Article by Tony Holler
Football coaches are full of slogans. Recently I spoke to a former athlete who played football in the Big Ten. The idea of “creating toughness” through abusive coaching still lives. An entire culture of small-minded football coaches exist, even at some of our most prestigious universities. “I have a drawer full of football propaganda t-shirts. All-In. Courage. Passion. Relentless. We talked a lot about mental toughness.” In ancient Greece, Spartan boys were forced to endure beatings to make them strong warriors. Some football coaches continue this archaic practice. My former athlete, along with his teammates, were subjected punitive conditioning, punitive hitting drills, and other forms of creative abuse.
I continue to search for happy & healthy sports programs. Happy and healthy kids perform well. Too many programs produce misery as they attempt to create toughness. I may be on a quest for an unrealistic athletic utopia but my Quixotic journey continues.
Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it. — Gautama Buddha
My journey began many years ago. Being the son of a teacher and coach combined with my innate ability to over-think made me a strange student. Evaluation of my teachers and their methods often overshadowed the subject matter. I have total recall of my former teachers and coaches. On the other hand, I can’t remember the phone numbers of my children.
I am told that I love praise. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I’m probably guilty as charged. To this day, I love encouragers. My favorite teachers and coaches treated me with respect and believed in me. I hated punishment. I still do. In a previous life, I must have died in a Spartan beating.
My track program attempts to be the best of all worlds. We train smarter, not harder. Practices are short. Athletes work hard by choice, not by demand. We cherish winning but we celebrate individual improvement. We make track & field into a team sport. My program is not alone. Many enlightened coaches have chosen to abandon the old ways. I wrote about one of those programs last summer in “Sprint-Based Football“.
In a perfect world, a teacher or coach should be a beacon of light. Kids, win or lose, should have a terrific experience. Students should go home with stories about the classroom. Athletes should look forward to practice. Many programs have other objectives. Too many football locker rooms should take down their silly slogans and just tell the truth.
My journey has led me to a football team in LaGrange, Illinois. Nazareth Academy is a private, Catholic high school of less than 800 students. With the IHSA multiplier, Nazareth plays football in Class 6A in an 8-class system. The team is coached by Tim Racki. Racki won four consecutive state titles at Addison Driscoll in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. His overall record at Addison Driscoll was 76-13. Nazareth is presently 13-0 and will play Lemont (13-0) for the 6A state title at 1:00 Saturday, November 29th, at the University of Illinois.
Talent is the key to winning. Athletes win games. If given the choice, I will always take the team with the most athletes. FBS teams award 85 scholarships, FCS teams offer only 63 scholarships. Alabama would be a 40-point favorite over Alabama State. Why? Alabama has 85 highly ranked recruits. Alabama State has 63 lesser-ranked recruits. Enough said.
However, when the levels of athleticism is similar, other things come into play.
For the past several weeks I’ve studied something that should be of interest to all of you. I have written three articles on the subject, the introductory “Hamstrings, Activation, and Speed“, the follow-up “Speed Never Sleeps“, and “You Only Know What You Know“. The last article was written as a summary of everything I learned in a 20-hour “Be-Activated” seminar with Douglas Heel of Cape Town, South Africa. The first two articles were written as an outsider looking in. The third was written from the inside.
Nazareth is the home of the only football team in the country who has adopted the teachings of Douglas Heel and has fully installed “Be-Activated”. When I say fully installed, I am not exaggerating. Activation is central to Nazareth football. When I first asked coach Tim Racki about Activation, he replied without hesitation, “It’s a difference-maker”.
Let’s get one thing straight right now, “Be-Activated” is not MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques). MAT has been made famous by Greg Roskopf and his famous patient, Peyton Manning. In addition, “Be-Activated” is not ART (Active Release Technique). There is no business model for “Be-Activated”. I am not a part of some advertising campaign, pyramid scheme, or religious cult.
Some of you will question my excitement. Some of you will question my lack of skepticism. People can think what they want, but I am a science guy who doesn’t believe in ghosts, demons, or zombies. I don’t believe in jinxes, karma, or fate. I teach my students, “there’s no magic, there’s only science and illusion”. I have a very sensitive “bullshit meter” and live by Mark Twain’s advice, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect”.
I did not drink the Kool Aid. I did not pledge my life to a religious doctrine. I am not trying to sell you anything. What I am sharing will not make me a dime. “Be-Activated” is something that can change a football team and maybe change your life. That’s all. Ha.
1. Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation
Football coaches are all too familiar with the Steinbeck idiom “the best laid plans of mice and men”. Football teams all over the country are decimated by injuries. Seasons filled with championship dreams often end with a sad whimper. Most football teams regress during the season. I am a track coach. At least in football, guys get taped up and play. Track athletes who are 5% reduced by an injury go from first to last. There is no margin for error in track & field. Rest, recovery, and health dwarfs whatever can be accomplished in practice.
The typical football team has a trainer or two at every practice. Trainers typically tape ankles and diagnose injuries. They apply ice. They do concussion protocol. Without injuries, trainers have very little to do. Trainers react to injuries. Activation is proactive, not reactive.
In Nazareth’s 13th game, only one player on a roster of 53 was injured and unable to play. 98% of the Nazareth’s roster was activated and healthy. In 9 of Nazareth’s 13 games, no more than TWO players were out of competition. In each playoff game, 52 of 53 players were ready to go. 46 of Nazareth’s 53 players played in all 13 games.
The seven-year injury data is compelling. “Be-Activated” was first implemented three years ago. Prior to activation, the entire Nazareth football program averaged 73 injuries per year. Injuries are defined as something causing a player to miss at least one practice or one game. A season-ending injury is considered one injury. One missed practice is considered one injury. Since activation, injuries have been reduced by 45%. In 2008, there were 87 injuries, in 2014’s extended season, there has been only 31. The number of combined fractures and surgeries have been reduced from 9.0 per year to 1.5 per year. I realize this is just one team, but 83% reduction in fractures and surgeries is significant.
Concussions may end football as we know it. Boxing was on top of the world when I grew up. Not anymore. At Nazareth, concussions have been reduced by 28%. From 2008-2011 Nazareth averaged 13.3 concussions per year. Since activation, the yearly average has dropped to 9.3. This year Nazareth’s program had eight concussions, but only ONE of those concussions involved a varsity player. Wow. Activated muscles supporting the head may have a positive effect on limiting concussions.
How does activation decrease injuries and increase the speed of recovery? When muscles are working in sync, in sequence, and fully activated, the body moves correctly. Too many simple-minded people treat a hamstring injury by treating the hamstring. To prevent hamstring injuries, the same people try to make the hamstring bigger and stronger. Athletic movements are sequenced chain-reactions. Weak links in the chain and improper sequencing leads to injuries. When the same compensation patterns are reinforced, injuries linger and recur.
In addition to activation, it is important to note that Nazareth typically practices for less than two hours. Team activation is a part of that two-hour practice. Practices usually include nine 10-minute segments. Nazareth never tackles to the ground in practice. Enlightened college and professional coaches are moving away from excessive contact in practice and limiting time on the field. In my mind, this makes sense.
When activated, players immediately feel ready to perform. Obviously the word “feel” leaves everyone wondering, “is this a placebo effect?”.
One of the critical points in the process is the testing before and after activation. The ability of a muscle to function correctly is measurable. I can not take you through the entire process but take my word for it, a non-functioning glute can easily be diagnosed. An activated glute is measurable.
Sequencing must happen from Zone One outward to Zone Two and from Zone Two to Zone Three. If the sequencing does not originate with the psoas, all bets are off. I will not rewrite my last article here but the psoas and diaphragm basically function as the same unit. The diaphragm expands the lungs downward, the psoas connects the lower vertebrae to the femur and functions as a hip flexor. The reciprocal muscle to the psoas is the glute. The diaphragm, psoas, and glute make up Zone One.
It’s impossible for coaches to prove points with scientific data from massive studies. We rely on anecdotal evidence and the art of coaching. Chris Korfist’s last article, “Is Your Squat Making You Slower and Wrecking Your Vertical Jump“, showed seven guys who look like they might be the leaders of the philosophy club. York’s group of sprinters were amazing.
I have only completed the “Level 1 Workshop”, so I’m just a beginner. Last week, my junior sprinter, DeVaughn Hrobowksi was activated for the first time. DeVaughn ran 0.96 in the 10-meter fly. I have timed thousands of 10-meter flys in the past six years. DeVaughn set our school record without having a sprint workout in the past six months. Last year we had only one recorded time below 1.00 … just one, 0.99. The year before, we had none. We do fly-tens over 100 times per week. Anecdotal evidence? Yes.
Activation must be experienced to be understood. Dr. Tom Nelson believes activation must start with the head coach. From my experience, those who experience Be-Activated “get it”. Those on the outside looking-in are skeptics. My last article was titled, “You Only Know What You Know”. Those who speak against activation only know what they know, and they don’t know activation.
