Nov. 28, 2011
By Skip Myslenski
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 8, 2011, issue of The Den, official game program of Northwestern Football.
There were, for one example, those training sessions on the shifting sands of a Lake Michigan beach. "It just helps recruit stability on the football field," explains Jay Hooten, the `Cat director of football performance who made these sessions part of the team's offseason conditioning program. "It helps you become a better athlete. The more balanced you are, the more athletic and faster you're going to be getting in and out of your cuts, the more you're going to be able to hold your ground when a pass rush is coming at you, the better you're going to be able to bend on a pass rush."
There were, for another example, those times the players laced up the gloves and slipped through the ropes and boxed. "The boxing has been really helpful for all of us offensive linemen as far has having stronger hands, being able to protect our chests, and footwork and endurance," says the offensive tackle Al Netter. "It was a really cool experience."
There were, for a last example, those weight training reps when the lifts were done while standing on only one leg. "What that does," Hooten says, "it helps, again, the more balance you're going to develop recruiting those proprioceptors within those joints, the more balance you create and the more power you create in those joints. How often in a game of football are you on two feet? Just the start of the play, right, at the snap? After that, it's all single leg."
Those snapshots are not only a glimpse at some of the unconventional ways the football `Cats prepared for this season. They are also a reflection of the altered approach Northwestern has adopted to the care and nurturing of all its athletes. For gone now is that department called Strength and Conditioning and in its place is the Sports Performance Department. "This title change more accurately reflects the services our department provides to our student-athletes," its director, Jason Pullara, said in a statement when that change was announced last month. "We surpass traditional strength and conditioning concepts to focus on athletic development, functional movement, recovery, strength, speed, agility, force production, power development and mental toughness. All things related to sports performance are addressed."
So you're ahead of the curve on this, he was more recently asked.
He chuckled. "We're actually getting up to the curve," he said. "We've been behind it for awhile, but I think we're finally getting up to it."
"Other schools have four, five guys who just work football," Hooten chipped in.
"I started in 2001," Pullara now continued. "When I started, we had a director, two assistants, and I was an intern. To go from there to having two directors, six full-time assistants, two graduate assistants and two interns is pretty remarkable. It shows the importance our staff has with our student-athletes and their development on the field, on the court, whatever their specialty is. The administration's recognition of that importance has been instrumental."
That recognition was also instrumental in the football `Cats now having, for the first time, two sports performance coaches working only with them and available to them at any hour of the day. (In the past, all trainers worked multiple sports and were available to football players at only specified hours.) The head of that quintet is Hooten, who is loquacious, passionate about is craft and a former sports performance assistant for football at Ohio State.
He is also an innovator whose efforts have been keenly recognized by the `Cats. "They bring a lot of new things to the table," the wide receiver Jeremy Ebert says of him and his staff. "It's a big change for us from what we've been used to the last few years. The new stuff they bring has been working for us. Our conditioning level, it's been great every year. But this year it's better than last."
"The idea is a lot more functional stuff and the type of strength you can apply on the field," adds the defensive end Vince Browne. "A lot of people can bench press and squat a lot of weight. But if you can't apply it then it's all for naught. I think Jay and the other guys have done a good job of implementing a new program and I think it has translated into our performance on the field."
"Our program this summer was a lot similar to our practice (tempo)," the wide receiver Demetrius Fields goes on. "There was getting from this station to that station, there was a lot of running, and we could tell how much better conditioned and how much stronger we all are and how much better we're able to move, things like that. I feel stronger. But I think the most change I've seen is my ability to move and be a little bit more fluid in my movements."
"It was a lot different," concludes Netter. "Before it was more old-school strength, power, conditioning. Coach Hooten tries to emphasize injury prevention, a lot more flexibility stuff, core stability. I would definitely say it's new age, cutting edge stuff that other winning programs in the country are doing. So I think it's important that we do it."
What is important to Hooten himself is reflected in the comments of those players. Drills are position specific, and here he gets up to demonstrate and drops into a three-point stance as Netter does. This is called a weak position and so, says Hooten, "If you power pull from the floor, it helps develop power in that position. And the more powerful they are in that weak position, the more it's going to transfer to the football field." Now he stands and sets himself as Ebert would on the flank, and here it is clear why the receiver would lift differently from the offensive lineman.
Explosiveness is important to him as well, and that is true too for what he calls posterior chain development that starts at the trapezius muscle and continues on down through the lower back and the butt and the hammies and the calves all the way to the Achilles. "That's what makes you an athlete," he declares.
What about balance, which you've stressed earlier?
"When I'm developing explosiveness," he says, "if I'm cleaning off one leg, I'm developing balance at the same time I'm developing explosiveness. There's a lot of different things you can do."
"We've put a lot of focus on balance, on functional movement, not only on the linear plane, but also on the horizontal plane," `Cat head coach Pat Fitzgerald will later say. "We try to get the guys in their football positions, their weak positions, and now have them do something explosive. We were evolving that way before. But this was a quicker, full shift to it than we would have had."
Now he is asked to reminisce, to think back to those days when he played, and here he chuckles and says he didn't even know proper weight lifting techniques when he arrived in Evanston and that the entire conditioning staff then consisted of a single full-time employee and an intern. "We won two championships, though," he finally says with a mischievous grin. "That's what I tell Jay all the time. We won two championships with two guys. With five guys, we better be pretty good."