Meet Kevin Miller, Director of Sports Performance Villanova Athletics [Interview]
Working in a results-based industry can create a lot of stress, can’t it? Today we’re talking with Kevin Miller who will share tips and education that will help you to manage with people you work with and the people whom you serve within your business.
We’ll discuss his work with student-athletes at Villanova University and with professional soccer players, the collaboration involved in creating a shared culture and vision within a collegiate athletic program, and his tricks for making safety and stress-reduction top priorities.
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Meet Kevin Miller, Director of Sports Performance Villanova Athletics
Schimri Yoyo: Gang, this is Schimri Yoyo, a writer with Exercise.com, and we are continuing our series of interviews with fitness experts. And, today we have Kevin Miller, who is the Director of Sports Performance with Villanova University. Kevin, thank you for joining us.
Kevin Miller: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.
Schimri Yoyo: Alright. We’re going to get started and just ask you a few questions about your personal background, and first up we want to know, what sports did you play growing up?
Kevin Miller: Growing up I played football, baseball, basketball, and from a very young age, I was really athletic, I ran track, so I was involved in a lot of different sports growing up.
Schimri Yoyo: So, you were very active. Now would you say that playing in a lot of different sports helped you as far as keeping your passion, or keeping your muscles active and limber, as opposed to specializing in one sport?
Kevin Miller: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think as kids growing up, myself, we were—it was a lot different then than it is now as far as just always trying to play pickup sports. Always trying to be active. I mean, one thing that I always stress to all the athletes I work with is movement.
So, from a young age, I think being active, playing a lot of different sports. Today, you see a lot of athletes who specialize early. I think for myself, it was beneficial to play a variety of sports and you kind of went with the season. So, I definitely think it helped build a pretty good work capacity and helped me develop a pretty good understanding of movement for athletes.
Schimri Yoyo: Wow. Thank you for that answer. So, how did you develop a passion to want to work in the sports performance industry as a profession?
Kevin Miller: About 15 years ago is when I started to get into sports performance and I became actually a strength conditioning coach and a personal trainer. And at that time, you know, you think you know a lot because you have an athletic background. I’d done a lot of marathons and triathlons and I always liked helping people. I always liked coaching athletes. I was a football coach myself. And, I always loved lifting weights.
And, I knew that I wanted to try something where I would be able to work with athletes on a daily basis. And, at that time back in about 2004 is when sports performance started to get a lot more popular and I really just tried to learn as much as I can from as many different coaches and just started to see the impact that I could have on kids and some adults.
So really, again, back in 2004, I was really just starting. I tried to learn as much as I can, and, at the end of the day, I just started to see some of the impact that I had on the athletes I worked with and on myself. You know, I was able to gain confidence because I was able to help with athletes by getting them stronger, getting them faster and then, from there, I just developed that passion and I just tried to learn as much as I could going forward. But, it started like I said about 15 years ago, and to this day, I still have that passion, and I am still trying to learn as much as I can.
Schimri Yoyo: Well, that’s great. And so, you talked about the impact that you personally can have as a coach on students and the athletes that you work with, but did you personally have any strength and conditioning coaches or personal trainers that had an impact on you while you were first developing?
Kevin Miller: Yeah, I mean there were so many coaches out there. There was so much information to learn. From coaches like Eric Cressey, Mike Boyle, Kevin Neeld, Mark Verstegen—all these coaches who, you know, at the time were starting to build up the sports performance industry and those coaches just had a big impact on me.
Now, only a couple of them have I personally met, but just trying to learn as much as I can from reading and videos and going to seminars and learning from them. So, you know, those coaches—Mike Robertson—are coaches who I really try to learn from, from a young age and still learn from to this day. Bijresh Patel, who’s a fantastic conditioning coach at Quinnipiac, and at that time, they were the coaches from whom I tried to learn as much as I could and learn from them and develop my own system.
But, you know, at that time, there was [not as many]—and now, there are so many coaches that are willing to share information. And, that’s what I’m always looking for: the coaches who can check their ego at the door and you understand that we’re all here to learn. Some of the best coaches are coaches that we never hear of, to be honest with you, because they’re working so much and they’re in the trenches. But I would say those five or six coaches are coaches who really kind of developed my foundation, you know, my philosophy with training right now.
Principal Tenets: Look at Athletes as a Whole
Schimri Yoyo: Alright. That’s good and that’s great that you mentioned your philosophy of training because that’s a great segue to my next question. I just want to talk about your training philosophy and methodology. If you had to describe your philosophy in one word, what would it be?
