Part of what drives strength and conditioning coaches is a belief that the players they work with can always be better than what they are. More can always be done to help them improve, which also means more could have already been done. To be good at the job is to deny oneself the satisfaction of ever believing the job is done.
“I think I have always felt behind,” said Aaron Wellman, whose official title at Indiana is assistant athletic director for football performance. “I have been doing this for 25 years and I do not think there is a year that I have not felt behind. I always feel like we are playing catch up because the goals we have for our players mentally, physically and physiologically are always lofty. We always feel like we are behind in some regard.”
But COVID-19 added a degree of difficulty to that feeling of being behind. Wellman was hired away from the New York Giants in March of 2020, right as the pandemic was starting to shut the world down. The investment the Hoosiers made in him was monumental — a $700,000 per year contract that made him one of the highest paid strength coaches in college football and also made him the highest paid person on IU’s football staff outside of head coach Tom Allen. But he didn’t have nearly the tools or the time to train the Hoosiers’ bodies like he normally would. And of course, for over a month, Indiana didn’t even think the Big Ten would play football in 2020 with the conference having cancelled the season in mid-August before deciding in mid-September to play.
The virus hit the Hoosiers directly and they had to pause activities in July and then again in December when they had to cancel two scheduled games against Purdue. All the while, Wellman had to do the best he could to help develop the bodies of players affected and unaffected by the virus.
“Early on, we learned different ways of operating,” Wellman said. “It forces me as a coach and us as a strength and conditioning staff to just approach our job a little differently. We had a couple of times when we had a couple of weeks when we were in quarantine, we had to learn how to communicate with players when we couldn’t be there in person, how to address their needs when they’re at home from a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint.”
The experience actually taught Wellman that perhaps he and strength and conditioning coaches in general have been putting more stress on athletes’ bodies than necessary. The preseason build-up, he learned, doesn’t actually require as much time as he and others presumed it did. Even with the shortened run-up, the Hoosiers had one of the best seasons in school history, going 6-2 with a loss in the Outback Bowl and finishing the year ranked No. 12. That’s Indiana’s highest end-of-season ranking since 1967 when they last won the Big Ten and lost in the Rose Bowl to national champion Southern California.
“We’d be remiss as strength and conditioning coaches if we didn’t admit that we learned things physiologically about our players,” Wellman said. “Typically you have a long calendar year to get guys ready for the demands of the game. This year, that was not the case. So it forced me to think outside the box a little bit to think, how do we do a better job of every other university with the same constraints, having four or five weeks to prepare ourselves for training camp. … I think we learned a lot this year that we can get a lot done, if we work smart … within a much shorter amount of time.”
That adjustment tracks with Wellman’s general evolution as a strength coach. His general philosophy, he said, is to “increase the speed, the strength and the power of our athletes, their ability to change direction, and do it in a way that doesn’t involved inappropriate orthopedic stress on the athlete.” Obviously, he wants players to build muscle, but he also wants to keep them capable of executing their specific football skill which in most cases involves maintaining flexibility. And he doesn’t want to increase the possibility of injury.
Wellman said he learned more about what that takes during his time with the New York Giants from 2016-19. The NFL season involves more games and obviously athletes who have already endured a greater volume of strength and conditioning over the course of their careers.
“I got much better at individualizing programs,” Wellman said. “I got much better at watching movement, whether it’s in a controlled setting like a winter conditioning setting, an offseason setting or whether it’s in a little more chaotic environment such as gameday or practice. Watching athletes move, I locked arms with the athletes, and I want to know how they’re feeling. We’re going to prescribe a program that we think is absolutely appropriate and is the best program for that athlete, whether it’s a running , a mobility program or strength program. However, I also want to know how that athlete feels when he goes to the field. Because this group of exercises we’re doing to make you more proficient at your position demands. … The training program is to help you do your skill at a higher level.”
Connecting with the athletes as a whole during the COVID-plagued year at Indiana, he said, taught him that athletes respond faster to the stimulus of workouts than he realized, which means programs can probably be a week shorter than he previously thought necessary and can reduce the amount of stress on bodies while still creating optimal results.
Wellman heads into spring football, which for Indiana begins March 9, with that understanding. There are still limitations and there are obviously still possibilities that remain that the Hoosiers can find themselves dealing with COVID-19 again, but they’re better prepared to deal with them if they do.
That being said, he’s still starting the next two weeks before the spring as if he’s behind. The Hoosiers have stayed in the gym since the season ended, and the goal is still to get as much done when they’re in there as they can.
“All we can do is push forward,” Wellman said. “We have spring ball here in two weeks. Every day is so valuable. I tell our players all the time that we do not have the luxury of wasting time and wasting a day. We have to be locked in every day that we come in. We have had a great four weeks, but we have to get a lot done in the next couple weeks.”
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