McMaster program aims to build super-athletes

McMaster University is offering high-performance training to local athletes ready to do what it takes to perform at the top level in their sport.

For a fee, participants get access to university's top trainers, high-tech assessment tools

A Grade 9 student at St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary in Hamilton, Hailey Brown trains at McMaster University in the hopes of eventually playing for the Canadian women's basketball team. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

Hailey Brown looks anything but out of place training in a weight room at McMaster University that’s reserved for varsity athletes.

Wearing a practical white t-shirt and red shorts, the basketball player with Olympic ambitions jolts a dumbbell over her head, her trainer coaxing her to squeeze out another rep.

“Not every day you’re in the mood to train,” she says before starting her routine. “But you have to work on your mindset and come prepared to do this.”

Brown’s steely determination, as well as her height, veil the fact she isn’t old enough to drive, let alone shoot hoops for the McMaster women’s side. A Grade 9 student at St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School, the Hamilton teen is working out as part of a new pay-to-play service at McMaster that offers sport-specific training to community members who yearn to transform into elite athletes.

For an entry-level fee of several hundred dollars per month, each participant in The Athlete's Edge is afforded access to the university's top trainers, physiotherapists and nutritionists, as well as high-tech tools to help the competitors track every step of their development.

Jeff Giles, McMaster’s outgoing director of athletics and recreation, says for years, McMaster has trained outside teams or individual high-school athletes on an ad hoc basis, but “we never had it focused."

The Athlete's Edge turns that ad hoc past practice into a formalized program. It helps the department in two key ways: retain high-level staff and bring in extra revenue. Giles said McMaster wants to see it expand and become a money-maker for the department.

He said he believes the program, targeted primarily at high-school athletes, is the first of its kind at a Canadian university.

Putting it all together

After debuting informally in January, The Athlete's Edge is set to ramp up in May and June, when most university students are away for the summer. 

“It allows us to attract really great trainers and good people and also have them employed year-round by working with the community,” said Giles, who is leaving Mac in June after almost five years in the post.

Jeff Giles, McMaster University's director of athletics and recreation, has announced he's stepping down from the post in June. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

The idea for the program, he said, came from the high-performance hockey clinics his son Scott, who played for a couple of seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, attended when he was younger.

“I used to send him to [Gary Roberts High Performance Centre in Toronto] in the summer for four months and would pay a lot of money for every day he would go.”

“And I came here and I said, ‘We have the same people here who can do the same things. Why can’t we attract young aspiring athletes who want to come and train and work out?’ 

“So we put it all together and said, ‘Wow, we have a lot to offer that the Gary Robertses of the world don’t have.’ ”

Athletes can sign up individually, but most enroll as part of a team. The cost for the program varies. However, Giles said a fee of about $500 per student would afford a team 90 minutes of after-school group training every weekday for a month. Grant money, he added, will be available to subsidize students from low-income families.

McMaster, which has a reputation for producing dominant football, basketball and volleyball squads, naturally attracts athletes looking to excel in those sports. Brown is no doubt looking to follow in the footsteps of Kia Nurse, a St. Thomas More alum who trained after-hours at the university. The 18-year-old is the youngest member of the Canadian women’s basketball team and now plays south of the border for the University of Connecticut Huskies, one of the most storied hoops programs in the NCAA. 

Although McMaster isn’t regarded as a hockey powerhouse, several Hamilton-area junior teams work out at the university during the off-season. In fact, the Canadian women's hockey team, fresh from their gold medal-winning performance at the Sochi Olympics, are scheduled for a training session at McMaster next month. 

“Hockey’s a big one,” said Giles. “It’s part of our culture.”

Training, testing, tracking

Though she’s only 14, Brown follows a training regimen mirroring that of a top university athlete. In addition to practising with her team, the Hamilton teen arrives at McMaster after school most weekdays to work on her strength and cardio conditioning.

Much of Brown's workout routine is dedicated to strengthening her upper body. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

On this day, a blustery afternoon in early March, Brown warms up inside the university’s David Braley Athletic Centre with a few stretches to loosen her arms and legs. She then moves on to exercises to boost her upper-body strength. One has her repeatedly throwing a medicine ball into a concrete wall. The next has Brown holding a dumbbell at her thigh and then hoisting over her head as quickly as she can.

“For me, especially with the position I play — post [or power forward] — we don’t have as much upper body strength, so it’s important to work on that when we’re in the gym,” she said.

The actual training is only one of a host of services that The Athlete’s Edge provides its participants. To measure how they’re progressing, athletes undergo a series of high-tech tests at the beginning, middle and end of their time in the program.

“We have the athletes come in and go through a battery of tests in order for us to get a better baseline of how they can improve,” said Steve Lidstone, the university’s strength and conditioning coordinator and a longtime trainer for Canada’s women’s hockey team.

Sgt. Zachary Stotz sits in a machine called the "Bod Pod," which uses air displacement to measure body mass index, in Fort Campbell, Ky., on May 15, 2007. McMaster University uses the device to help track its athletes' progress. (AP Photo/Jeff Adkins)

One diagnostic involves students climbing into a "Bod Pod," a space-capsule-like chamber that analyzes a person’s physical makeup.

“We get a chance to measure their body composition,” Lidstone said. “So as we train them, we can revisit these tests to see if they’re improving in lean muscle mass.”

The contraption is especially helpful for determining whether a younger teen is physically developed enough to lift weights without harming her growth, he said.  

“You can take two 14-year-olds — one has hit their peak height and one is about a year away from it. Developmentally, they’re in two different ballgames.” 

Working with teens

Working with high-school students presents special obstacles for Athlete’s Edge personnel. Teens have a reputation for irregular sleeping habits and don’t always eat a balanced diet, a key element to staying in shape.

To help gear students towards a lifestyle that will yield positive results, the program requires each athlete to meet for a consultation with McMaster nutritionist and to start tracking what he or she eats.

Steve Lidstone is McMaster University's strength and conditioning coordinator. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

It’s essential, Lidstone said, that parents participate in the journey.

“It’s a challenge in that the people who control the nutrition and the grocery cart are the parents. So when we work with teens, we offer free one-hours seminars to the parents and the athletes. They all have to be here.”

Ultimately, Athlete’s Edge staff can’t coerce participants into following their individualized plans to the letter, Lidstone said.

“We’re an educational institution. We educate so they can make better choices for themselves. We can’t force the child. We’re not going to be there at the breakfast table.”

Brown says she’s committed to making those “better choices,” but she’s aware her high-performance lifestyle sometimes sets her part from other kids her age.

“I don’t have as much freedom as they do. For me, bedtime is earlier than it is for them. I’ve got to eat at certain times, got to snack at certain times,” she said. “When they want to go to McDonalds on training days, I’ve got to eat healthy. It’s hard.”

My friends don’t always see the big picture that I see. They are not focusing on their future.—Hailey Brown

As a young athlete who aims to represent Canada on the hard court, Brown also recognizes it’s unusual for someone her age to be working so doggedly towards a goal that — if she’s even successful — will take years of perseverance to achieve.

“My friends don’t always see the big picture that I see,” she said. “They are not focusing on their future. They’re talking about what’s going on in the next few months.

“For me, I’m looking to see how I can better myself and my life in the future.”


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