It was Thursday, March 12 when Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle was told the coronavirus likely would affect group workouts. The Hawkeye football team had a morning weight-lifting session scheduled for that Friday morning.
That didn’t happen, of course.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports, which remain shut down without a date to reopen. There will be games, at some point, and it’s someone’s job to keep the feet moving and the heart pumping so the team can emerge in the best possible shape.
You know what every strength coach in college football is thinking.
“Everybody in college football is experiencing the exact same challenges,” Doyle said during a Wednesday teleconference. “We have to do it better than everyone else.”
For Doyle, it’s been three-week increments.
The first three weeks were spent making sure the players had 1) somewhere safe to be, 2) some access to workout equipment and, of course, 3) making sure academics were part of the players’ daily programs.
Doyle said the Hawkeyes completed a successful eight-week winter workout regimen. The pandemic wiped out Iowa’s entire spring practice, which was set to begin March 23, but Doyle’s staff had already divided into “Hawkeye Championship” groups, which are around 17 players. They do their work and earn championship points. There are six pods with players already communicating with text chains in hand.
How have they handled the monitoring of workouts? By the way, there are NCAA limitations on how much contact the strength coaches can have with players. Coaches can’t demand players send videos, they can’t demand players to live Zoom their workouts.
“We have to talk to the guys constantly and that can be a challenge,” Doyle said. “When you’re on campus, 6 a.m. and 30 guys walk in the door and you train them. Another group at 8 and another group at 10. Every couple of hours, guys come walking through the door coming to you.”
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Now, the Iowa strength staff is reaching out to players “all day long,” Doyle said. “You’re constantly trying to connect with guys to make sure they have what they need and are on the right page with what they have.”
Doyle believes this is “advantage Iowa.”
“We feel like we have good kids who work hard and do a good job,” Doyle said. “Yeah, we’re missing that time, but we’ll make up for it in other ways.”
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz talked about going back in the coaching manual to deal with distance training. There was a point in college football where not everyone participated in on-campus summer workouts.
How is Doyle making old new again in this circumstance?
“We’re sending out shopping lists. We don’t talk about shopping lists anymore,” Doyle said. “We provide the food. They go upstairs to the All-American room and they eat great meals. Or they go to the refueling stations.”
So, this has been a little bit of back to the ’90s.
“There was a time in the ’90s when we’re giving guys shopping lists, ‘Hey, what are you going to buy at Hy-Vee?’” Doyle said. “They don’t buy anything at Hy-Vee anymore, but now they’re back to doing that. Shopping list, how do you fill your refrigerator. Cooking? We’ve started with some simple cooking instructions for the guys. How do you prepare a simple meal? They don’t cook anymore. In those days, that was normal.
No, not all of the players are on equal footing as far as equipment. Doyle put out four different levels of workouts at first, depending on environment. At the beginning, Doyle said a few players were reduced to “body weight” workouts. The fist level was full facility, next was a good garage gym. Third was does the player have access to a kettle bell or dumb bell? The fourth was body weight only.
“We’re narrowed down on that now, guys have access to a full facility or a garage gym,” Doyle said. “We’ve been able to help piecemeal some things with garage gyms. Nobody is on a body weight program. Everyone has something.”
Doyle briefly mentioned a few of the things they don’t have. Obviously, GPS body measurements, electronic timing devices and big sleds are out.
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Football still is coming. Doyle didn’t say what the optimum time would be for a team to prepare for a season. He talked about a four-week scenario and also talked about how you have to look at that window as potential exposure to COVID-19. So, that’s also an unknown, but it is coming.
Preseason, practices, games, they’re all going to return at some point. How the Hawkeyes look will reflect on the work Doyle and his staff are doing right now.
“Stress and adversity tend to break the weak and strengthen the strong,” Doyle said. “It’s our job to create an advantage for Iowa football. As we come out of COVID, it’s our job to develop routines, habits and the necessary resolve to galvanize us so we can hit the ground running, whenever that is. June, July, August, we don’t know, there’s uncertainty.
“But it’s our job to galvanize our football program, pull us together. We’re communicating and connected at a high level, taking care of our individual routines at our homes. That’s the goal. That’s what we’ve been working toward.”
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