Aaron Moorehead: From Walk-on to World Champion

Nine games into the 2018 NCAA football season, the Vanderbilt Commodores have racked up 2,075 total receiving yards under the direction of Wide Receivers Coach Aaron Moorehead. This Saturday, Aaron’s receiving corps, who have already accounted for 14 touchdowns, will again be called upon to light up the scoreboard as Vandy battles the University of Missouri in SEC play.

This past spring, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Coach Moorehead, who looks like he could still suit up and play, in his spacious office in the McGugin Center down in Nashville. Check out our conversation here: https://www.goodathleteproject.com/podcast/

Aaron was a standout high school player at Deerfield High School in the suburbs of Chicago, but the option offense they ran didn’t provide many opportunities to highlight the skillsets of one of the area’s top receivers. He was a talented track athlete as well, finishing 4th in state in the 110m High Hurdles. His athletic ability was obvious. Still, the offers did not roll in as some thought they might, and he accepted an opportunity to walk on at the University of Illinois.

At 6’3” 185, the talented but undersized Moorehead redshirted that first year, opting to build his frame and work to more fully understand the offense and culture of Head Coach Ron Turner. His work paid off. He improved physically and mentally, ultimately earning a scholarship. Though he had a couple setbacks along the way (tune in to the podcast to hear the details) he bounced back, ultimately leading the team to a 10-2 record in 2001. Moorehead shined that season. The Illini won a Big Ten Championship, finished 16th in the nation, and went on to battle LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

85 career receptions, 1,293 yards, and 9 TD grabs later, he knew he wasn’t done. He was just hitting stride. Still, offers to play in the NFL did not roll in as some thought they might.  Aaron accepted an opportunity as an undrafted free agent with the Indianapolis Colts.

By that time, he was no stranger to the process. He was used to overcoming obstacles and smashing expectations. So when most undrafted free agents were hoping desperately to find a spot on a roster, Aaron simply went back to work. Once again, that work paid off. Aaron made the roster, played 5 years for the Colts, and won a Superbowl in 2006 over the Chicago Bears.

That win was the perfect capstone to an athletic career. His father, Emery Moorehead, played tight end on the 1985 Super Bowl Championship – you guessed it – Chicago Bears. By beating his father’s former team, the Mooreheads became the first father-son duo to play for Super Bowl winners.

When his time in the NFL ended, Aaron was faced with an all-too-familiar dilemma. Life as an athlete is one of clear expectations, constant growth, and direct feedback from coaches. It is a life of physical exertion and psychological strain. It is camaraderie and setbacks, sacrifice and glory. It’s an experience that cannot be replicated in the “real” world. He wasn’t sure what to do next.

When the next step was unclear, it was his father Emery who told him it was time to get off the couch, pick something he was passionate about, and get to back work. Again, Aaron stepped up to the challenge. He went over to his alma mater, Deerfield High School, and volunteered assisting with the wide receivers.

From there, he started going to coaching conventions, met professionals in the field, and landed graduate assistant position at the University of New Mexico. When the wide receiver coaching position opened up a year later, he applied, excited to make the full transformation from college athlete to college football coach. Though many though he would, he didn’t get the job. Looking back on that disappointment, he says “they were right, I wasn’t ready.”

Once again, Aaron was undeterred. He went on to be the quality control coach at Stanford University, where he was able to play an important role in a major football program which was routinely in the national spotlight. Shortly thereafter, he accepted his first full-time job at Virginia Tech, working for previous podcast guest and Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer. In 2015, Aaron went on to coach receivers at Texas A&M, where the Aggies were consistently among the top teams in the SEC.

Then he set Anchor Down in Vanderbilt. The Commodores have been flying ever since. Their only losses this year have been teams ranked among the Top 15 in the nation, including a one-score game against Notre Dame (#3).

He has seen success everywhere he has been, and he’s had to earn it. Still a young man with a bright future, he’s taken a simple mantra to every stage of his journey: “prove that you can provide value to your organization.” A simple strategy. A strategy that has proven to be successful.

Tune in to our podcast with Aaron to hear more strategies for success. It’s especially interesting to hear him talk about legendary coach Tony Dungy and some of his teammates with whom he went to the Super Bowl.

With Peyton Manning, there was no letdown… every snap was like the game was on the line,” he said.

His advice to athletes is amazing: “Be humble and don’t be short-sighted. Be somebody that the coaching field knows about.’

And his advice to us all is a necessary thought: “Take time to learn about people who are different than you are.”

So much to learn from Good Athlete, Kind Coach, and someone we’re happy to have as part of the Good Athlete Project family, Aaron Moorehead.

 

Understanding Stress

Part One of an Ongoing Series

Through the world travels of the Good Athlete Project, we have noticed one underlying constant in the desires of most people: less stress. It takes different forms and we name it different things, but it consistently looms heavy in the minds of many… stress about work, family, performance in a variety of fields. To have “less stress” is an understandable desire, but a misguided one. Instead, let’s learn to thrive in the presence of potential stress and grow from those experiences.

We would all benefit from reframing and destigmatizing the word stress, and understanding it not as the state of being overwhelmed, but as a necessary component of growth, inextricably intertwined with our success.

Stress is a signal-response mechanism that allows us to exist within the demands of our environment. We need it. The negative relationship we have to the word refers in actuality to chronic stress, which is the real culprit behind much of our pain, and should be avoided. Strategies exist to avoid chronic stress. In order to utilize those strategies, and understand the difference between stress quality and stress quantity (how many potential stressors you have in your life, versus how good/bad they are) we should take a moment to understand exactly what it is we’re talking about.

greek-athlete-crying
Photo Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

There are three primary systems in the body which coordinate to manage stress: the voluntary nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, and the neuroendocrine system. The voluntary nervous system is the most obvious. It controls conscious movement. It’s the one filtered through the primary motor cortex of the brain and sends commands to the body. Decide to lift your cup of coffee, then do, then thank this system. It gets you where you want to go.

We would all benefit from reframing and destigmatizing the word stress, and understanding it not as the state of being overwhelmed, but as a necessary component of growth, inextricably intertwined with our success.

The autonomic nervous system is slightly more complex and comprised of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for what we commonly refer to as “fight or flight” responses. It preps the body to respond to demanding stressors without conscious awareness. When you walk into a packed stadium for a championship game and the hairs on your neck stand up, this is why. In the presence of a significant obstacle or threat, your heart rate will increase alongside the rate of your breathing, and your pupils will dilate so you can more accurately perceive potential threats. Glucose levels in your bloodstream will elevate so that muscles, should you be called upon to use them, will have quick and easy access to fuel. Without this stress response, our ancestors would have been eaten many years ago. You – we – wouldn’t have the opportunity to exist (and complain about the stress in our lives).

The parasympathetic nervous system more generously refers to the series of “rest and digest” responses. It is the counterbalance to the sympathetic nervous system. Among other necessary functions (like eliminating waste, reproducing, and repair/create tissue), this is the state in which you recover from the demands of your “fight or flight” actions. Here your heart rate drops, respiration slows to a comfortable pace, and pupil dilation returns to normal. These two systems work like a seesaw, when one is up, the other downregulates, and vice versa. When the human system is functioning well, they balance each other out.

