Football is Holding Back the Strength and Conditioning Profession- A reaction to the Oregon fiasco: – Science of Running

Interview with Tony Holler – Science of Running


Yesterday, news broke that several Oregon players had been admitted to the hospital due to an excessively strenuous workout that the new strength and condition coaches implemented. It consisted of an hour of continuous “push ups and up/downs,” among other things.

Appalled by such a blatant mistake in my profession, I posted a link with a comment that punishment does not build toughness, and the reactions were interesting and distinct. On one hand, you had individuals who were appalled that a coach would put players through a workout difficult enough to cause “rhabdo”(a breakdown of the muscle) and who were dismayed that an “hour of push-ups and up/downs” could be considered good coaching in any way.

On the other hand, I received plenty of comments about how the players are just weak, need to toughen up, and profane comments I’d rather not write. In addition, I got told that a runner shouldn’t comment, or that football is all about these kinds of workouts and I just don’t understand.

And it wasn’t just me, the writer of the piece had the same reaction to comments. The comments in the original article are much the same. Many commenters proclaiming how soft and out of shape the athletes must be…

Let’s start with the obvious, there is nothing weak about having your pee change colors because of rhabdo. There is nothing “soft” about potentially passing out or having elevated creatine kinase levels (a marker of muscle damage). There is nothing smart about an hour of push-ups and up/downs. If this was the workout prescribed, then I’m going to go ahead and assume the point was to “toughen up” the athletes. Apply some “military style” training to make a point… We all can agree that this type of workout has little physical impact for playing football…

Which brings me to the point, this mentality is what is holding back the profession of Strength and Conditioning. A mentality of punishment, fear, and what I call “fake toughness.”

Fake Toughness

People have a misconception on what toughness is. It isn’t about gritting your teeth and powering through an obstacle. It’s not about mud runs and silly things that look difficult but aren’t. Toughness is about making the right decisions under stress and fatigue. It’s about having the ability and wherewithal to slow the world down, make the right decisions or choose the correct coping strategy.

When we are racing, it’s about choosing to push on and cover the surge versus slowing down when we hit halfway in the mile. In football, it’s about having the capacity to stay calm and run your precise route as a receiver with full attention despite being exhausted and beat down. It’s about running it at max speed instead of half-assing your way through the next play because you are tired. Toughness is getting it right when stress, fatigue, and pressure are high. It’s about handling uncertainty and being able to adjust to whatever is thrown at you.

There is a secret that the meathead athlete doesn’t want you to know, often, the toughest athletes, are the quietest and physically unimpressive. They go about their business and turn on their perseverance when they need to.

Fake toughness, on the other hand, is all about creating the appearance of being tough without actually being tough. It’s about looking tough in controlled environments. About appearing strong and powerful in conditions that are certain.

There’s a simple trick to recognize fake toughness, the more you talk about how tough you are, the higher likelihood of you being fake tough.

Why? It’s insecurity. Deep down, they know they really aren’t tough. They have to put forth an outward façade to convince others that they have grit and perseverance and all of the other buzzwords. They talk up their grueling workouts and their feats of accomplishment. They are the ones posting pictures on instagram of them working out in the rain or mud, or tweeting about how they trained hard on Christmas when everyone was sleeping. They desperately NEED the world to see them as tough. They don’t believe they are, so they need reassurance and validation.

And that’s why athletes and coaches desperately cling to “hell” weeks or boot camps with insane workouts, and other silly nonsense that makes little difference when applied over such a short period of time.

This is football S&C coach mentality 101. We need to get big, and we need to get tough. And it’s precisely this mentality that is holding back S&C.

But wait, am I saying don’t do really hard workouts? No, not at all. My athletes work hard, but they choose to. And that’s the difference…

Screaming and Cussing

A major facet of the football S&C coach mentality is the screaming, cussing, and yelling. Now, I’m not opposed to getting in someone’s face if you have to, but when it becomes your primary form of communication and motivation, there’s a problem.

The issue is simple. Whenever you have to cuss someone out and yell at them in order to get the next workout done, the athlete is not doing it because they want to. They are doing it because they have to. They aren’t doing it for its own intrinsic value or because they want to get better, or to help the team out. No, they are doing it because some external person is yelling at or punishing them.

What happens psychologically is that becomes their mindset. They quickly internalize that the reason they work out hard is because of the fear of punishment. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that pushing athletes to be reliant on fear, which leads to a sole focus on extrinsic motivation is not a sustainable route.

It’s simple psychology. If we give kids crayons to color with, they are more likely to continue coloring and enjoy the activity, if they CHOOSE to do so themselves versus if they are demanded by the teacher or told that they have to color in order to receive X prize.

And as coaches, what we are trying to do is internalize a want, desire, and drive to CHOOSE to complete the workout in the way it was designed.

When your coach isn’t standing over you screaming like in the weight room, then when it’s you alone, in your head, running that route or blocking that defensive lineman rushing the quarterback, it comes back to how tough you actually are. Not how tough you are when someone’s screaming right there. How tough you are alone.