3. Focus and Awareness
Am I the only coach who believed adrenaline was a good thing? Pregame motivational speeches stimulate natural performance enhancers, right? The threat of losing makes everyone play harder. If players know they will be punished for poor performance, they will fight like hell. Fear is a powerful drug, right? Isn’t fight or flight central to the competitor in all of us?
Track is a strange sport. We run meets all year with a handful of people in the stands. Sometimes I joke that I coach a team of orphans. Parents routinely boycott track meets. The cold, wet, and windy weather of the Chicago area may be the reason. The fact that track is considered by many to be a recreational activity may also be a factor. Running our final contest in front of 20,000 people is a paradigm shift for everyone competing in the state meet. I always tell my kids, “90% of all state qualifiers will not run their best at the state meet. Train wrecks are everywhere.” My advice is to detach and stay relaxed, no need to get excited, just stay focused on doing your job. Usain Bolt was in his own world when he set Olympic records in Beijing. Bolt was oblivious to the billions of people watching his race. He was in a zone.
Football is different. We have to prepare players for high-speed collisions. With the exception of the quarterback, everyone should “play like their hair’s on fire”. I’ve witnessed the prototypical pregame locker room. I’ve experienced the yelling and the banging on lockers. Players work themselves into a frenzy. I once coached a running back who nearly overdosed on energy drinks before a game. If you agree with this nonsense, you need a weekend with Douglas Heel.
Activation is a connection between mind and body. Adrenaline interferes with that connection. Activation moves the body towards the parasympathetic, not the sympathetic. The sympathetic is all about fight or flight. Freeze is the third f-word in the description. Flight, flight or freeze is exactly what happens to those track athletes at the IHSA State Meet. Athletes who stay connected mind, body, and spirit, … they are the exceptions. The exceptions set records.
I recently heard someone speak of Tom Brady’s unique ability “to turn excitement into focus”. While others are intentionally trying to lose themselves, players like Tom Brady find themselves. Activation helps athletes to find certainty, purpose, and confidence. Have you ever been “in the zone”? I once made seven consecutive perimeter shots in a college basketball game. The rim seemed huge. What if there was a drug that could put you “in the zone”? Activation may be the key. “The Zone” is also described as “Flow” by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Would any coach reject this?
I first observed Chris Korfist doing activation about one year ago. I completed a 20-hour seminar in October. Douglas Heel personally activated me. After my personal experience, I needed to see activation in a group setting. Dr. Tom Nelson D.O., the Nazareth team doctor, invited me to visit. Tim Racki is the head coach, but Dr. Tom Nelson may be the soul of the team. The authenticity of Dr. Nelson is unique. I have not encountered many people in my life with a larger life-force, spiritual energy, charisma, etc. The activation work done at Nazareth Academy is greatly enhanced by the presence of Dr. Nelson.
Alone, Dr. Nelson would not be effective. Tim Racki is the key. The head football coach is critical to activation. Without 100% buy-in, activation will wither on the vine. Even if the team doctor, trainers, and coaches are gung-ho, activation will be a joke if the team remains skeptical. This is not the case at Nazareth. I witnessed a commitment to activation equal to the commitment to win games. I know this seems bizarre, and it is. Imagine this … it’s halftime and the team takes their seats. Fire and brimstone? Blocking assignments? Defensive adjustments? None of the above. Dr. Nelson leads the team in breathing.
Breathing is the key. Correct breathing that expands the lower abdomen, relaxes the body, and allows the deepest muscle in the human body, the psoas, to function correctly. Athletes are brought back to a sense of focus and awareness. Flow is rekindled. Players individually regroup and get back into “the zone”. In addition, the breathing is done together. I tingle when I write this. Together. Is there a more powerful word? Together is coaching Nirvana. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
“Relaxation will allow us to play faster with more awareness.” — Tim Racki
When I learned about this focus on breathing, I was skeptical. I expected breathing to be mentioned a few times during warmups. Maybe after a fumble or interception some Zen-like coach would calm a kid down by telling him to breathe. When I attended my first practice I witnessed activations done by Dr. Nelson and the Nazareth trainer, Andrew Wyman. The team activation session resembled a non-talking totally focused warmup. Self-activation was a part of that session. Players were instructed to breathe and they did this together. Assistant coaches assisted only with hydration, no talk. In matter of fact, the previous day, Coach Racki got upset with his assistants for talking to players during activation. Tim Racki can be a hard-nosed taskmaster. You definitely want to stay on Racki’s good side. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
When I attended my first game, I experienced everything but the team mass at 9:00 am. From 10 am to 11 am, Dr. Nelson and Freelap’s Chris Korfist activated player after player. Picture acupuncture done with fingers. Picture a hybrid of surgery and massage. Dr. Nelson and Chris Korfist talked to every kid as they were activated on tables. The words were spoken softly, calmly, and confidently. Players were encouraged. I love the word encourage … “to give courage”. Players want to be activated. The pain is intense but every kid wants it. Players believe in activation because it works. Before the St. Francis game the following week, Dr. Nelson and Chris Korfist were joined by Dr. Eric Janota, D.O.