The third system, the neuroendocrine system, works in concert with the others. It produces the hormones – namely, cortisol and adrenaline – which prepare our bodies to manage obstacles and threats. Cortisol has the ability to increase glycogenesis, providing fuel for our skeletal muscular system. It also stimulates brain activation and use of our senses. Adrenaline increases heartrate, blood pressure, and expands air passages, among other performance enhancing functions. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, these are the hormones it pairs up with in order to meet the demands of a situation.

They are necessary. They are the reason we survive as a species.

[Stress is] necessary. [It is] the reason we survive as a species.

But there is a cost. Every ounce of energy expended produces equivalent exhaust. There is a conversion, a remainder. Think of the exhaust coming out of the tailpipe of a car – that’s what’s left over when fuel has been converted into the energy which propels the vehicle. If a car continually burned fuel but didn’t release exhaust, think of the damage it would do, building up within the vehicle and polluting the system. That’s the problem with modern stress.

Sleepy-Athlete-STACK.jpg

We no longer live in an environment where fending off the occasional predator or tracking down the week’s feast is the main priority. We live in an environment designed to hijack our attention and retain it through a barrage of stimuli which keep our pupils slightly dilated, our heart rate slightly elevated, our blood sugar levels at a slight increase. Our environment keeps us slightly stressed, always.

Add chronic stress to significant societal disregard for rest and recovery, and we have a problem. Consider that for a moment. How well do you sleep? For how long, on average? Do you take time to consciously recover from the stressors in your life?

Odds are against it. Americans have been sleeping fewer and fewer hours per night over recent years, down one full hour since the 1940s, to a measly 6.8 hours per night. The CDC recommends 7-9 hours for adults which makes us, on average, a sleep-deprived nation (more on the value of sleep in later articles). Sleep deprivation makes accurate assessment of work, relationships, and other potential stressors far more difficult.

So perhaps it is not the amount of stress in our lives, but our perception of the quality of that stress due, in part, to the way we do or don’t relax. In other words, it is not our overactive sympathetic nervous system, but the lack of balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Again, not too much stress, but too much chronic activation of “fight or flight” which tamps down the activation of “rest and digest”.

Instead of “less stress”, we should aim for more balance.

A range of strategies will be released in an upcoming series of articles. Today’s performance strategy is simple: work to understand.

 

Performance Strategy: Work to Understand.

We cannot solve a problem of which we are unaware. Moreover, once we are aware of a problem, accurate assessment becomes immediately important. An easy way to imagine this is through the splinter metaphor. If you have pain in your hand, the first step to solving this problem is the recognition of the pain. The second step would be identifying the splinter as the source of the pain. If you misattribute the pain to dry skin, then your “remedy” might be applying moisturizer. Feedback in the form of continued pain would tell you that your strategy, though well-intended, was ineffective. Only through accurate identification of the problem, the splinter, can you take steps to removing the splinter, keeping clean hands to prevent infection, and ultimately solving the problem. But before you solve it, you have to understand it.

So as you Work to Understand stressors in your life, try this method:

  • 1. Identify the Need
    • What are you thinking and feeling – do you feel overwhelmed? Are you in a state of chronic stress? Might be time to take action and improve your situation.
  • 2. Assess the Situation
    • What are the sources of this pain? Write them down. Whether it’s work, bills, other people or a combination of sources, it’s important to be as explicit and honest as possible about what’s actually going on in your unique situation.
  • 3. Identify the Source of the Problem
    • Be honest. Is your co-worker actually the worst person you know? Do they really have no clue what’s going on and you can’t understand why your boss hired them? Perhaps your negative interactions are the result of a system of complicated, overlapping factors. What of those factors can you control? Are you discounting your personal wellness in hopes of workplace success while unknowingly making workplace relationships more difficult? You’d be surprised how often that is the case.
  • 4. Attempt a Solution
    • Spend a week prioritizing your nutrition. Or physical exercise. Or sleep. Or mindfulness. Based on what you have identified as the source of the problem, give something a shot and stick to it.
  • 5. Create a Feedback Loop
    • Did your attempted solution work? If so, great, move on to the next challenge or opportunity in your life. If not, return to one of the previous steps and see where you went wrong. Did the solution not solve the problem? Try another solution. Did you inaccurately assess the problem? Reconsider the situation and try again. Listen to the feedback.

If the feedback after your attempted solution does not address the identified need, try again. Keep trying. Diligent practice within this model will eventually lead to a desirable result.

When we identify external stressors like a co-worker, too much homework, or an overburdened schedule as sources of our stress, then we hope and hope and hope for less of it, then we will never have the proper, manageable amount of it. Rather, let’s take a close look at the way we interact with stress, and our role in not only reducing it but actively recovering from that which we have.

Try it. With this model, the effectiveness of your actions will improve, just by doing the work of accurately understanding.

Nick Alfieri: Unicorn

The question has plagued early-20-somethings since the dawn of time: after college, what? You are qualified, cultured, and finally credentialed – the world is at your fingertips – it’s a state of incredible potential, laden with uncertainty. Should you embrace your youth and follow your passion? Should you buckle down and get a job? Nick Alfieri did both. He became a Unicorn.

It started routinely enough. He played college football at Georgetown University, where he studied hard and stood out on the field. Nick was named team captain as a senior and is still the third all-time leading tackler in Hoya history. After graduating, he entered the prestigious film school at USC as a graduate student. A year in grad school made him antsy. Though he had a great time in southern California, exploring his artistic inclinations, he desperately missed playing football. He still had what many post-career athletes refer to as “the itch” – he wasn’t quite ready to be done.

Enter the Unicorn. The NFL wasn’t knocking down his door, so Alfieri took his talents overseas. All the way to Germany. Nick is now the starting middle linebacker for the Schwabisch Hall Unicorns. You may not heard of them, but the Germans have. The ‘Corns won the German League National Championship last year, and finished as the top ranked team in all of Europe.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Their success is unquestioned, but Nick insists that it’s all about the experience. Schwabisch Hall is a town of approximately 39,000, located in southern Germany and founded prior to 1280. It’s an ancient city, by American standards, and the architecture reflects its rich history. Subscribe to Nick’s YouTube channel to see more of the town, and catch glimpses into the life of an American football player in Europe.

He notes that it is the passion of the locals that has invigorated his love for the game. Though there are a few Americans who have taken similar leaps of faith following their collegiate careers, the bulk of the American football rosters in Europe are comprised of Europeans. Americans are distinguished from the rest, wearing green letter As on their jerseys and helmets, since a team is only allowed 3 on the field at any given time. Nick’s teammates do not go through the grind of a football season for money or fame, they do it because they love to play.

Oftentimes, our behaviors match our motivations. In this way the modern sports landscape, especially at the professional and top-tier college level, can be disheartening. It seems as though many are more concerned about their next contract than their teams. And there’s no judgement from our end, football is a rough game and a player has every right – a duty, even – to take care of himself and his family. It’s his job. His livelihood. But that’s exactly the point. When the game becomes a profession, it changes.

The Unicorns play for each other, and for the love of the game. It’s refreshing in its purity. It’s how sports were meant to be – how football was meant to be – and Nick Alfieri is living it, tucked into an ancient city replete with Gothic architecture lining the River Kocher, and schnitzel on every corner.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Whatever happens next, Nick says he has had experiences over the past few years which have opened up the world in a variety of ways. He has seen the world, made connections, and colored his worldview to a point where the idea of “outcome” is clearly second to the process of exploring, of living his best life.

