Conditioned to lose: Weight-room inconsistencies at fault for injuries
Rightly or wrongly, in-season injuries sometimes blamed on offseason work
Jaguars fired two strength coaches after injuries piled up last season
Teams go about conditioning athletes in many different ways
Most NFL offseason conditioning programs started in earnest this week, not that Jay Cutler plans on attending Denver's. Don't think the offseason program means anything? Think again. A lot of the injuries that happen between August and January are attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the work, or lack thereof, being put in right now.
The funny thing is, not every strength coach seems to realize his primary job is injury prevention. The lack of research or science behind some of the conditioning programs in the NFL is startling. You would think if an owner is going to spend up to $127 million on his players, he would want to make sure his investment was being protected and not further beat down, as is still the case in some places.
I have seen the impact some NFL strength coaches have had. The results have been staggering, both positively and negatively. I was on a team whose strength coach was intent on the players doing power cleans, a lift in which the player propels the weight to his shoulders in an explosive manner from the floor. Of the six or seven linemen who worked out all offseason with him, three had back surgeries within four months of each other. Maybe it was simply a coincidence. I doubt it.
There is another well-known strength coach whose program is the same for every position on the team. Now the actual weights the players lift may be different, but the specific exercises that every player is asked to complete are identical, which makes absolutely no sense to me. How can he possibly think offensive linemen and cornerbacks are the same type of athletes and need the same workouts? That's like training a bear and a cheetah to hunt the same way. They're different animals.
Interior linemen and perimeter skill guys are barely even playing the same sport if you ask me. Offensive linemen need to focus on power, short-area quickness and lateral movement. Cover corners need to concentrate on speed, flexibility and fluidity in and out of their breaks.
The NFL is not like high school or even college, where the main focus is on the players making gains in both strength and speed as their younger bodies continue to mature and develop. Though that is certainly still a goal among some NFL players, it is not the primary one. NFL players already possess a certain level of strength and speed; otherwise they never would have made it onto a roster.
Instead, the most important thing an NFL strength and conditioning program can do is help the players make strides towards promoting their joint health, not breaking it down further. If players had the chance to choose between being a little bit stronger, a little bit faster or feeling a little bit healthier physically for a game, trust me, healthy would win every time. It is never a good feeling walking onto an NFL playing field when something is really bothering you physically. I can't tell you how many times before a game I thought, If only this wasn't bothering me so much ...
I have always felt the best idea is to make the offseason program as player-friendly and adaptable as possible. That doesn't mean coddle the players. It means work them hard but smart, and be willing to alter the program according to a specific player's likes and dislikes. After all, they are paid professionals and they should know their body better than anyone. A player who is pleased with the program is more likely to not only attend the sessions himself but also tell all of the other players that they should fall in line. And the more guys there, the better, working together for team chemistry purposes.
What amazes me is that after all the research that has been done, there still seems to be little to no consensus as to the best way to train professional football players. Seemingly every strength coach has his own beliefs. Some coaches are huge proponents of the explosion garnered from the Olympic lifts, like cleans, jerks and snatches. Others continue to believe the crux of the program should revolve around the power lifts, like bench press, squat and dead lift. Still others adhere strictly to the high intensity mindset and have their players mainly work out using joint-friendly Hammer Strength machines.
The same holds true for the running component of offseason conditioning as well. Some focus mainly on speed work, while others place the major emphasis on conditioning. There are a few coaches who prefer working on agility exercises, while others believe mainly in position-specific drills. Still others prefer to mix and match all of the lifting and running philosophies, a hodge-podge of sorts.
Their work and results don't go unnoticed. Just last offseason, Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio fired his strength and conditioning coaches, Mark Asanovich and Les Ebert. He did so after a string of injuries, especially a heavy toll along the offensive line, helped doom the Jaguars '08 season.
Key injuries can be devastating, especially in a salary cap era in which the depth on a team is usually comprised of young, inexpensive and inexperienced players who may not be ready to succeed week in and week out on Sundays.
Del Rio was unwavering when asked immediately after the season if decreasing injuries was the primary focus of the offseason program, saying, "That's the goal," he said. "Everybody that wants to be a Jaguar [in 2009] will be here. Anybody who wants to be a Jaguar will be working out with the team." Not exactly a subtle hint about his feelings concerning participation in the voluntary offseason program, huh?
I realize that some might consider it unfair to pin certain circumstantial injuries on strength coaches, but that can be a reality in the cutthroat NFL. Though I agree it can be difficult to correlate a specific injury on a unique individual to a certain workout program, a trend of similar injuries or a boatload of injuries in general is problematic. That is why NFL strength and conditioning coaches would be wise to do whatever it takes to try to ensure their players are physically healthy and prepared for the rigors of the season ahead. If not, they might be the next to get fired.
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