Much have been made of the death of Maryland freshman Jordan McNair, who died during a spring work at Maryland in May. The Guardian’s Patrick Hruby writes about the “Junction Boys Syndrome” and this all rings too true. There is a fine line between training and mentally preparing a player for the rigors of college football, but it seems as if the attitude of strength coaches is all too familiar.
But they are. Athletes are asked to do too much, too fast, for too long, performing workouts that are untethered from both the sport’s demands and basic principles of exercise science. Too many college coaches use offseason workouts as a tool for developing mental and emotional toughness – as a way to inflict physical pain and suffering, the better to push the limits of what their players are willing and able to endure.
Given football’s brutal nature, this almost understandable. But it’s also dumb. Anderson has a name for it: “Junction Boys Syndrome,” a reference to the famous – and infamous – preseason training camp held by former Texas A&M University football coach Bear Bryant in 1954 that featured scorching temperatures, punishing, day-long practices and no water breaks. The ordeal was later documented in a book and made into an ESPN movie, and its antiquated, Darwinian attitude toward conditioning – weed out the weak with sadistic workouts, so that the strong can survive and win – remains alive and well today.
Embarass. Break down. Discourage. Push beyond normal limits. If it takes those tactics for a strength coach to get that player ready, then that’s probably on the strength coach. I had completely forgotten that there was a death on Coach Sonny Dykes’ watch while at Cal in 2014, a $4.75 million settlement as a result of a “Code Red” assuault on running Fabiano Hale, a strength coach, Damon Harrington, that Dykes hired, kept coaching at Cal until last year.
It reminded of this article from Texas Tech strength coach Rusty Whitt, “Your Players Are Not Navy Seals.” I’ve kept it bookmarked since it published and I often go back to this when I think about how Kingsbury is attempting to change the identity of the program. Whitt recounts the initial training as part of the Special Forces Qualification Course and it’s not pretty. Whitt’s message is simple:
“HUMANS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN HARDWARE.”
Whitt goes through his thought process in how players should be trained, and his conclusion isn’t something that’s intended for you or me, but the strength and conditioning staffs that should probably read this sort of thing.
Strength and conditioning professionals are often the last line of defense of common sense training and have to stand their ground on matters of periodization, escalation of intensity and unrealistic training scenarios. Formulate a plan ahead of time, anticipate the training atmosphere that a head coach wants to instill, devise a strategy and stand behind it. Special Operations Forces cannot be mass-produced. It falls on the strength and conditioning professional to create a training culture that produces results over time. Document gradual improvements and report them to the coaching staff. When the specific sport coaches understand there is a sustained, dedicated process towards improvement, you are less likely to have sudden, severe accidents or injuries while training.
In Whitt’s article, he even acknowledges the idea of training for those 33% that are at risk for severe injury. I’m burying the lede here though.
The overwhelming theme here is that change and progress are incremental, long-term change cannot be rushed, and I believe this is a truth. Maybe I believe it because there are no other options before me that I can choose. But I think that Texas Tech’s best chance of long-term success is to build, develop, and grow these players so that when they’re redshirt sophomores, juniors and seniors, that they are ready to contribute in a big way. That’s the mark of a program headed in the right direction.
This isn’t to say that all of the players are saints or that this program is perfect. I know that it’s not. Kingsbury has given second chances to guys that you’ll have to decide for yourself if they were appropriate. There are only two that I can think of, Dakota Allen and Jett Duffey. The wins. Or the lack of wins is a huge and the most important deal. If those wins are here, we’re not sitting here and I’m not writing this piece.
I mentioned in the prior piece that during Kingsbury’s birthday surprise that he looked surprised, a bit embarrassed, happy, and flattered. This is officially his baby from the top down and make no mistake that I’m cheering for Kingsbury to succeed. Regardless as to what happens this year, I honestly believe that Kingsbury has the program in a better place than when he found it.