And that’s where things differ. If you are ingrained with a mindset that you are putting in work for your and your teams sake, because you want to get better, you will choose to push through whatever it is you are facing. If you only perform because of something external, when push comes to shove, you will crater.

Why are we attempting to internalize the wrong REASON for performing? That’s the question that needs answered.

“But, that’s the only way you can get that many players to do their work!” said a commenter.

I’ve coached at every level, High School, College, and Pro. At each level, we’ve figured out how to get talented and not-so-talented athletes to put in grueling training, often for months by themselves. I coach in Houston, Texas. A place that is miserable to train in during the summer months. Yet, somehow almost all of my team finds a way to spend 2 months by themselves and put in 70-80-90-100 miles per week. Even the walk-ons. Yes, occasionally you have the athlete who doesn’t do what they need to do. But if all of us track coaches can convince a 16 year old kid that he needs to run 9 miles a day in the summer, even though he’s only run 5:30 in the mile, should we really be throwing our hands up and saying “The only way these college football players will put in the work is if we yell, scream, cuss, and punish them!”

Coach or Disciplinarian

In America, as Dr. Keith Baar pointed out, the strength coach is often seen as part coach-part cheerleader. They are the get in your face, yell and scream at you to get things done. They are often the disciplinarian who exacts grueling punishments for showing up late or breaking a rule.

When we look at the development and education of most S&C coaches in America it makes sense. A majority who work with team sports come out of the football culture. They played football or were the bigger guys who enjoyed lifting and getting strong in the weight room.

In the UK and overseas it’s a bit different. As a lecturer at St Mary’s University, I was pleasantly surprised by my interaction with dozens of aspiring coaches. They weren’t held back by an American football mentality of get big, get tough, and scream in their face. Instead, they were willing to listen to some 140 pound runner telling them how to get people fast and what kind of lifting and conditioning to do for endurance athletes.

They were students who wanted an understanding of not only how to get big, but the physiology and psychology behind making a person a better athlete.

Now I’m painting with a broad brush here. There are fantastic American strength coaches. Many of whom I’m indebted to for their sharing of knowledge. But, these are the coaches who have a thirst for knowledge and understanding. They are where the profession is headed. These are the ones who want to make their athletes better and don’t care where the knowledge comes from.

To illustrate the point, when I was lecturing in the UK, two of my co-lecturers were legends in the field, Dan John and Dan Baker. These are two big guys who love lifting. Yet, during one of the Q & A sessions, we spent 20 minutes talking about Percy Cerutty, a wiry Australian distance coach who led Herb Elliott to the gold in the 1500m at the Rome Olympics. Here aretwo big guys, talking about a distance coach and his athletes.

That’s because true coaches are coaches. They aren’t S&C guys, or football conditioning experts, they are coaches. It’s why guys like Vern Gambetta or Stu McMillan or Jim Radcliffe can bounce between sports with no problem. It’s why in a conversation with one of my mentors, Tom Tellez, he stood up and demonstrated how a thrower blocks with his opposite arm, and then corrected a football quarterback blocking incorrectly while throwing a football. Why? Because the implement didn’t matter, the movement and mechanics did.

With the football S&C mindset, we forget that we are trying to develop athletes who perform on the track, field, or court. The end goal is not to spend more time in the weight room or to get “big and tough”

Or, as, somewhat ironically, the former Oregon football strength coach and absolute legend in the sport, Jim Radcliffe, says “We want bullets, not bowling balls.”

So what?

Football is holding back the profession of S&C. It creates a bubble, where the vast majority of strength coaches are hired for football. They start with that as their framework, and unfortunately, few venture outside of it. There is no understanding of endurance development (or as I like to call it, true conditioning…). There is no understanding of the psychology of toughness or motivation. There is no understanding of sprint acceleration mechanics.

Instead, we’re left with a bunch of copycat coaches who can’t escape their silos. I realize I’m painting with broad strokes, but it’s a necessity to get the message across. If strength and conditioning coaches want to expand their profession, they need to drop the “old school” football disciplinarian roots. You shouldn’t be laughing at the skinny distance runners, but learning from them. You shouldn’t be mocking the sprint coaches doing reactive work instead of putting more weight on the bar, but understanding how that creates speed.

You should be discussing Percy Cerutty. The great coaches already are. But go ahead, continue in your siloed world, where dropping F bombs every other sentence is acceptable, and giving kids rhabdo is seen as a badge of honor since you sure showed those 18-year old kids who was boss…

I’ve been fortunate enough to construct Strength workouts for many world-class runners, as well as advise some NFL S&C coaches, along with other pro team sports. Every year I head across the ocean to act an adjunct Lecturer in S&C for St. Mary’s University. Every year, I am by far the weakest person in the room. But that doesn’t matter, because, in that room, we’re all coaches, trying to get better.

I am not a strength coach. I am not a track coach. I am a coach.


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