Kevin Miller: I would say holistic. And, with that, I really try to look at the athlete as a whole. And, I didn’t come up with this phrase, but basically, we’re stress managers. At this level, you know, whether you’re a collegiate strength and conditioning coach or a professional or you work as a personal trainer, you know, you’re really just trying to balance out the stress of the lives of the athletes you work with.
So, for me, you know, I try to look at an athlete’s—obviously, I’m trying to make them stronger and faster and more resilient—but I also try to help them with their sleep and their nutrition and their mindset and how they’re handling stress, because, to me, all of those things play a huge role in the goals that all athletes have.
So, really I would say holistic and really just look at the big picture. I think, sometimes I think people just get too focused on one issue or one goal, and I think you really have to look at the big picture because, at the end of the day, you could have the best strength conditioning program, but if your athletes aren’t focusing on nutrition, if they’re not focused on recovery, then chances of them reaching their goals is going to be harder for them.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. Why are athletic trainers so important to collegiate athletics and how do they impact the overall culture of an athletic program?
Kevin Miller: In a collegiate setting, you have athletic trainers and you have strength and conditioning coaches or sports performance coaches. So, athletic trainers play a huge role and a pivotal role at college. They’re the people who—they see the athletes every single day.
And, unfortunately, when an athlete gets hurt, the athletic trainers and the sports medicine staff are the first people to work with those athletes. So, they’re the people who go out to the field and help an athlete if they get hurt.
They’re instrumental because they see them every day if an athlete gets hurt, and obviously, they work on exercises to try to prevent them from getting hurt, but they’re pivotal in the success they have on a daily basis. So, athletic trainers at the college level are critical to the success of the team. They play a huge role.
From a sports performance standpoint, or from a conditioning side, athletic trainers and strength conditioning coaches or sports performance coaches work hand in hand. And, I think the best programs have that where you’re able to have that conversation with the athletic trainer. So, for example, if an athlete were to get hurt, they see the sports medicine staff, they see the doctor, then they see the athletic trainers and then, there has to be that connection with the strength conditioning coaches or sports performance coaches to bring them back to play.
Schimri Yoyo: Right. Okay.
Kevin Miller: And, the better relationship that you can have with your athletic trainers—at the end of the day, the most important thing is the athletes, [their health], and the success that they have. So, they’re pivotal to the success of the programs. And, if you talk to any collegiate athlete, the impact that athletic trainers have on them on a daily basis, it’s critical, and as a strength conditioning coach, we play a pivotal role in working with the athletic trainers to return the athletes to play.
Schimri Yoyo: And now, who would you say is responsible for setting the overall vision or culture of the athletic department at the collegiate level?
Kevin Miller: Well, I think, it starts at the top, so the athletic director. We have a fantastic athletic director at Villanova, Mark Jackson, head of the athletic department. And then, I think it’s really a collaborative effort with the sports medicine staff, the athletic training staff, the strength and conditioning staff, and really, we have this model and we have this mindset, which is:
“At the end of the day, the top priority is the health of the athletes. That’s number one.”
So, if we can have that vision where we’re always number one: striving to keep the athletes safe, and to always try—I mean, we obviously want to win games, you know, we want to do it—but we want to do it in a safe and a progressive way. But, it’s really a team effort and it starts at the top and like I say, we have a fantastic athletic director and staff here. But, it’s really a collaborative effort. If anybody feels like they’re on an island or by themselves, they’re going to struggle so, at the end of the day, when you have over 600 athletes, it has to be a team setting.
Schimri Yoyo: Good deal. Good. Now, regardless of the sport, what exercises or activities are the most beneficial for a collegiate athlete?
Kevin Miller: Yeah, for me, I like to keep it really basic. And, from an exercise standpoint, if I had to pick a few, number one is sprinting. I think that the ability to run a sprint has such a carry over to really any sport you’re playing.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s true. Understandable.
Kevin Miller: So, learning how to run and learning how to sprint, I think is fantastic. Pullups are one of my other favorite exercises. Pushups, any type of hinging movement, whether it’s the kettlebell swing or a trap bar deadlift, I think is fantastic. I like to incorporate a lot of single-leg exercises and combine movements and really, just keep it with those foundations.
So, a lot of coaches will say—and I believe it—if you’re pushing something, then you’re also pulling something. If you’re hinging, you’re also doing some carries. Crawling is a great mobility exercise for athletes to do. It can build up their cardio. It can build up their mobilities so, those five or six exercises can really build a foundation of your program and you really want to move in different planes.
