Because Syracuse University’s football team does so poorly, almost anybody who watches them probably has some theory about it. What you generally hear is that the coach is incompetent, so throw him out. Or that the coach is OK, just be patient and give him time to instill his new methods. And here comes Dave with yet another theory! But hear me out, I don’t think you’ve run across this angle.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
A couple years ago, I had a young acquaintance who had been part of the SU football program. He was a very big, strong guy, and I had met him because he was working as a building contractor to make some extra money. His idea of a good time was doing very heavy high pulls and the like. As I recall, he had graduated, and was hoping to get a team coaching position. He had injured his leg while he was a player, and was still feeling the effects.
Although injured, and no longer on the team roster, he continued to work out with the team. A few times when he was working on home repairs, I was there to help out. Though his impressive strength was very useful for building tasks, he was often very tired and sore. He explained that along with full days of contractor work, he was still going to every workout, and made reference to the coach working him very hard. As I was a personal trainer, I asked him if he might be overtraining. He brushed this off entirely – after all, he was much bigger and stronger than I was, and he had been lifting very heavy weights for years, so what did I know? He also made references to pencil-neck guys in the training rooms who thought they knew what they were talking about. To his credit, he was a nice guy, and worded it much more diplomatically than that, but the meaning came through.
But much more erudite training specialists than I have been warning of the dangers of overtraining for many years. I had two basic questions in mind. First, why was this guy training this hard for a coaching job? How messed up is that? Also, when a person is obviously hurt, what kind of coach doesn’t adjust their training program one iota?
There is still an outmoded, highly harsh old-school type of coaching that goes on in many schools. The students are made to work until they’re hurt, maybe even vomiting. When they try to rest or show any pain, they are accused of being a [insert your favorite anti-gay slur here], or of being losers. Punishment is then meted out, often in the form of endless pushups, or many laps around a track. Even amongst less abusive coaches, they still use very outmoded training, such as doing running many slow laps around a track for sports that require explosive, short bursts of speed, and have little need for a long-distance endurance component. Like any training method, it starts out with good intentions: hard work is important, not giving up is crucial, and so on. But take that to an extreme, and you end up with a team of walking wounded. Also, it’s not fun – it’s basically a battle and war of attrition as everyone gets overtrained and injured. And the saddest cases are these guys who don’t get any pro athletic career and have lifelong injuries, and of course the school has long since forgotten about them, because if they’re not winning games right now, they’re disposable.
Since I am not there to see their training sessions, I have no way of knowing for sure, but I wonder if the SU coaches are anything like this. My young friend certainly did not stand out as a benefactor of good training methods. And their current impressively high injury rate (something like ten men down) seems to bear this out. You can’t coddle football players, it’s a very tough, violent sport, and players accept that as part of the deal. Hard work is absolutely required. But if your team is doing poorly, simply adding much more work (duh!) isn’t the answer. More intelligent work and better strategies could be the answer. It’s worth giving it a try.
A common example of outmoded training was actually brought up by Frank’s comment below. In fact, you’d see this more in high school than in college, where most coaches seem to have a clue (except for our poor SU football program. I bet Jim Boeheim could walk in cold and get them to win more games). The only endurance training many people see is the poor schlubs slowly jogging mile after mile. What they don’t know is that it’s possible to do endurance training with little or no “long slow distance” running. It can take less time, and can also complement explosive speed. Interval training is a great way to do that, and to me, a bonus is that it’s much less boring. I expect the general public not to be aware of this, but not coaches. But many coaches won’t change. Slow laps become an afterthought, a perfunctory nod to endurance training that requires no planning or thought. It’s like people in any profession: many of them simply replicate what they first learned, and their knowledge stops at that point in time, while the whole rest of the world passes them by. Couple that with a lot of testosterone, and you know they ain’t gonna be changing their methods any time soon.