Recently, Nick took over the story on our Instagram feed and gave the Good Athlete Project family some sound advice: “in order to be successful long term you have to fall in love with the process.” He went on to acknowledge that “every single game is precious. Every single game is an opportunity to improve.” It’s an approach we subscribe to fully. It works for us, and it works for the Unicorns, who are currently undefeated and heading back to the German National Championship game.

If you read this soon enough, clink this link to stream the championship game between the Schwabisch Hall Unicorns and the Frankfurt Universe. It’ll be epic.

And be sure to check out Nick on social media and on his YouTube channel. Though he’s still not sure what he wants to do with his “real life”, what happens up until that point is a story you won’t want to miss.

 

insta

The Strength of Kindness

When people find us on social media (@coach4kindness) we are often asked, why kindness? The answer is simple: why not?

Enough people were already coaching for what they might call “toughness”, and we’ve seen countless coaches teaching their players what it takes to “be a man” – and while that’s all well and good, it felt like a saturated market.

We asked ourselves, if we could only coach for one thing, could only give one skill to our players, what would it be? Kindness? Not necessarily, but it seems like a solid place to start.

Especially since there are hidden strengths to kindness that many don’t immediately realize.

Consider a more traditional and highly effective skill: resilience. People seem to be on board with coaching for resilience. Psychologist and UC Berkeley professor Rick Hanson, PhD., defines resilience as the ability to cope with adversity and push through challenges in the pursuit of opportunity. That’s certainly a quality we should share with our young people. It’s knocking on the door of “Grit”, which famed Penn professor Angela Duckworth defines as “passion and perseverance for long term goals” – grit has routinely been linked to longitudinal success.

Fine, so let’s teach for grit and resilience.

But first, kindness.

Kindness provides the inner strength to cultivate those other qualities. If your core is one of anger, driven solely by the desire to beat your villainized opponent, then it is a shallow and unsteady one. What can you build on a bedrock of hate? A shaky castle, at best.

Sports teach life lessons? that’s a myth. Sports offer a platform for teachers and coaches to create cultures which instill life lessons – those lessons don’t appear out of nowhere.

But if you cultivate a strong core consisting of purpose, gratitude, self-reliance, and kindness, then you have a solid foundation to build on. Think about it – to be resilient, to continue on during difficult times, you’ll often have to serve as your own best asset. To paraphrase Professor Hanson, it is in difficult moments when you will fall back on internalized experiences of well-being, those built inner strengths which in turn make you more resilient. Without those inner kindnesses, the psychological ground will shake.

If you are finicky and quick to anger, then in times of trouble you will find more trouble, waiting helplessly for an external force to change your state. If only I had more money… if my idiot boss would just give me that promotion…

But if you have developed a habit of cultivating kindness, then you can draw from positive inner strengths, pick yourself up, and charge forward. In those difficult moments, kindness and gratitude and self-reliance might not feel good, but they will surely help you get to the other side of the challenge in a healthier, more efficient way.

Some disagree. We recently observed a coach directing his athletes to “play with hate in your hearts” [sic]. It was an effective strategy, on one level, since the athletes were eating up this us-versus-them tirade. Sadly, there’s no substance to that energy. The edges of human performance are achieved when fueled by purpose, not hate and invented narratives of revenge.

If you believe that 16-year-old kids need to hate the kids from the next town in order to beat them in a game, then you’re misguided.

If you are one of those coaches, please take a moment to consider what you’re saying. Would you want your own son or daughter to be taught to hate by their teachers and coaches? And if you’re not willing to take a moment to reconsider your stance, it’s time to reconsider your career.

Let me be totally clear: everyone does not deserve at trophy. When you lose a game, you shouldn’t sulk and be coddled and have your mom serve you pancakes in bed, you should get back to work. You should be tough. Toughness is an absolute. Coaching for kindness doesn’t mean you should ignore coaching for other qualities, where appropriate.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t bring passion and energy to what we do, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t tap into the competitive nature of our more animal selves. We should. It’s actually pretty fun.

What I am suggesting is that these qualities are more interrelated than we might think.

And even animals can be kind.

grizzly low five

Grizzlies low-fiving.

Coaches would be well-served to realize that it is possible, necessary even, to be both tough and kind. To be both competitive and caring.

The teams we work with have achieved plenty of quantifiable success (conference, state, and national championships). Believe me, we’re not sacrificing a high standard of performance. The desire to perform at a high level fuels us.

And on our best days, we are teaching skills that transfer to success in all areas of life.

Some lean on the idea that sports teach life lessons. That’s a myth. Sports offer a platform for teachers and coaches to create cultures which instill life lessons – those lessons don’t appear out of nowhere. So coach for what’s important. Teach qualities that transfer to other areas of life.

Hate doesn’t work in a marriage, in the board room, or in any other aspect of life, so why would we give that to our students and players?

Try kindness. Let us know what you think.

Alabama adds another top prospect: Sports Medicine Fellow Dr. Aloiya Earl

During the month of August, in the muggy Alabama heat, Nick Saban grants his players one opportunity to acknowledge the obvious: it’s hot. After that, the athlete must make one of two decisions: find a way to change the late-summer climate, or find a way to effectively deal with the heat. Repeatedly complaining about the weather never got anyone closer to their goal.

That sort of championship-caliber mindset is a staple in Coach Saban’s program, and it’s one of the things that drew Dr. Aloyia Earl to Tuscaloosa.

Dr. Earl earned her BS in Exercise Science from the University of South Carolina, then her MD from the University of Toledo. She excelled in a variety of professional roles, including Resident Physician at the Ohio State University, before swapping Scarlet for Crimson.

aloiya earl

While Coach Saban and his staff focus on performance between the sidelines, Aloiya’s work focuses on what’s going on between an athlete’s ears. Her research focuses on an athlete’s mindset when returning to play after injury.

The body incurs regular stresses and strains which make injury an inseparable part of athletic participation. It’s part of the game. It’s part of all games, especially football. The ability to physically and psychologically rebound from those injuries can make or break a season. In 2017, linebackers Mack Wilson, Christian Miller, and Terrell Lewis all sat at one point due to injury. Their performance in the National Championship game against Georgia accounted for 20 total tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks. Were it not for their return, the Tide’s sixth Saban-era championship might have been even more challenging.

Those who work in Sports Medicine have the opportunity to impact an athlete’s physical recovery and, given the time spent with athletes, their mental preparation during return-to-play protocol.

That is exactly where Dr. Earl’s work comes in.

She draws from her own experience as a cross-country runner at South Carolina, where she suffered multiple stress fractures over the course of her career. Each time, she built the mental resolve to push aside pain to pursue her goals. During her research, she noticed that many were going through similar journeys. Many more will report fearing re-injury when their time to return approaches. Aloyia’s research hopes to better understand that fear in order to identify the role of sports medicine providers in its alleviation.

alabama dline

While at Ohio State, she began to identify opportunities during the athlete’s rehabilitation process wherein the Sports Medicine staff can support the athlete in self-efficacy, as well as athletic performance. She will now be fine tuning those methods in the halls and on the sidelines in Tuscaloosa.

In a recent interview, she said “I could not be more excited to be working here. The athletes here have an incredibly passionate group of trainers, coaches, and physicians working to keep them healthy and performing well, and I’m honored to be a part of it. Every day is exciting. It’s a privilege to serve such talented and driven athletes.”

