Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Iowa Mess and the Role of Strength and Conditioning Coaches

The recent hospitalization of 13 Iowa college football players from a kidney disorder brought on by excessive workouts highlights the unique and under-appreciated role of modern strength and conditioning personnel. I don't want to get into the discussion about whether the Iowa trainer and football team made a mistake, but this incident highlights the vital role that the modern college strength and conditioning coach plays.

Their role has assumed such importance largely because of modern NCAA regulations. To protect student-athletes from excessive interference especially in the off season, NCAA coaches have very strict limits upon the amount of official contact they can have with student athletes both during and off season. Specifically they can have 8 hours of contact in off season and are constrained by how much can team coaching. This radically limits the official contact between student athletes and their team coaches.

Elite college sport, however, has developed into a year around activity. Much of the noncompetitive time is spent doing "voluntary" video study, but the most important time is spent in the weight and conditioning centers. These become mandatory social gatherings but above all this is the time when athletes build up the strength, endurance, flexibility and quickness made possible by modern training techniques. Every coach will tell you that off season conditioning determines in season performance. If you look at before and after pictures of freshmen and juniors, you can see the sheer physical and psychological difference this incessant work makes in the structure of being for the student athlete.

Even as the NCAA has tried to limit the coaching staffs of teams, the non-coach coaches have proliferated, and no where more so than in the strength and conditioning staff. One of the conflicts that bedevils NCAA enforcement that was revealed in the Michigan rulings is how seamless and important the strength/conditioning staff are, and they are now designated as "coaches." They often end up on the practice field looking a lot like coaches as distinctions around techniques of explosiveness or quickness seamlessly mesh with stances and play recognition.

The proliferation of strength/conditioning staff, their vital importance in developing strength and skill, the limits on coaching contact hours mean that during the long off seasons student athletes will spend hundreds of hours with strength and conditioning staff. Students often know and trust their conditioning staff more than their regular coaches.

This means modern strength and condition coaches assume a role of immense importance in student athlete lives.

The strength and conditioning coaches work with athletes to maximize their physical potential. Most trainers now specialize by teams and even position because of the different muscular, flexibility, endurance and power requirements of each sport. But the S/C coaches not only condition to maximize performance but they are critical to prevent injury. The modern training regime aims at strengthening ACLs in some sports or teach proper form or core strength to minimize injury. The strength and conditioning folks not only prevent but are vital bridges along with trainers to help athletes rehab from injuries.

All these activities place serous moral obligations upon the strength and conditioning coaches, and the obligations can be in conflict. They work with team coaches and feel coaches' pressure to maximize development and performance and bring athletes along as quick as possible. But the student athletes rely upon S/C coaches to keep them safe, help prevent injury and rehab at the correct rate and only release them ready. Here th S/C coaches work closely with athletic medical trainers and doctors.

The strength and conditioning coaches also serve as the early warning system for student athlete welfare. They see athletes every day. They learn athletes bodies and moods and can spot signs of emotional or physical distress long before coaches will see them. In fact many student athletes will hide their injuries from coaches for fear of being demoted.

The easy and demanding familiarity among student athletes and strength and conditioning staff engenders relations of trust. Students will often talk with S/C coaches about stuff they would never bring up with their team coaches. This places S/C coaches in a unique position to do great good and great harm to student athletes.

For instance as seems to be the case in the Iowa incident, strength and conditioning personnel set up challenges. They help students grow mentally and emotionally. Student athletes will tell you that they often end up performing at levels they did not believe possible because of the help of S/C coaches. Physical development demands great mental and emotional focus and discipline. It depends upon the ability of students to fail and try again and fail and try again and again until they master a performance level and then move to another. The process of conditioning development involves a fine edge of task of managing failure, growth, and challenge.

The S/C coaches need to be good psychologists as they demand, and set challenges and build performance, but they must also integrate safety into their programs and plans. This oversee a razor's edge for students where every challenge imposes the risk that the student will not be ready or could injure themselves, so strength and conditioning coaches must be masters of balancing that margin of preparation, challenge, risk and safety.

They must be tough, and some can be like the proverbial marine drill sergeant. But the great ones know how to be tough and demanding but also they listen and care. They teach student athletes to listen and care for the bodies and help athletes learn to cope with failure but self-discover the confidence and motivation to grow and learn and meet challenges.

In well designed athletic departments the S/C coaches work with trainers and coaches and student academic staff to monitor health and welfare of student athletes. They are a critical member of the student welfare team, and the athletes deeply rely upon them. This is what makes the Iowa incident so troubling because good S/C programs students for challenges and set challenges that stretch and grow athletes based upon prior preparation, not challenges that hurt them without proper preparation.

I don't know the full details of the incident, but I do know it reminds us that a good strength and conditioning coach should be the athletes' ally in becoming a better athlete and person, not a threat.

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