So, for example, if you have a cross country runner and he or she is always running the same pattern or same movements, you might want to find some exercises that challenge him or her out of his or her normal pattern.
So, lunge variations. Any type of rotational exercises, but really at the end of the day, if you can run sprints, if you can do pushups, you can do pullups, you can do some trap bar deadlifts and some kettlebell swings, it’s going to clean up a lot of problems.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s awesome. Now, what would you say is the relationship between the strength and conditioning, injury prevention, and rehabilitation and how do you help the student-athletes to be proactive in their recovery?
Kevin Miller: Yeah, I mean it’s instrumental. We have to have that constant education and at the university setting, they’re here for school. They’re here for academics. And, they’re very intelligent students so, for us, it’s always trying to educate them every day with some little tips that can help them.
But that relationship with the sports medicine staff and everybody being on the same page is critical to the athletes, and what I try to do on a daily basis with the athletes I work with is just give them little tips and give them simple tips that they can implement because, at the end of the day, their schedule is very, very tight.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s true.
Kevin Miller: And we have to—if I want to give them a couple of exercises to do on their own—I have to keep it simple and give them one or two that they can implement right away that can hopefully reduce their chances of getting hurt. Because, unfortunately, we all know athletes get hurt.
Schimri Yoyo: Unfortunately, that is too often the case.
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Kevin Miller: But my whole philosophy is: “What can we do to reduce their chances of getting hurt?” because, when your athletes are healthy, then you have a better chance of winning. And, you know, when the athletes are happy, the coaches are happy, and you set yourself up for success. But, that relationship with the sports medicine staff and the strength and conditioning staff is critical. It has to be an open door policy and a mindset where you’re all on the same page.
Schimri Yoyo: Good. So, we sometimes hear about high school or collegiate athletes that have serious heat-related illnesses or injuries. What can athletes and trainers do to prevent this from happening?
Kevin Miller: Number one, it starts with education. Educating your athletes on the importance of hydration. And, it’s not just as simple as drinking water. Now, you know, I’m not a nutritionist, so you have to be careful with some advice you give, but at the end of the day:
“Are you drinking water? Are you eating fruits and vegetables? Are you getting salt into your body?” And really, for me, it starts the night before.
Schimri Yoyo: Really? Okay.
Kevin Miller: So, for example, today at Villanova it’s going to get up to 95, 96 degrees. So, the training that you do today, it should have started last night with hydrating yourself. So, letting the athletes know that when you wake up and before you go to bed, hydrate yourself. And, when you wake up in the morning, first thing in the morning, have one or two glasses of water.
Maybe add a little bit of lemon, add a little bit of sea salt to it. That is going to go a long way, and ultimately, always err on the side of caution. You always want to—with your athletes—to end a session earlier if you see an athlete who may be having some problems, you stop right away and the medical staff is always on top of that.
But, it’s really the nutrition, the awareness, the education—it goes a long way and having safe preventions and transition periods. So, for example, when the athletes come back, progress them accordingly. You want to go out and make sure that maybe your practice the first day is 45 minutes and then, you progress from there and you build up time. You just can’t come back on the first day when it’s really, really hot and work athletes really hard because the chances are, they won’t be prepared for it.
Schimri Yoyo: Sounds good.
Kevin Miller: But, it’s really a matter of educating the coaches, educating the students, and [emphasizing] nutrition and recovery because they play a really big role in it.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah. And, what ways do you balance helping athletes reach their physical limits and physical potential without burning them out or without putting them at risk for injury?
Kevin Miller: You have to look at the big picture and understand that one workout doesn’t get you in shape. And you have to have a plan, you have to write it out, and you have to look at the schedule. And like I said, at the college level, these athletes at every college, the athletes are very stressed. Okay, that’s just the reality of collegiate athletics.
From an academic standpoint, from an athletic standpoint, from being a college kid and trying to have a social life, they are stressed. So, for me, it’s making sure that you factor in rest. You factor in recovery. Understand that your body can only go through so many hard workouts in a row before you need to take a break.
So, I think it’s daily monitoring. It’s daily checking in. Seeing how they’re feeling. Asking a lot of questions. But, you have to factor in rest. You have to factor in recovery. And, if you can do that safely, you’re going to set your athletes up for some success.