Championship mindset has always been a part of the Saban-era Tide, and Aloiya seems to be bringing a new and important wrinkle to the discussion.

One more way the Tide continues to roll.

 

D-Line Manual: Keys to the 3-4 Under Front

Given the success and recent prevalence of the spread offense, many teams have attempted to increase the amount of speed on the field by installing a three man front. In order to have another look, perhaps a primarily run-stopping option, we adjust frequently to what we call the 3-4 Under, which resembles a traditional 4-3. We have had significant success in this transition. We played it most during a three game stretch in 2013, wherein opponents gained, (between the tackles), less than 100 yards… combined. It should be noted that this production was a systematic success, a product of our defensive staff, and the years of hard work and devotion on the part of our players. With great understanding of the scheme, we were able to move seamlessly between fronts.

Our base 3-4 front features traditional 4-0-4 alignment (Anchor, Nose, Tackle):

Our Under front includes one primary adjustment: walking our biggest, strongest outside linebacker down to the line of scrimmage. We played him in a 2 point or 3 point stance relative to strategy and possible stunt. The obvious – and most essential – benefit of this front is that it allows, by alignment, time for our inside linebackers to read and move without taking on a block. When executed correctly, the 3-4 Under occupies all five offensive linemen:

Anchor aligns in a 5 technique (subtle outside shade of the Strongside Offensive Tackle).

Nose aligns in a strong side 1 technique (shade of the Center, which not only occupies the Center, but demands the Strongside Guard’s attention (generally resulting in some sort of combination block)).

Tackle shifts down to a 3 technique on the Weakside Guard.

Buck aligns in a 5 technique on the Weakside Tackle.

Before we instruct athletes how to play, it is important to find the type of athletes we need to accomplish those things we will instruct. It is our job as coaches to put our players in position to succeed, which includes talent evaluation – we can only ask an athlete to do a job which they are capable of doing.

Anchor (5-tech) – Absolutes: We look for long, strong bodies to play the strongside. An Anchor should be heavy handed (strong, aggressive, accurate hand-play), he should have mobile hips and the ability to play both laterally (toss, sweep) and vertically (rush the passer). Ideals: In years when we were lucky enough to have Anchor with high athleticism, we were able to be more creative with our zone drop options to the field.

Nose (1-tech) – Absolutes: Leverage and toughness are the two must-haves to play nose in the Under front. We are asking this player to occupy two offensive players as often as possible. He must bend well and play low to the ground, be great with his hands, quick off the snap, and be able to turn his hips to split double teams. Ideals: Identify a mismatch – either size and strength (many teams will play their 1 technique Nose as a ‘space-eater’ – a 275lb Nose with great strength and the attributes mentioned above will provide cover for inside linebackers), or fantastic speed (if he can consistently turn a Center by beating him off the snap, any sort of cross-center guard pull will be interrupted).

Tackle (3-tech) – Absolutes: Great hands and eyes. A good Tackle can maintain separation and react quickly to his visual cues. He needs to have the strength to play a base block, and the field-savvy to follow a pull, spill a trap, play screens, and rush the passer. Ideals: We have had the most success with smart 3 techniques – and they have to be field- smart. When we can ask a player to show false alignments, be mobile pre snap, stunt with accuracy, and still be able to filter through visual information at speed – that is when we know we have a special player.

BuckAbsolutes: The Buck is a hybrid player – we’re looking for the biggest, strongest, rangiest Linebacker of the group, or the fastest, most athletic Defensive End. He has to be able to drop and cover the flat if necessary, blitz with success, and play strong on an Offensive Tackle. Ideals: Speed – if we can quickly switch back to our Base 3-4 without needing to sub a player at Outside Linebacker, we have more confidence in frequently running the Under Front.

Process Matters

Defensive Line is the hardest part of the defense to play. Not only is it extremely physical ‘in the trenches,’ but they are at the disadvantage of not knowing the snap count or play. Linebackers, at 4-5 yards, have more time to read, as do Defensive Backs, but the Defensive Lineman have a fraction of a second to play physical, accurate football, and make decisions that support the scheme.

As coaches, it is our job to make their job as easy as possible. We have to scout and understand all possible offensive plays and schemes our defense might experience – all blocking schemes, misdirections, formations and tendencies; from there, we have to develop simple rules for our players to follow – the rules, if followed, must account for all scenarios. I tell our defensive front all the time: the play doesn’t matter – your keys matter, and your reaction to those keys will make you successful. For instance, our Nose does not play Power – he plays a double team just like we teach him, and that allows our team to defend Power. Our Anchor does not play Toss – he plays a reach block in a way that allows him and our team to stop Toss.

Remembering my time as a college and professional Defensive Lineman, I would be frequently be frustrated when given direction “Just go!” – and while there is a time and situation for a coach to encourage his athletes to play outside themselves, I was always left with basic questions: just go where? go there how? We equip our athletes with an understanding of the process, and the components of that process, while letting the result speak for itself.

The Basics

As a coach, I try not to give my players more than 5 keys to remember. I call it the Rule of 5. If I ask them to remember anything more than that, I feel as though I have given them too much to process, which results in slower play. We want to play fast and accurate. So we keep it simple and direct, and we do not waiver from our expectations. Here is what I ask my players to focus on, in order, and with Perfect execution:

  1. Stance
  2. Attack
  3. Control
  4. React
  5. Finish
  1. Stance – Stance begins with focus and understanding. Understand the called front and play, and use supreme focus in your alignment. A 5 technique asks you to put your inside hand down, inside foot back (and ready for first step), appropriate pre-snap weight distribution (relative to stunt, if applicable), and aligning our inside eye with the Offensive Tackle’s outside eye, for example. Coaching Point: Slow it down. During the first few film sessions, we will pause before the play, identify our strict alignment in the front, and show the players who is perfect in their stance/alignment, and who is leaving the defense vulnerable before the ball is even snapped.dline
  2. Attack – We spend a lot of time here. The attack point is precise and requires focus, speed, and aggression. Once we are in our stance and aligned correctly, we lock our eyes onto the point of the offensive player we are about to strike. For example, a 5 tech Anchor will lock his eyes onto the upper outside corner of the Offensive Tackle’s jersey number – once he sees movement, he attacks with his hands: full extension, elbows in, thumbs up, bring the hips. The object of the attack is to knock a blocker off his path and allow an extra moment to process/read the block.dline attck

Coaching Point: Sight not sound. Incorporate plenty of drills wherein an athlete’s movement is based on a visual cue: ball on a stick, live action and team segments on varied snap counts, etc.

