June 19, 2020

Class of 2020: Unexpected challenges for two newly minted Kinesiology grads

After the head coach, some of the most critical members of a football or hockey team are the folks who spend more time around the players than anyone else — the strength and conditioning coaches

Despite frequent reports that regular exercise benefits the adult brain, when it comes to varsity athletes, the stereotype of the dumb jock can sometimes — however inaccurate it may be — still persist.

But not when you look at inspiring cliché-busters such as recent graduate Keenan MacDougall, MSc’20, who completed the Master of Science in Kinesiology program while working as a strength and conditioning coach with the Calgary Stampeders. There's also Caylin Relkoff, MKin’20, who juggled school with two internships at the Calgary Flames.

Nobody sums it up more frankly, perhaps, than MacDougall’s academic supervisor, Dr. Brian MacIntosh, PhD, of the Faculty of Kinesiology: “In spite of his tremendous athletic accomplishments, Keenan is not a jock. He is brilliant.”

  • Photo above: Keenan MacDougall, No. 24, during his first CFL game in 2012 against the Montreal Alouettes. “I fluked out and recovered a fumble for a touchdown,” he says.
Keenan MacDougall's official CFL coaching mug shot, taken for the 2019 season.

Keenan MacDougall's official CFL coaching mug shot, taken for the 2019 season.

MacIntosh goes on to say that MacDougall, who arrived from the University of Saskatchewan with a 4.0 GPA after being drafted by the Stamps in 2012, finished some of his undergrad courses at UCalgary while somehow managing to play pro football. After zigzagging between playing for the Stampeders (2012-2014) and the Saskatchewan Roughriders (2015) and starting a master’s degree (2017), MacDougall took a year off football and — but, of course! — snagged a spot on the national bobsleigh team.

“I am not sure how he does it,” muses MacIntosh, “but in that mix is intelligence, humility, a critical mind, and also excellent writing skills.”

Skills that will certainly be tested next fall when MacDougall begins his PhD. “I’ll be exploring topics in muscle physiology,” he says while a baby cries in the background. Oh yes, just in case MacDougall didn’t have enough going on, Wes is the first child of MacDougall and wife, Nicki. He was born on May 18.

Keenan MacDougall

Keenan MacDougall with a first — his child, that is. Baby Wes was born on May 18.

If that doesn’t sound like a colossal course load, factor in — oh, you know — his job on the medical team for the Stampeders. Last football season was MacDougall’s first as a strength and conditioning coach, “which was definitely a learning experience, going from the commitments as a player to the commitments as a coach,” he says. “Football season is pretty all-encompassing, but Brian (MacIntosh) was incredibly helpful and supportive and allowed me to adjust my schedule to still make progress in my studies.”

If the 2020-21 CFL season goes ahead (likely in some sort of abbreviated format), MacDougall says he will work with the Stampeders again. “We are currently working on reopening our training facilities in the coming weeks until a final decision is made on the season, and so that will be great to get back together with the guys.

"The bright side of the pandemic is I will be able to spend a lot more time with my son, so that is what will likely keep me the busiest this summer."

How do you balance academics with Calgary Flames internships?

Like MacDougall, Caylin Relkoff knows all about juggling school with a demanding job. He’s spent the last year interning with the Calgary Flames’ strength and conditioning team. All he needed to fulfil the requirements for his course-based Master of Kinesiology degree was 100 hours, “which I think I completed during the first couple of weeks,” he says, laughing.

I didn’t care — this is all I’ve ever wanted to do ... to work in the NHL. So, when I got to do it for two terms, which meant the whole season ...well, it was unbelievable.

The Calgary Flames Strength and Conditioning Staff (S&C) for 2019-2020, from left: Caylin Relkoff, Daryl Chambers, Assistant S&C Alan Selby, and Head S&C Ryan Van Asten.

Calgary Flames' Strength and Conditioning Staff (S&C) for 2019-2020, from left: Caylin Relkoff, Daryl Chambers, Assistant S&C Alan Selby, and Head S&C Ryan Van Asten.

As a boy, like so many kids, all Relkoff ever wanted to do was play hockey. “Everything I’ve ever done, every decision I’ve ever made, everything has always had to do with hockey.”

After shooting through all the impressive ranks, Relkoff left his hometown of Grand Forks, B.C. to play junior hockey in Manitoba and Ontario before receiving a scholarship to play college hockey in the U.S. It led to a contract with the Reading Royals, an affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins.

“I went and played with those guys for literally a sip of coffee,” says the 34-year-old, laughing. “It wasn’t even a cup of coffee; I think I was with them for all of five games.”

His shift as a professional goaltender may have been short-lived, but the season walloped Relkoff with an epiphany: he decided he wanted to coach. Starting at the bottom of the heap, Relkoff worked his way up from seasonal employee at Calgary’s Crash Conditioning (a private hockey-development facility for elite athletes) to become their head strength and conditioning coach, where he oversees testing, monitoring and training for many of its programs.

Caylin works through some exercises at last summer’s Crash Conditioning High Performance Training Program.

Caylin Relkoff works through some exercises at last summer’s Crash Conditioning High Performance Training Program.

But he still couldn’t shut out his dreams of working with the NHL. As he explains, “I knew I needed a master’s to do that and that the University of Calgary has a direct placement with the Flames, so it seemed like a good match. But I didn’t get in to the university the first time I applied, or the second. And then, when I finally did get in, I almost flunked out my first semester and was put on academic probation, before finally finishing with a GPA well above a 3.0.”

Not only did Relkoff find juggling coaching with the fierce workload “gruelling,” but a "heavy component was statistics and computer science, and I didn't even know how to turn on a computer three years ago,” he confesses.

So yeah, this degree certainly got me out of my comfort zone and challenged me personally and professionally. There’s no question — it was hard. But I needed something that was going to change the way I was thinking. And it did just that.

Tracking massive amounts of metrics through sophisticated measurement tools such as accelerometers and force plates give strength coaches such as Relkoff and MacDougall patterns that, in turn, allow them to monitor physiological changes and, in the end, customize workouts, assess athletes’ fitness and agility skills, design return-to-play interventions, and so forth. Depending on the day, a strength coach must be a taskmaster, motivator, mad scientist, talent forecaster and trusted counsellor.

Calgary Flames Summer 2019 Strength and Conditioning Staff (L-R): Jason Tremblay, Caylin Relkoff, Grayson Cameron (from the Humboldt Broncos), Ryan Van Asten (Head S&C), Alan Selby (Assistant S&C)

Calgary Flames' Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Staff for Summer 2019, from left: Jason Tremblay, Caylin Relkoff, Grayson Cameron (from the Humboldt Broncos), Head S&C Ryan Van Asten, and Assistant S&C Alan Selby.

Besides coaching athletes online and finishing up the Master of Kinesiology program, Relkoff has been using the past two months to update all his certifications. “You know, getting all my ducks in a row,” he says, "because you never know when the call’s going to come. But it will ... and, for the record, I am open to all 31 teams!”