At 11:00 am players went to a beautiful auditorium. In total darkness, Coach Racki took the team through visualisation. I lost count after I heard “breathe” 100 times. Later in the visualisation, background music increased the effect. There was no talk of winning and losing. No one spoke. Total focus. Eyes closed. Total darkness. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. The last segment of visualisation was a loud football music video full of incredible plays and big hits. One was from Mississippi State who ironically got beat later that afternoon. At the end, the lights went on and Coach Racki barked, “Activation at 12:10″.
At 12:10, I saw no passes thrown, no plays reviewed, and no footballs. Instead I saw activation sticks. After I heard “breathe” for the thousandth time, I realized I was experiencing something special, something unique,“a difference maker”. A strange thing occurred to me, I had not considered Nazareth losing to Lake Forest. Winning and losing never crossed my mind. I had been swept away by the “flow”. Like the players, I was “in the zone”. Dr. Nelson asked me, “What would you give to play one more game?” and I almost teared up.
The players took the game field for a short warm-up. The temperatures were below freezing but no one was cold. Nazareth beat a good Lake Forest team 54-24.
Game number 13 was more of the same with Nazareth winning 56-28 over Wheaton St. Francis. Nazareth scored 28 points before St. Francis made a first down.
In my introduction I said some bad things about Spartans. However, I loved the 1998 book “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield.
Spartans routinely beat their sons and forced them to endure unimaginable hardships. In addition, babies deemed weak or imperfect were left to die of exposure or sold into slavery. Despite the repulsive acts of the militaristic Spartans, the Spartans fought well and fought together. “Gates of Fire”, later to be made into a cartoon-like movie “300”, told the story of the Battle of Thermopylae. Like all history, the truth is shrouded in mythology. Even if the story is nothing but a fable, I use it every year to teach athletes a valuable lesson.
Nazareth Academy is 13-0 and will play for the Illinois Class 6A State Championship on Saturday, November 29th. Their opponent is 13-0 Lemont. Predicting the outcome is impossible. There will be a battle, that’s all we know.
The Nazareth football team has given me a gift. They have allowed me into their tight-knit group to understand activation. Coach Racki has given me total access to all things Nazareth. In return, I would like to share with the Nazareth football team a story I tell my teams every year. I tell the story of the 300 Spartans.
When the Persians brought 100,000 warriors to conquer Greece, they had to enter through a narrow passage called Thermopylae. In an attempt to slow down the Persians, the Spartans chose a group of 300 warriors to delay their advance. The best warriors were not chosen. Instead, the 300 warriors with the strongest wives were chosen. You see, the mission was a suicide mission. All of the warriors’ children would become fatherless.
Your football game next week is not a suicide mission, but the outcome is anyone’s guess. The Spartans understood their fate and had no illusion of victory. However, they went into battle with their heads held high, full of confidence. The confidence had nothing to do with the outcome, their confidence was due to readiness and training. More important, they believed in each other. On their shields was the Greek symbol for unity, lambda. Confidence, certainty, awareness, focus, and togetherness … brothers breathing as one.
As in all mythology, the exact words are in question but I like the following interpretation. When representatives of Xerxes, the Persian king, were negotiating for free passage through Thermopylae, the leader of the Spartans, King Leonidas, refused to negotiate. Xerxes sent the message, “We will blacken the sky with our arrows.” And to this, a Spartan officer named Dienekes, responded, “Then we will fight you in the dark”.
As a coach, I’ve always believed excellence is our mission and winning is our objective. Every game, we lay it all on the line. We compete like there is no tomorrow. We should not fear losing. We are never certain of the final result, but are certain of our training and we will fight as one. The game is just a game, but the significance of that game is beyond the understanding of those never experiencing battle.
Somewhere in our DNA, we long to be a part of something, to stand together, and to fight as brothers.
Control what you can control. Be fearless. Be certain. Be activated.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
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