  1. Control – Upon attack, the player should be under control: arms extended and controlling a block, good (low) pad level, feet and hips underneath him (careful not to overextend and lose balance). Coaching Point: during handwork drills, whistle or call a Freeze command – if the athlete is under control, he should be able to freeze his position and correct, if necessary.
  2. React – This is the key step. This is what separates athletes from football players (that is, you might be athletic, but can you play football?). Our best Defensive Linemen are the ones who react to blocks as simple as breathing – there’s an ease to their movement – they see and go, see and go, see and go, without hesitation. Abiding by the Rule of 5, we try to become masters of five types of block:
  3. Base Block
  4. Down (or Inside Release)
  5. Reach Block
  6. Double Team
  7. Pass Set

Base – Assuming the athlete has accomplished proper Attack and is under Control, Base block becomes a test of grit; that is, the athlete must maintain his gap assignment and leverage. Coaching Point: Don’t pick a side! We cannot create interior lanes. Down (or Inside Release) – A powerful and accurate Attack should slow an Offensive Lineman’s interior movement. Whether he is blocking down on another Defensive Lineman or releasing inside for one of our Linebackers, the task is simple: squeeze. Squeezing keeps the Offensive Lineman off our players, and puts us in position to Spill a Trap or Kickout Block. To squeeze, we drop our interior elbow to the hip of the offensive player, maintaining pressure, therefore maintaining the line of scrimmage (and our gap). *After a Down Block, keep eyes open for a Trap – we Spill (or Wrong-Arm) all Trap Blocks, which seals off any interior lanes. Assuming the Defensive Lineman has taken care of his Down Block, he should have squeezed himself into perfect position to Spill the Trap. Coaching Point: Run Down Block/Squeeze/Spill recognition as often as your practice schedule allows! The big plays we have given up between the tackles are rarely because we’ve been physically beat – interior lanes open up because we lose our position and get trapped. Reach Block – Get width! The Defensive Lineman must keep his arms extended, and work to keep his hips outside the block. In the worst case scenario (and this would only happen after a poor Attack), should a Defensive Lineman lose position on the snap, he must work underneath the Reach Block, then sprint horizontally down the line of scrimmage in the direction of the initial block – he has turned himself into a cutback player (by getting blocked) and should be ready to make a tackle after the Linebackers and Defensive Backs establish edge force. Coaching Point: This is one of those instances where coaches tend to teach schematic responsibility instead of breaking the idea down so it is more easily digested – that is, a coach might direct his player to “Keep Contain,” instead of telling him to react to the Reach Block, keep arms extended, hips outside the block… we find best results come from explaining why and what a player should do, then spending the bulk of the time teaching them how. Double Team – Powerful Attack, then turn into secondary pressure. As always, a good Attack increases the odds of success, against a double team it limits the potential of the initial blocker to get hip-to-hip with the second blocker – that distance between hips is all the opportunity a Defensive Lineman needs to be disruptive. Once the player feels secondary pressure, he should turn his back to the pressure while pressing forward to split the space between the Linemen’s hips. This needs to be practiced over and over until it is a knee-jerk reaction: secondary pressure = turn and press forward. Over and over. Coaching Point: Know when enough is enough. To establish a behavior as habit, it must be practiced – it is up to the coach, however, to know when it is time to pull back. In a double team drill, the Defensive Lineman is at a clear disadvantage – let him rest – he can’t help the team if he’s injured and sitting on the bench. Pass Set – Speed is important, knowing when to turn the corner is crucial: speed can get you pressure, the turn can get you sacks. Pass Set might be the easiest block variation to recognize, but it has the highest amount of response variation. Each coach needs to develop pass rush moves he is comfortable teaching, then progressively install. We start with a Bull Rush on one edge of the Offensive Lineman, then go from there. From Bull Rush we move to Push-Pull, then use that to set up our double moves. Regardless of how a player wins his one-on-one battle, it is important that he know when he has won: if he waits for green grass, he will never find it… once he is hip to hip with his blocker, he should rip through, drop his inside shoulder and turn the corner toward the Quarterback.

Coaching Point: Stay within the toolbox. We ask our guys to start on level one: hands on half of a man, Bull Rush. Once they have mastered it they can move on to level two. In a given year, we might allow three to four players full range of moves, to use at their discretion – otherwise, we have a handful of big guys who master the Push-Pull, Rip and they stay there all year with great success.

*Zone Block – from a Defensive Line perspective, a Zone Block is the same as a Reach Block, since the footwork is too similar to differentiate at full speed.dline control

  1. Finish – Do what you are supposed to do, over and over, and the Finish will take care of itself. Stay low, stay hungry, and arrive in a bad mood! We teach safe tackling daily, but many tackles by Defensive Linemen aren’t pretty – they don’t have to be, they just need to put the ball carrier on the ground. Putting yourself in position to make a tackle is the key.

Coach with Standards

Establishing Goals is great and common practice – e.g. holding a team under 10 points, 3 takeaways, 2 sacks per game, etcetera – but establishing Standards will get you there. Two sacks per game, but how? Our Coaches develop – and hold their athletes true to – a process. The coach should have clear view of his expectations and communicate with clarity. He must hold players to a well-established standard: Do what’s right because, well, consider the alternative.

Identify what a successful process looks like, then break that process down into components (I suggest no more than five components, if possible), and make adherence to those Standards the bedrock of your system. If all Standards are upheld, the system will run smoothly. Defensive Linemen play fast, play strong, play smart, and uphold the standards we set forth – that is our expectation.

 

Swimmer Strength: an Overview

After many conversations with swimmers, swim coaches, and strength coaches working with swimmers, a common question persists: where do we start? There is no easy answers; everything is contextual, dealing with team dynamics, timelines, and sport-specific considerations. Strength coaches who generally deal with land-based athletes find themselves grappling with a unique set of athlete-performance requirements. So, as entry point, and in an effort to scaffold decision making and program design, we always begin by addressing five progressive steps:

 

  1. Safety. Do no harm!
  2. Uniformity. A body is a body.
  3. Specificity. Group/Sport considerations.
  4. Appropriate Load. Adapting the science.
  5. Performance. Prepare to compete!

There is plenty of room for autonomy within these steps, and each coach should identify his or her own approach based on the specifics of the athletes in his charge. I propose only this: if a strength program has no scaffold, no core ideals, then it cannot be trusted and just might do more harm than good (see step one). That said, when it is done well, strength and conditioning can be one of the most rewarding coaching experiences in all of athletics.

Step One: Safety

The strength coach has a very clear and primary role: do not harm. In our line of work, keeping the athletes safe takes precedence. That means the strength coach must ensure three things:  emotional and psychological safety while under coach supervision, immediate physical safety (perfect technique and the use of an appropriate load (described in step #4)), and long-term safety by preparing an athlete’s body to meet the demands of his sport. This must be at the forefront of the coach’s mind at all times. A healthy athlete is a happy, productive athlete.

Our coaching staff meets regularly to assess ourselves in the context of safety. We are diligent in our self-reflection, continually asking if we have held students to a standard that will ensure their safety while in our company, and that the strength work we engage in will ensure their safety in the pool and beyond. We are relentless in this pursuit and, in many ways, the following steps all fold back into this core ideal.

Step Two: Uniformity

A body is a body. A flaw of many new (and some experienced) strength coaches is that they continually try to reinvent the wheel. The strength coach should stay on top of the literature, be well-versed in emerging science, and continually push his own competency in the field, but not at the expense of the basics. Too often a coach will look for novelty and neglect a strong foundation (see step one). A human body should have a strong core, consistent posture, healthy levels of mobility, and sufficient muscular structure to support its most used joints. How this is accomplished is variable, but it is always a good strategy to look at the best: I have been in weight rooms all over the country, spoken to professional, elite high school, BIG10, SEC, ACC, and Ivy League coaches, and I have yet to see a program that does not Squat, Clean, and work on upper body stabilization – those weight rooms likely exist, but I have yet to see them, and I would be curious to hear their rationale. Nathan Adrian squats. Katie Ledecky squats. Ryan Lochte squats. Rebecca Soni squats. The difference (and the job of the strength coach) is to determine how (variation and difficulty relative to an athlete’s proficiency) and when (timing relative to peak) that movement will be performed, while paying attention to their volume and intensity.