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, working with collegiate athletes, you have a wide range of students. You have the incoming freshman who might be 17 or 18 years old to the grad students who are in their early 20’s. How much do you deal with body image issues and what are some of the steps that you guys as an athletic department do to be proactive in that area?
Kevin Miller: For a freshman coming on campus and he or she is going to be a division one collegiate athlete, I mean, that right off the bat is a tremendous stress to a student. So, I think, educating the athletes on proper nutrition. Understanding and educating them that everybody has different body types. That there is no one perfect way to eat.
Schimri Yoyo: That is so true.
Kevin Miller: There is no one perfect way to look. And if, for me, outside of my scope, I can give those type of tips, but if it was ever an issue then, you refer that out to a school psychologist, a sports psychologist. Somebody who is in sports medicine who is better prepared for that. But, I think it’s really letting the student-athletes know. Giving them options. Letting them know from a nutrition standpoint, “Hey, here are five or six different options that work for you.”
Understand that everyone’s body image is different. Everybody’s body composition is different. Not everyone’s going to look the same. So, understand that for me, my number one goal is that the athletes stay healthy and understand that athletes are going to be at different body compositions, different weights, but making sure that they know what they should do and trying to just manage that stress really. I know I’ve said that a few times in the conversation, but-
Schimri Yoyo: Yeah, it’s important to know and to emphasize.
Kevin Miller: The better we can educate these athletes on how to handle stress, I mean, I put a huge emphasis on learning how to breathe, learning how to meditate—all these different things that can have a big impact on the health of these athletes. But, if an issue ever came up where, as a coach, I saw that there was an athlete who was struggling from a body composition standpoint, then it’s my responsibility to reach out to people who we have on staff at the university who are better equipped to handle those issues.
Experience: Massage Therapy and Collegiate vs Pro Athletes
Schimri Yoyo: Now, in addition to your role with Villanova Athletics, you are a licensed massage therapist. How do you incorporate massage in the work that you do with student-athletes?
Kevin Miller: Yeah, so I got licensed about five years ago, and for me, manual therapy and massage therapy, sports massage therapy is really, really critical, I believe, to athletes. So, the way it works right now is everything goes through our athletic trainers. And, obviously, we have a lot of athletes on staff, but I try to incorporate it in such a way that if we have athletes, rule number one:
If an athlete has an issue, they see the athletic trainers first. But, I try to implement some recovery, sports massage, some deep tissue massage, maybe some active isolated stretching.
And really, my whole philosophy with being able to implement some manual therapy and massage therapy is, again, trying to help balance the stress. Help bring their nervous system back to a normal resting state.
So, you know, we’ll look at it and say, if we have a game on a Friday and we’ve had three or four tough training days, and the athletic trainers may say, “Hey Kev, can you work with two or three athletes that have heavy legs that maybe need a little extra work?”
So, the way it’s done here with the athletes, everything goes through the athletic training department. Everything is done out in the open, out on an athletic training floor. And I just look at it as another step towards recovery. If these athletes—you don’t see it too often at colleges where a sports performance coach is also licensed in massage—but I think it’s a tremendous asset to be able to give to the athletes, and I’m a huge believer in it.
I used to get a lot of manual therapy when I was doing a lot of marathons and triathlons a long time ago and that’s where I basically got the urge to go back and get licensed. Because I saw the impact that it had on me. And, I wanted to be able to provide that to the athletes. And again, it kind of comes back to my philosophy from a holistic standpoint that I really want to be able to treat and work with the athletes in all phases that fall within my scope.
Schimri Yoyo: Now, you also used to be the head strength and conditioning coach for the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer, so what are the differences in training professional athletes, your upperclassmen student-athletes and then the first-year student-athletes?
Kevin Miller: When I worked with the Philadelphia Union, it was amazing and a wonderful experience. It’s different obviously in terms of a professional athlete but everybody has stress. Everybody is trying to win games and has these goals. But, from a professional athlete standpoint, you’re dealing with athletes that, you know, from the Philadelphia Union, maybe they’re married, maybe they have kids, maybe they’re dealing with other issues there.
The travel played a big role with the Philadelphia Union. So, I would travel with the team to every away game and that was a grind. That was pretty tough on the body. So, with the Philadelphia Union, the training looked a little bit different where we would play a lot more games during the week than we do in the collegiate setting. So, there was a different kind of stress.
At Villanova right now in a collegiate setting, you have the stress of academics. You have the stress of being a student-athlete and trying to socially fit in. Obviously, there’s travel. So all of these things factor in. And then, from a freshman standpoint—my upperclassmen, my juniors and seniors, they’re really, really good with now understanding how to manage their body, how to manage stress and they have learned tips that they can do to keep them healthy.
