(The Rock Report | Notre Dame Football News) – In non-dramatic lore their names are Nutritionist, Strength Coach and Trainer. But those are aliases. Their real names are Whitman (Erika), Longo (Paul) and Hunt (Rob). They’ll never score a touchdown on the field but they may be Notre Dame’s most important recruits long-term because they fuel, build and fix the players that do.
It wasn’t too long ago that Bert Berry was lamenting the shape of Notre Dame players:
“I would say, from a defensive standpoint, that the one thing they need to do is get in shape. A lot of these guys, particularly the younger guys, were getting a little winded out there, and when you get winded that’s when you find the mental breakdowns. A lot of times, that’s just due to a lack of being in shape.”
The short story is that players weren’t eating right, they weren’t working out at a championship level and there were grumblings that injuries were too prevalent or that players weren’t recovering to the right level. Unacceptable at Notre Dame.
These days Notre Dame players look noticeably bigger, stronger and are winning games in the fourth quarter and that’s by plan. The defensive line, which was swiss cheese now is at or near the top of the leaderboard in many statistics.
It was important to bring the right people on board, but also to make sure they were communicating with each other and head coach Brian Kelly about, for instance, when a player’s habits change for better or worse, how injuries are progressing and if a player is showing commitment.
Whitman, Hunt and Longo are part of the Notre Dame Performance Team that was set up by Jack Swarbrick and Mike Karwoski to put a holistic performance process around Notre Dame football and other sports. Said Karwoski:
“We’ve been very aggressive about educating in the nutrition areas. It seems so simple, but it’s so critical to the success of our athletes. Proper rest, proper preparation, proper nutrition – we can teach them what they need to know.”
Sports Nutrition Program Director Erika Whitman came to Notre Dame from Florida back in 2007 (when Notre Dame stumbled to one of the worst seasons in history.) At that time Notre Dame players were running (or biking) all over campus trying to make their classes and their football commitment and were regularly seen scarfing down fast food during the season. In addition to changing schedules around and moving study hall to the GUG, Notre Dame acquiesced to a training table and Whitman has been heading up the menu, stressing choice, routine, knowledge and planning.
“I sit down with our players early in the season to outline their schedules and identify convenient and optimal meal and snack times for each day of the week. I emphasize the importance of avoiding long periods between scheduled meals or snacks, and show them what it means to balance calorie intake throughout the day. We focus on the 80-20 rule, which states that 80 percent of an athlete’s diet should consist of top performance foods, with only 20 percent of their diet made up of those less nutritious foods some athletes feel they just can’t live without.”
Whitman recently traveled with the team to Ireland and helped keep the players focused on good diet amid all the change and hype.
“I think there’s a huge mental component to it… We’ve gotten very specific over the years with little things. If we put trail mix on our menu for a nighttime snack we realized we have to clarify what we want in that trail mix,”
I’ve already written about Longo and the third coordinator model where Longo has the authority to direct playing time away from players who aren’t fully committed.
Kelly sums up the importance of the strength coach this way:
“It’s now become a leadership position. The strength and conditioning coordinator is on parallel with the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. Really, he brings a different perspective than the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator or position coach. They sometimes only see what their units are doing. He sees the 105 [players on the roster] like I do as a head coach. I can talk to him about the whole program.”
What we see on the sideline is a just a small part of what happens the rest of the year. In the summers, the strength coaches are the eyes, ears and motivators for the team. Ultimately the strength coach spends more time directly interacting with players than the head coach.
The other critical piece of the puzzle is the training staff . Rob Hunt was brought in from Oklahoma State where he said that the communication that Kelly seeks on his staff was an essential part of the puzzle.
“Every morning, I go in and meet with our coaches all at one time to update the status and progress of all of our injured players. I let the coaches know what kind of restrictions I expect those players to have,”
Recurring injuries are the toughest part for Hunt.
“The worst part for me is when a kid overcomes a significant injury and then is injured again. Those are the hardest because you know how much they worked and invested time to heal and then they have a setback,”
Kelly regularly talks about individual injuries in-depth noting specific times schedules for player’s recovery and that knowledge and that comes from constant communication with the training staff.
Working as a team
I’ve often seen posts such as, “A coach can’t be responsible for watching 105 players” and while that is true, a coach can build in the right people and processes that can, to a degree, ensure development and that the head coach gets and gives the right amount of information to make sure athletes are progressing across all areas to constantly improve. For instance, Longo talks with Hunt to make sure that strength training aligns with recovery and prevention and both talk to the staff to keep them informed.
In total, it’s as much about communication as any single individual discipline according to Longo.
“My communication with the football coaching staff is the foundation for my ability to do my job. I am in tune with all the coaches and I regularly adapt my training itinerary based on their input and concerns. By building around this philosophy, I know we’re getting the most from our athletes every day.”