Undertraining the posterior chain through the glutes and hamstrings is one of the most common mistakes I have seen. It is true that added weight and bulk in the lower half will require more work to stay parallel to the surface (I’m certainly not suggesting swimmers pack on mass below the hips), but without a posterior chain which can activate and snap to streamline position quickly, then maintain the integrity of that posture through exhaustion, the swimmer will do more work overall and times will suffer.  Train the glutes and legs, but be deliberate. The elite high school and college coaches will keep an eye on each individual athlete, since there will be varying degrees of ‘gainer’ (ability to put on mass) within your population. As with everything, find the right balance for your individual team.

The second component to Uniformity is a clear performance expectation. Coaches, you must be relentless with your expectations for each lift (posture, depth, etc.) and be sure those expectations are shared are always met. An overhead squat or a weighted pullup should look the same no matter the performer. Again, this feeds heavily back into step one – so much of athletics is outside of our control – this is within, and we ought to take care.

Train the body first (strengthen), then train for the sport’s demands (specify).

Step Three: Swimmer Specificity

This is where the strength coach flexes his expertise. Tailoring a program to one’s clientele is the secret of the job. At New Trier, we take two components into consideration when designing programs: group experience/ability, and the specific demands of that group’s sport. For example, the varsity swim sessions will look different than the first-year swim sessions, which both look different than lacrosse or field hockey workouts.

After completing steps one and two, we identify the specific demands of our sport. For swimmers, we aim to protect their shoulders. We prepare their shoulders to meet demands in the pool, while ensuring we do not push to the point of overtraining – staying in close contact with the coaches to find out what is going on in the pool is essential to success in that realm. We supplement our weight/dryland training with daily stability band work. We have a routine consisting of Y, T, A extensions, strict-posture triceps variations, and single-leg external rotation. This is an expectation, so common that we simply write BAND AUX on the board and the athletes get right to work. Between these sets, the athletes work on shoulder mobility much like they would on deck (speed skaters, etc.) – for specifics and visual aids for these exercises, see Moving Forward section).

Other priorities for swimmers include ankle mobility, nervous system activation, and posture. Again, each of these refers back to step one.

Step Four: Appropriate Load

High School strength coaches have different challenges than their college counterparts. One of those considerations is developing strategies to incorporate intensity progressions which have been scientifically proven; specifically, we cannot make use of a rep/set scheme that uses, say, 85% of a max load, without an accurate max. Without an accurate max, the 85% is meaningless. We will never ask an unprepared athlete to push to full exertion (we have and never will have a freshman put on a max load); in fact, there is a very small percentage of our high school population from whom we can obtain accurate maxes. Last year we probably had four or five male varsity swimmers in that boat. With that in mind, we use the Appropriate Load Model (more on this in a different article). In short, we take well-tested scientific data and attempt to replicate its essential training purpose. We might give an athlete a rep set which looks something like this: Power Pull (5,5,3,5*) – the athlete will have completed a warmup, and these sets are to be done with full exertion. In this model, the athlete keeps a hyper attentive eye on their own ability; was the first set of 5 too easy? add weight for the second; did form start to waiver on that first set? take some weight off for the next – it is a constant process of self-reflective adjustment, which we have found to yield fantastic results in both performance and in an athlete’s psychology, since they have a high level of ownership in each day’s training. The asterisk after the final set of 5 indicates a distinction – in this case, we stipulate (AL: 8), which means that final set of 5 is performed with the Appropriate Load for a set of 8. The athlete selects his weight and loads the bar for a full set of 8 repetitions, but only performs 5. In these sets, we look for speed and perfect technique, since the load is the lightest it has been throughout the routine. (For more on Appropriate Load models and its success stories, see Moving Forward section).

Step Five: Performance

Taper/perform. This is where we really have fun. Program design in step #5 begins with everything mentioned in step #3, but arrives at the most individualized, sport specific considerations yet. First and foremost, timing. Every strength program should begin with a timeline which identifies where he intends the athletes to ‘peak’ their performance. Our timeline and taper theories are semi-proprietary, but I will share this: the physical and psychological benefits of the taper are widely documented and can be found online. Positive taper effects have been seen anywhere between 6-21 days from competition – finding the ‘sweet spot’ is up to a coach’s discretion and should align directly with the work the athletes are doing in the pool. What I am free to share is one of the models we use in our Performance phase (pre-taper): the Cluster Set, below.

 

Sample Workout

Warmup x2

Drop-Ins (4×4)

Band Auxiliary (Y,T,A; External Rotation; Kick-Fly) x2

Burpee Pullups (4×4)

Overhead SQ w/Band (4×4)

Cluster Sets

  • DL, AL: 6

Deadlift (4, (:30), 2, (:10), 4, (:20), 1, (:10), 3)

  • PP, AL: 8

Power Pull (4, (:20), 2, (:05), 4, (:10), 1, (:05), 3)

Finish: Core, Flutter Kicks

Sample Workout Explanation

Warmup: 10 continuous reps with an empty bar of Deadlift, Jump Shrug, Jump Raise, and Front Squat

Drop-Ins: from a height of 24-36 inches, athletes hover one foot off a ledge (plyo box, bench) and drop to the floor, quickly rebounding back up into the air – to best activate the plyometric response, tell the athletes that their heels should never touch the ground, and they should spend as little time on the ground as possible (for swimmers, we also ask the athletes to snap into streamline position at the top of the jump

Band Aux: Y,T,A, Triceps Kick/Fly, External Rotation, all completed with perfect posture

Overhead SQ w/Band: In lieu of resistance, the athletes stretch the bands work above their heads and perform strict squats with perfect depth (hip mobility), keeping tension on the upper half of the posterior chain throughout

Cluster Sets: the athlete loads the bar with their appropriate load for the indicated reps, then performs sub-maximal exertions with highly regulated rest periods between sets – the athlete does not leave the bar until he has completed all of the reps. Using the deadlift set as an example, the athlete pulls 14 repetitions over 2:00 with a weight he would have pulled for 6 reps – the total work has increased, so has the quality of the reps, but the athlete never hits 100% exertion. Specifically, I have included what is known as an ‘undulating’ cluster set, since the reps move up and down between 4 and 1. Alternatives include linear models (AL: 6 with repeating sets of 3), ascending and descending models (AL:6 with sets of 1,2,3,4,5 and 5,4,3,2,1, respectively).

At the end of the workout, we will have performed 16 pullups and 28 total reps of the day’s core lifts – as coaches, we note that none of these reps were performed at full exertion, but all were performed with speed and technique.

Finish: Core is a constant, and though we have worked it throughout the workout, we add some sort of “stable core” as a finisher – generally some combination of plank variations

Moving Forward

The overarching message is this: be prepared, but be flexible. The strength coach should have a set of ideals upon which his program is built (we start with these five steps), and plan according to a specific timeline, but never be afraid to change. We have brief discussions with our strength and swim coaches before and after every session. Sometimes we train through meets, sometimes we pull back on intensity to avoid burnout; whatever we do, we take great care to be deliberate – we are not always right (any coach who suggests otherwise is kidding himself), but we are always intentional. We have goals, we have structure, we adjust as necessary and we enter each session with a purpose.