The incoming freshman, they’re new to it. So, when they get dropped off in a couple of weeks, it’s going to be that education process. Some of them are going to be homesick. Some of them need to learn how to handle their body with nutrition.
So, it’s one of these things where you have this wide spectrum of 18- and 19-year-old student-athletes, up to professional athletes. At the end of the day, stress is stress and you find ways to manage it, but it was definitely a different kind of stress at the professional setting than it is at the collegiate setting as far as how athletes would handle it. But, to be honest with you, I still give a lot of the same tips:
Do you know how to down-regulate your body? Are you focusing on good nutrition? Are you focusing on quality breathing and recovery strategies? But, it’s really that whole education process that goes into it.
Schimri Yoyo: How, if at all, do you use technology or social media to engage with your players and student-athletes or to keep in contact with them?
Kevin Miller: Right now as far as social media—obviously that’s the way a lot of us communicate now and interact with each other—there are a couple of things. One, from a technology standpoint, we do some tracking with heart rate training so, we actually, from a safety standpoint, from a training load standpoint—I’m a big believer in heart rate and GPS monitoring athletes. So, that’s one thing that we’re starting to implement with a few teams across the board.
From a communication standpoint, we have different systems in place where it could be group chats where we’re all trying to stay on the same page. If I need to change a workout or give some nutrition tips, I send that information out there to them. So, for me, I try not to give them information overload, but I do try to give one or two little tips a day that can help them with their nutrition.
But really, from a technology standpoint and social media, everybody is always on their phone from Instagram to Facebook to Twitter—all these different things. I just try to keep it really simple and some systems that we have in place from a group chat standpoint is where I do most of my communication. Actually, that’s where I do all of my communication with the athletes through a group chat that has several people on there where we can all be on the same page.
Resources for Fitness Pros to Learn
Schimri Yoyo: And the last question, you mentioned many times about educating the student-athletes and educating the clientele that you work with and that would make sense, obviously, because you are employed by an educational institution, but are there any other resources that you would recommend for those who are interested in learning more about sports performance training? Any books, magazines, podcasts or etc., that would be helpful to them?
Kevin Miller: Yeah, I think there are so many coaches out there right now willing to help each other out, which is fantastic. The field is growing. I think everybody is starting to challenge each other in a good way, and I think you see the trend moving in the right direction for the field of strength and conditioning.
Some podcasts that I listen to, I already mentioned his name, but Mike Boyle The Strength Coach Podcast. I think is a fantastic resource. He’s one of the leaders in the field. He’s been doing it for so long. That’s just a tremendous resource.
Just Fly Sports Performance is another really good podcast that gives a lot of information on speed training. I think the host does a fantastic job. Zac Cupples is a coach who I have not personally met, but I think does a really good job of bridging strength and conditioning and from a physical therapy standpoint together. He does a fantastic job with his podcasts. Mike Robertson on The Physical Preparation Podcast is excellent.
And then, I also think there’s—I think that conditioning coaches and sports performance coaches need to look outside the field too, and look at some podcasts that can help them with mindset or business. Like, one podcast I just started recently listening to is called Life Coach School podcast, and it’s really good because it talks a lot about your brain and how you form habits, from changing your habits, and I think that is really important for coaches.
These are just some of the podcasts I’d recommend—those five or six are really good. Eric Cressey is a coach whose fantastic as well. So, those coaches are the coaches that I tend to follow on a daily or weekly basis.
Schimri Yoyo: Alright. Well, thank you very much for your time, Kevin. We appreciate all that you’re doing with the student-athletes at Villanova, and we look forward to maybe reconnecting with you again in the future.
Kevin Miller: Thank you very much. I appreciate your time and have a great day and if anybody has any questions, I’d be happy to speak to them.
Schimri Yoyo: Alright, great. I’m sure there are plenty out there who will take advantage of that offer.
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Schimri Yoyo is a writer for Exercise.com and a financial advisor with active life and health insurance licenses. In a past life, he covered Villanova Men’s Basketball and Big East Football for Examiner.com. Schimri has also produced freelance copywriting, editing, and proofreading for various websites and online publications for over a decade. He is an avid sports fan, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Boston Celtics, Boston Red Sox, and San Francisco 49ers. Schimri is an educator and a storyteller who is eager to assist individuals and families to stay financially and physically fit.
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