IOWA CITY — Think of your football team as a house.
The quarterback is the great room. The offensive line is support beams. Wide receivers are the art on the wall. Running backs are heating and cooling. The defense is the roof.
The strength and conditioning program is the foundation. Everything sinks without it.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz knows this, and that’s a big reason why he made Chris Doyle one of the highest paid strength and conditioning coaches in the country ($725,000 this season).
This week, Doyle talked about the immediate and the big picture.
The Hawkeyes (8-4) are prepping for their Jan. 1 Outback Bowl matchup with No. 18 Mississippi State (8-4). Everyone is on high alert. The Bulldogs have one of the best defenses in the country. They rep the SEC. This is Iowa’s sixth Outback Bowl. It knows what’s coming.
Iowa has five weeks between the end of the season and the bowl game.
“It’s a growth period,” Doyle said. “The coaches go on the road and recruit. So, we spend a little bit more time with the athletes. It’s a fun time for us. December is a fun time, it’s a growth period.”
The team is broken into two groups: There is the developmental group and the two-deep group that is going to play in the Outback Bowl. There are two tracks. The developmental group is in almost an offseason mode.
“It’s really aggressive strength training,” Doyle said.
The advanced group has 12 workouts in Iowa City, with six concentrated on “recapturing strength” and then the last six are “we get back into a peak speed and power game mode,” Doyle said.
“It’s a fun time,” Doyle said. “Anytime you’re getting ready to play in a January bowl game against an SEC opponent, a top-20 opponent, you certainly have the players’ attention. We know we have to be at our absolute best. It’s going to be a huge challenge, but we’re up to it. There’s a bunch of talent in our building as well, so it’s a matter of doing the necessary work to be ready.”
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That’s the day-to-day at the moment. The big picture always is wrapped around the program. In a 2016 interview, Ferentz shed some light on how much he depends on Doyle to be a sounding board for ideas on what works and what doesn’t.
“I have daily conversations with certain people,” Ferentz said. “Chris (Doyle) has been the one common denominator throughout the whole thing, from start to finish. That’s one of the things I really value. Beyond his expertise of coaching, Chris, not that we’re the same, but we were schooled the same, the same school, I guess. Both of us have a common denominator with Joe Moore (Ferentz’s high school coach and a highly valued college offensive line coach who passed away in 2003).
“We’re constantly exchanging ideas. Probably everybody has somebody like that throughout their careers. And it is unique, we’ve both been here awhile now, so we’ve seen the same history. Maybe I know something he doesn’t know or he knows something I don’t know about certain experiences he had, but there’s a lot of common ground there.”
Keeping fresh themes, keeping training fresh and ahead of the technological curve, there’s a lot going on.
“It’s about constantly evolving and studying what’s out there,” Doyle said. “We’ve brought things in from a physical training perspective that we didn’t have 10 years ago. When new technology comes available, it’s our job to look at it with a critical eye. What will apply to training college athletes?”
There are analytics tied to the GPSports device the Hawkeyes have used since 2013. It’s advanced GPS tracking with heart rate, heart rate variability and accelerometer monitoring.
There’s force-plate technology, which examines the kinetic characteristics of an athlete’s movement, providing information about the external forces involved in movement that can help coaches to quantitatively evaluate the athlete’s execution of a skill or his/her physical development.
This technology has developed in the last five years.
“It’s a matter of having a beginner’s mind, constantly watching what’s coming down the pike as far as advancement in technology,” Doyle said. “Also, you need to be able to have the strength and conviction in the traditional craft of what we do and not getting away from the basics. You have to be prepared to say ‘no’ to some things.”
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It might not seem like it, but strength and conditioning staffs get eight hours a week to work with athletes. This whole thing is built on maximum efficiency.
“That’s part of what gets me excited about strength and conditioning, it’s measurable,” Doyle said. “It’s not subjective. I think I’m the best shortstop or the best point guard and I should be starting. We can measure vertical jump. We can measure 10-yard dash time, we can measure change of direction. We can measure body composition. We can measure these things and decide if they work.”
Of course, food is part of this. Doyle pointed to the 2014 NCAA rule changed that wiped away limits on training table and allowed schools to feed athletes the way they need to be fed.
This leads to the project that Doyle and staff have engaged in during the last year — studying the value of sleep and rest.
“They say the No. 1 performance improver is sleep, and I believe that,” Doyle said. “Sleep, recovery, nutrition, these are things that add to the athletes’ ability to progress from week to week and year to year.”
In the last year, Iowa players have started wearing a wrist device from Fatigue Science. It basically monitors sleep and produces real-time and predictive fatigue analytics for athletes, which shape training and recovery decisions.
“What we’ve found was the guys who were sleeping well their heart rate variability numbers were consistently good,” Doyle said. “What we’ve come to realize is the biggest contributing factor for recovery is sleep.”
Sleep affects recovery, but it also affects an athlete's ability to learn. It helps take short-term lessons and converts it to long-term memory.
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At its core, football is teaching and learning. That’s why every Power 5 football complex in the country has miles of classrooms.
“That’s also the art and science of position coaching,” Doyle said. “Our coaches have to quickly gain the knowledge and insight of an individual player. Is this guy a visual learner? Can he learn it from the playbook? Does he need to see it in a walkthrough setting?
“The best thing we can do is present lessons in many different formats. You present it in playbook form, on film and in a walkthrough situation. Everybody learns differently, so when you present it in many different formats you have the best chance of capturing everybody.”
On a given day, an Iowa football player might wear a heart rate monitor around his chest and a wrist band that measures sleep.
If they eat a large pizza, pound two pitchers of beer and stay up late playing video games, that’s going to show up.
“It’s hard to hide,” Doyle said. “In this environment, everything we do is measured, ranked and posted. There’s a high level of accountability in everything we do.
“When you look at the winter programming and summer programming, every day a kid comes in, we’re measuring something. It might be speed related, it might be strength related, but we’re measuring it, we’re posting it. Guys are getting points and it holds them accountable on their daily lifestyles.
“If they’re not living the daily disciplines, it’s hard to hide.”
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