At New Trier, we have a very specific weight room expectation: Train Like a Champion. We adopt the mindset that athletes don’t trip and fall into championships, they develop the bodies and minds of champions, and whatever happens in the pool is a demonstration of that process. We don’t need to win to be successful (although that’s a nice bonus), but we always prepare to be successful, which is a win in and of itself. As coaches, we should do the same. Coach Like a Champion.

For more on Appropriate Load theory or to learn more about specific lifts and how they are performed, feel free to contact me on Twitter @NTStrength.

 

*This article was originally published in NISCA Magazine, and received their ‘Best of 2016’ Award

The Coaches We Mean to Be

When fall rolls in, the leaves on the old oaks lining Appian Way provide an idyllic view from the corner office of Rick Weissbourd, Faculty Director of the Human Development and Psychology program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Rick is also the Co-Director of Making Caring Common, a national effort to make moral and social development priorities in child raising.

We had the privilege of sitting down with him to record an episode of the “Good Athlete Podcast”, which seems as appropriate now as ever. The discussion is an essential one. After all, sports don’t teach life lessons, intentional teachers and coaches use sports as a platform to teach life lessons. Rick agrees, as he does “not think there’s anything about sports, per se, that build character.” There are good sports environments and bad sports environments. It’s coaches. It’s culture. It’s not automatic.

rick-weissbourd_3_605

Photo credit: The Harvard Gazette

Similar to the research outlined in his book, The Parents we Mean to Be, Rick notes that some of life’s most valuable lessons can be taught by the mentors in this space, though they are not necessarily. In sports, one’s intense feelings are colliding with the intense feelings of another. A coach has the ability to create an environment that values competition but frames it in a healthy way so that both teams shake hands by the end of the game. On the other hand, the coach can also fuel negative feelings and demonize an opponent. Both of these situations regularly present themselves.

There’s clearly potential to influence young people through sports. The questions for the coach is, what will you do with it?

Empathy, for example, has become a staple concept in modern classrooms. Sports offer the opportunity for young people to empathize with people that are different than them. When the culture is appropriately created, they provide the opportunity to take other perspectives, to work together toward a shared goal.

Emotional regulation has provided massive psychological benefit for young people by assisting with stress-management, ability to focus, and ultimately resulting in feelings of self-worth. Healthy sports cultures teach young people to regulate their emotions in emotion-rich environments. Rick adds that “intense competition can be really good for kids” IF, in keeping with the theme, coaches help young people frame these moments. Intense competition does not include excessive violence and rule breaking. It can include full effort, quick decision making, and the prioritization of team over self. Emotions need to be regulated. That skill can serve as a successful strategy in many other areas of the student’s life.

What is so refreshing about Rick’s perspective is that he acknowledges that feelings of aggression and competition should not be met with shame. It is rarely okay to chastise a child for feeling any sort of way; rather, we have an opportunity to teach young people how to deal with those feelings. That, coaches, can be a life lesson.

He notes that these life lessons are not always conveyed in the ways we assume. Coaches who cultivate us-vs-them or win-at-all-costs cultures often include explicit or implied permissions of violence and rule breaking. Those are the toxic situations which undercut healthy adolescent development. Rather benignly, they create unpleasant experiences in sport and do not allow students to reap the full benefits of the experience.

If those toxic mindsets continue, how they transfer and present themselves in realms other than the field or court can be devastating. “Being a man” in artificial or violent ways, for example, often has a way of terrorizing relationships and unceremoniously ending any chance at social success.

That said, Rick’s mission is clearly aimed not at finger pointing, but at accurate looking. Counterbalancing those violent, toxic cultures, there are “everyone-gets-a-trophy-cultures.” These too can be harmful, since “kids need to learn to cope and deal constructively with underperformance.”

Unfortunately, popular opinions of sport seem to include either 1) win at all costs, or 2) you’re all perfect.

At the Good Athlete Project, the goal for students is to win as a team, with the win serving as the product of healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement.

We realize that the win is not all that matters, which is why the “healthy adherence to a process of constant improvement” line is so essential. Win or lose, students who learn that sort of lesson will undoubtedly be on a positive path.

So when the leaves change color this fall, let’s be intentional with what we teach. It could be deliberate practice, growth mindset, grit, or any character trait that might associate with longitudinal success.

Whatever it is, let’s align the coaches we are with the coaches we mean to be.

For more information regarding Rick’s work with Making Caring Common, find him here: https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/

 

 

 

 

Triple Salchows, Accurate Looking, and the Role of Exercise in Concussion Rehab

Although it was a typically sunny day in Colorado Springs, it was cold beside the ice rink in the Olympic Training Center. On assignment with the Good Athlete Project, a fellow coach and I stood against the glass watching elite athletes make toe loop, axel, and salchow jumps look easy. We stood there in awe, wondering how many hours it must have taken them to reach that level of expertise. Soon, a pair of young skaters approached our end of the rink. The female partner had successfully completed a triple loop off a throw twice before, but on the third attempt her toe caught and she hit the ice, hard.

In addition to bumps and bruises on the body, it is safe to assume that there was some effect on her brain.

The high speeds she reached (due to the speed of their approach and rotational inertia) might have approached 360 RPM. The impact incurred upon landing (ice is unforgiving…) would have certainly produced the shearing effect and minor structural damage in the brain we call “concussion.” With or without symptoms, it is safe to assume this level of impact would have had some negative effect on her brain. Degree and frequency determine how dangerous these falls can actually be (a nearby coach estimated a skater falls 20-30 times per session), but the obvious fact remains: figure skating is dangerous. I say this not to demonize the sport, but to reinforce the idea that concussions are not limited to contact sports. And since the vast majority of the 2.5 million people who visited the emergency room for TBI (traumatic brain injury) went for falls unrelated to sport, it is clear that concussions are a human issue.

If concussions are indeed a human issue, we should take care to look at the issue accurately. Football, the NFL in particular, has received the bulk of the concussion concern, with some calling for its elimination. Hockey, rugby, and wrestling are under increasing critique. While we should look closely at these notably high-contact sports, we should not stop there; a responsible approach will aim to protect all athletes.

And since sports are a potential mechanism for concussion, we need to increase preventative strategy during practice and competition, limiting the number of overall impacts incurred throughout a season. Governing bodies need to continue to implement and reassess the rules of all games. Local institutions should mandate preemptive strength and conditioning programs which protect the core, neck, and head. Upon injury, we should continue to improve our readiness and strategy for quick and conservative identification of concussion; and when a concussion has been diagnosed, mandate participation in diligent and directed rehabilitation under the guidance of a professional. If sports are not going anywhere, productive allocation of resources will be aimed at making the games safer, not misguided attempts at their elimination.

Physical Educators play a huge role in prevention with improvement and widespread implementation of strength and conditioning programs. Recent research suggests that there might be a role for Physical Educators in rehabilitation as well, as exercise has been linked to improvements in TBI patients. NYU professor and author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life, Wendy Suzuki, paired with Teresa Ashman to design an experiment to measure these effects. Their results were encouraging. Participants who exercised two times per week for eight weeks demonstrated significant improvement in mood and quality of life, and scored lower on measures of depression and fatigue (Lee, Ashman, & Suzuki, 2014). There seems to be an opportunity here for Physical Educators. The opportunity will begin to take shape after asking 5 essential questions:

  1. How often do Physical Educators communicate with the school’s Athletic Training Staff?
  2. Are you familiar with your school’s Return-to-Play protocol following concussion?
  3. How strong is the relationship between your school’s Athletic Training Staff, Athletic Department, and Physical Education Department?
  4. If exercise were to be used in Return-to-Play recovery protocol, who would be the experts on campus? (I hope the answer is you!)
  5. What opportunities are there in the existing school day for individualized exercise programs? Before school (zero hour)? During free periods? After school strength programs?

