The Times West Virginian

June 24, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: The ways teams train has changed the sports world

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — What they have done with the West Virginia University football team’s weight room is impressive.

The best of equipment that donor money can buy sat there on Tuesday morning, at the moment alone, awaiting the return of eager football players, ready to heave and ho and sweat, pumping iron to get stronger and faster, more agile and more durable.

Outside, behind Milan Puskar Stadium, sat Law School Hill, a stairway to heaven … or is it hell, for the players spent a good part of their summer running up and then recovering so they can meet the challenge again.

It’s an interesting contrast, Law School Hill being old-school physical training that challenged players from Major Harris’ era with all the latest equipment in the weight room doing things the players on that unbeaten team never imagined anyone doing.

Mike Joseph is the man in charge, the Mountaineer director of strength and conditioning, fully aware that things are changing yearly. It’s hard to imagine that once upon a time coaches wouldn’t allow baseball players to lift weights, thinking they would become too muscle-bound to swing naturally, or to swim for fear of the same thing hurting their throwing.

Now, this has become a science unto itself … exercise to strengthen this muscle or that muscle, ways to increase speed, to add to flexibility rather than to restrict it, ways to increase endurance.

They watch what you eat now, nutrition being as important as hydration. They check on a player’s sleeping habits as well as his eating habits.

“January to August is very hard for kids. We’re pushing harder,” Joseph said. “I would argue every one of the kids on the team has bought in and is working harder and allowing us to push them harder. Their bodies are at a higher point of stress than they ever were before.

“But that’s until August. Then we go to camp and the rest of the year we are trying to stay strong and stay fast, while we are recovering so we are fresh for each game and healthy for each game.”

He sells them on effort, knowing everything will take care of itself from there.

“My goal as a player was always to outwork everybody. That’s the same way I try to be with my staff and it carries over to the team,” Joseph said. “We are never going to be outworked and we are never going to be undisciplined in work ethic. We are going to be accountable, we will give great effort and we will finish everything.

“That’s one thing I preach every day. We demand it out of our drills and out of our lifting. I will argue, and I will question anyone who wants to argue, that there are no other teams that work any harder than us. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get wins or if we don’t show it on the field, but I will argue no one works harder and I believe that will transition into wins.

“Our guys will outwork everybody and when we step on the field in August against Alabama, we’ll show where we stand.”

This emphasis on strength and conditioning has not only changed the athlete.

It’s changed the game.

All our sports are different, football maybe more than any other and there’s irony there, too.

For the bigger and stronger players got, the less the game evolved toward strength against strength.

There are no more Steel Curtains in Pittsburgh, no more Purple People Eaters in Minnesota, no more Fearsome Foursome in Los Angeles.

Fullbacks have mostly disappeared from the game with running backs becoming less important by the day.

Football is spread out and speed-oriented, the speed changing the way it’s played and also, mixed in with the increased strength, it has made it even more violent.

Collisions are now car accidents and while you can build up muscles, you cannot make the bones or the cartilage or ligaments any stronger. In baseball, the muscles are so strong that they well may be forcing this rash of Tommy John surgeries.

In football, we are in an age of concussions despite hi-tech helmets and state-of-the-art padding.

And, as much as they work on preventive measures, forever altering the rules in the name of safety, the more danger seems to exist in the sports.

Sports medicine has risen to the occasion. Injuries are prevented better, treated better and rehabbed.

Think last year of WVU quarterback Clint Trickett, who played much of the year with a shoulder injury that would need surgery following the season. They found a way to keep him playing without risking further injury, then rehabbed him to the point that he’s back to play again.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.