of the work and contributions I was able to make there on the way to our franchise’s first Calder Cup.  

CSCA: What advice can you share with less experienced S&C coaches?  

Here are a few random thoughts in no specific order:  

1. Are you a gym rat or a scientist? Know your strengths and be authentic. I am bored to tears with, and I absolutely suck at testing, measurement and data entry so I leave that to the scientists. However, I am all about results and the real-world application of useful info. So that’s where I live – in the gym. I leave the lab rats in the lab.  

2. Are you a gym rat or a businessman/woman? I absolutely suck at business. I am a gym rat plain and simple. 38 years I have no business card, no website, and no advertising. If you want to get rich, don’t ask me because I can’t help you. I don’t charge what my resume is worth and I often take in kids who need me but who can’t afford me so I put them “on scholarship”. Consequently, I’ll be working till somebody decides to punch my ticket and puts me in a hole in the ground but this is what drives me. In fact, I call my truck Rocky – it’s got 460,000 km on it and it just won’t go down!! Strength coaches are very, very important in an athlete’s success, there’s no doubt about it but we aren’t splitting atoms people. I have no time for the “self-absorbed gurus” out there who charge a fortune for training. C’mon man.  

3. Of all the bio-motor abilities STRENGTH is king. Renzo’s Rules #5 – You can’t fake strong! If your athlete needs to be faster, get stronger. If she needs to have more endurance get stronger. If she needs to more explosive get stronger. Get it?  

4. If you don’t like your client list then look in the mirror! Like attracts like in this business. “Stand for something or fall for everything” ….(anon.)  

5. Ego is the Enemy! (great book by Ryan Holiday btw). So many of my colleagues and I have these great collaborative relationships where we are constantly sharing books, training tips, recipes etc. Stay humble, keep learning and share what you know. We’ve all learned from somewhere and from someone.  

6. Renzo’s Rules #6 – There’s no school like the old school. Again, our number one task is to build warriors. Sometimes you throw science out the window and just need to challenge your athletes. Sometimes make things hard just for the sake of being hard. I’d take Rocky over Ivan Drago any day of the week. Also, old coaches have lots of wisdom and experience. You can learn something from everybody. Keep your ears and eyes open and don’t be afraid to ask.  

7. “Don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education.” …….. Mark Twain  

8. Be a Swiss Army Knife!  A big part of “old school“  means all hands on deck. I used to do laundry, fold towels, hang gear, wash and re-load the hot/cold tubs, take players shopping, I’d go to their houses and teach them how to cook, I’d babysit players’ kids in our room, among other things.  No matter what team you are part of make sure you are the glue guy/girl. 

9. It’s a great life. Be authentic, treat people right, know what you want, be all in and go get it!

“From what we get we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life” …. Arthur Ashe  

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!’ “ …… Hunter S Thompson

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview.  Hopefully there is at least one take-away for you, however if I have wasted your time let me first apologize and then please let me offer you one last bonus in the form of a couple of my favorite reads.  If you didn’t like what I had to say then hopefully you will find at least one or two kernels of wisdom from some of these brilliant minds.

 God Bless, Renzo

Peter Renzetti is a Canadian S&C coach working and living in the Toronto area. He also spent time as a high school teacher (like his father and his brother) in the public school system. He has a wealth of experience not only working with professional athletes, but also has experience working with National and Olympic team athletes.

Some suggested readings:

1) The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh  (He is the OG when it comes to mindfulness so go right to the source).

2) Nutrition & Physical Degeneration by Weston A Price.

3) Wherever you go, There you are by Jon Kabat-Zinn (one of my best mentors).

4)  Legacy by James Kerr.

5) Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.

6) Start with Why by Simon Sinek.

7) The Essential Wooden by John Wooden and Steve Jamison.

8) Coach Wooden by Pat Williams (really any book about/by the man they called “Coach” is awesome).

9) The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh with Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh.

10) The Creative Brain by Ned Herrmann.

11) Tools of the Titans by Tim Ferris.

12) Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday (Also get Ego is the Enemy and the Obstacle is the Way by the same author).

13) Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.

14) Supertraining by Juri Verkhoshansky and Mel Siff.

15) Anything by Louie Simmons (the real strength Rainman! And one of the most generous and passionate  men I have come to know).

16)  Make Your Bed by William H McCraven.

17) Fearless by Eric Blehm (make sure you are in a private room with a Costco sized box of Kleenex).

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