Recognizing the potential of exercise in the rehabilitation of concussion is essential, acknowledging that there are exercise experts on campus (PE teachers) is key, but answering those 5 questions will begin to build a path toward implementation. It works. The next step is to figure out how it works for you, at your school. Each school will be unique.

Among many benefits, exercise has been repeatedly linked to improved cognitive function (Cotman & Engesser-Cesar, 1985; Voss, et al, 2013), decreased stress and anxiety (Herring, O’Connor, & Dishman, 2010; Adlard & Cotman, 2004), and now demonstrates positive effects on those effected by TBI. Physical Educators can play an important role on both ends of the injury spectrum: prevention and recovery. That is, if they chose to take full advantage of their platform.

 

The skater’s partner helped her up off the ice and she dusted herself off. She did not appear symptomatic. Her coach called out to her. She took a moment and gave a quick “thumbs up” before skating on, prepping for her next attempt. She’s probably fine. The minor damage she could have incurred will more than likely fully heal. But it’s worth taking a look. Accurate looking, cautious care, deliberate thinking… that’s the whole idea.

 

*this article was originally published on SlowChatHealth

 

  • Voss M.W., Vivar C., Kramer A.F., van Praag H. (2013). Bridging animal and human models of exercise-induced plasticity. Trends in Cognitive Science 17(10) 525-544.
  • Herring M.P., O’Connor P.J., and Dishman R.K. (2010). The Effect of Exercise Training on Anxiety Symptoms Among Patients: A Systematic Review. Archives of Internal Medicine, 170: 127-133.
  • Adlard P.A., and Cotman C.W. (2004). Voluntary Exercise Protectts against Stress-Induced Decreases in Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor Protein Expression. Neuroscience 124: 985-992.
  • Cotman C.W. and Engesser-Cesar C. (2002). Exercise Enhances and Protects Brain Function. Exercise and Sport Science Reviews 30: 75-79.
  • Lee Y.S., Ashman T., Shang A., and Suzuki W. (2014). Brief Report: Effects of Exercise and Self-Affirmation Intervention after Traumatic Brain Injury. NeuroRehabilitation 35: 57-65.

 

Lost Boyz: Baseball as Education

LaVonte Stewart is not shy about his criminal record, which could “stretch across the street.” It is his past which makes his message so powerful. He is the leader of the Lost Boyz, a sports-based youth development program on Chicago’s South Shore. Students come to the Lost Boyz to play baseball and fast pitch softball, but learn far more than how to throw or swing. When you are one of the Lost Boyz, you grow as a human being. It is not where you begin that defines you, LaVonte suggests, but how you develop, and how you positively affect the world.

We first met LaVonte at the Lost Boyz headquarters and immediately respected his mission and approach. He aims for “raw, real conversations” that are missing from so many educational environments. For LaVonte, sports are the hook. Once he’s hooked you, the education begins, with civic engagement, academic preparation, cultural enrichment, and service learning at its core. Relationship building is equally important to LaVonte and his staff, since “many of the kids we engage with have toxic relationships in their lives.” The Lost Boyz do more than expose their students to positive relationships. They are also exposed to other cultures, taken “out of the homogenous area they’re in to learn about other types of people.” Exposure to new ideas adds depth to one’s thinking. It also helps develop a skill set which, once students graduate into the working world, helps people engage in respectful, productive collaboration. An important ability, since “Chicago is the one of the most segregated cities in the world.” LaVonte hopes to bridge that gap.

Service learning is another important aspect of the Lost Boyz curriculum, contributing to a deepening sense of extended community. They serve a dual purpose, as the projects also empower those reaching out, bringing young people a sense of accomplishment, “instead of always being on the receiving end of service efforts.” LaVonte looks for mutually enhancing relationships, especially since he sees Chicagoans, regardless of which side of the city they are from, as an incredibly loyal bunch. That can be good and bad, since fierce loyalty can keep communities homogenous. “We don’t venture out like we should,” he says.

LaVonte has taken it upon himself to solve issues which he believes have been sensationalized, though it has not always been an easy task. There were times when he and his family had to be on food stamps before the non-profit took off. He kept a dream of helping his community in sight, and passion kept him moving incrementally forward. He knows the importance of his work. He has seen the positive effects of it, and felt the heartbreak when members of his community fell victim to violence and lives of crime. The rampant level of sensational media has not helped – perhaps most obviously in the portrayal of police violence against people of color. As he notes, we are all aware that the problem exists, the question is, what are we going to do about it?

Beyond the Badge is one of the powerful strategies used by LaVonte and his team. We stopped by this summer, when the Lost Boyz hosted an event to demonstrate community appreciation for 34th district Chicago police. The event featured barbeque, music, and a softball game where a team of officers took on a team from the community. At one point during the day, there was an exchange of gifts: athletes gave gift bags to the officers, and the officers pinned badges on their uniforms. There were hugs, handshakes, and laughs. The event was the culmination of the year’s efforts, which included workshops at Lost Boyz headquarters where police and students engaged in some of those “raw, real conversations.” There were tense moments, but all sides came out feeling like they understood each other better. In a world of prejudice and knee jerk reaction, these sessions were allowing each side to paint a more complete picture of the other. Without further prompting from LaVonte, those police-student relationships continued. Members of the department often checked in on students, bringing school supplies and words of encouragement. Many of those relationships continue to this day.

LaVonte’s positive approach comes somewhat in response to “so-called activist groups” who would aim to capitalize on issues but only make them worse. We know the problem that exists between black men and police, it has existed for generations. “The police were started as a slave patrol – we know where the issue is, so how do we address it?” he asked. With the acknowledgment that community-police relations are bad and might be getting worse (or at least more public), LaVonte strives to find a solution other than violence. The answer is relationships, friendships – “instead of compounding the pain, we try to amend it.”  In our conversation, he brings up Dr. King, who said “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” Light is love, he adds.

The Lost Boyz certainly build relationships. It is encouraging to see. So much of their work cannot be represented in statistics or any sort of quantifiable data, but when you are standing alongside LaVonte at one of the Lost Boyz events, you can feel it. This work has power. And you can hear it, never more than in my favorite story from the day. One of the Lost Boyz, a graduating senior and an especially friendly young man, stood about 6’4” and was a true success story. He was heading off to college, to play baseball. His talent was cultivated by the coaches of Lost Boyz, What cannot be seen when he steps on the mound next spring is that his test scores were improved and his college journey was supported by LaVonte and his staff. But that’s not all. As we stood together watching the last few kids tossing a ball in the street, this young man told us that he would be working toward a career in criminal justice. A future police officer, hoping to make the world a safer place. A young man, no longer a boy. No longer lost.

 

 

Find more about the Lost Boyz here, and hear our conversation with LaVonte here or by searching “Good Athlete Podcast” on iTunes or Soundcloud

This article was originally published online at the Good Men Project

 

JIM DAVIS is the Director of the Good Athlete Project, an education consulting foundation which helps students realize their potential through athletics. Jim is a graduate of Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Knox College. He is a former international semi-professional football player and current coach. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @coach4kindness