When I played football at UCLA nearly 40 years ago, our strength and conditioning program was pretty straight forward: lift more weights, get stronger. Boy have things changed!
I spent an afternoon with Frank Wintrich, the new head strength and conditioning coach at UCLA, training his staff on how to implement Iron Neck with his players, learning about the advanced technologies he and his staff have deployed to optimize player performance and what the coach-player relationship is ultimately about.
Mike Jolly (MJ): There are a lot of moving pieces to what you’re building here at UCLA. How has Iron Neck fit into your programming?
Frank Wintrich (FW): We’ve incorporated the Iron Neck as part of our ancillary work on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. We high-low sequence all of our training so our low days are CNS days and we’ll get our big lifts and speed days in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We’ll squat, press and pull on those days as well. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays the guys will come in and we’ll do a very light low intensity, moderate to high volume mobility movements session to lather them up, get them moving from the high day and flush them out and they’ll do all their ancillary work. We focus on posterior shoulder, their neck, posterior chain work, back, shoulders, and bis and tris. The stuff they want to look good in their jerseys!
MJ: How have you seen the coaches and athletes evolve in training with it?
FW: It’s been a noticeable difference in the circumference of the players’ necks. The guys are actually starting to step away from the racks a little more which is showing that they’re getting stronger and they’re looking to get more resistance. They’re also moving much better, becoming more fluid as they become more comfortable training with it.
MJ: How have you trained neck in the past?
FW: We didn’t have neck machines when I got here so we did a lot of manual resistance neck and band resistance neck. That stuff was ok, but what I love about Iron Neck is that it’s so dynamic. Once the players get more comfortable with it, they can become more fluid with the motion and they move more naturally. It’s very similar to the way their heads are going to be moving on the football field. Their heads will snap around, they’ll move it in different patterns as they run. So those things are really good for our guys to develop their bodies and their necks particularly in a way that they’re going to be using them on the football field.
MJ: And you’re using them with the Quarterbacks as well?
FW: Everybody uses it at least twice a week. Our guys are using it 3 times a week. We’re getting it in with the entire team. Even our kickers are using it.
MJ: That’s good! Gotta keep the kickers on the field! Talk a little bit about the monitoring system you use. I’ve seen it before but I’ve never seen it to this detail with your Catapult system and your heart rate monitoring. Tell me a little bit about that.
FW: Our whole goal is to optimize player performance and the first part of that is safety. Our number one principle of our program is safety. Guys should never get injured in the process or as a result of the training process, and that includes practices. So what we want to make sure that we do, is that all of our loading, whether it be external or internal loads, are within safe parameters. The Catapult GPS system enables us to monitor the athlete’s external load so we know exactly the work that they’re doing. We’ll look at load, which is an accumulation of 3-dimensional movement in space, regardless of speed and distance, basically an assessment of total movement. We also look at speed bands and how far they travel in certain speed bands. A lot of times you can look at a practice report and go, ‘oh my gosh, they went 7000 yards in practice, that’s so much!’ Well, what kind of volume was that? How much of that was high speed distance, which is 90% or above? How much of that was tempo distance, which is 75-90% range? How much of that was jogging or walking or grazing?
FW: Yea, grazing is where you’re standing on the sideline waiting to go in. You just kind of look like a cow, moving back and forth. You’re not really going anywhere. You’re waiting for your turn to go in the next play. But we can look at all those things and what the breakdown of those distances are. Then it becomes a little bit more like the ‘aha’ moment. ‘Well, really that practice wasn’t so bad’ or ‘man, that was a really difficult practice.’ Then we look at high speed distance, which I think is really important, and total speed, so how fast did they go? Then how many yards did they travel at that high speed distance? Because that’s really where we can start looking at picking up hamstring injuries and those types of things.
MJ: Tell me about your heart rate monitoring system and the insights you’re able to pull from it.
FW: We’re coupled with First Beat out of Finland and we’re the only American collegiate football program that is utilizing real-time heart rate technology, so we’re able to track our guys’ heart rates real-time throughout a workout. The Catapult enables us to look at external load, or the work that they did. The heart rate monitors then allow us to look at internal load, so what is that work actually doing to them? As I mentioned earlier, we high-low sequence everything so every Monday, Wednesday, Friday we bring our guys in after we come off a low day and see how well they recover. We do a QR test which is an HRV, Heart Rate Variability screen. We want their heart rates to be rested but ready, so we want a low heart rate but a high level of variability between the heart beats and that’s something that only a heart rate monitor can show you. We want to see that that heart rate is low, which is indicating that they’re recovered but then there is a large amount of variability which means that they’re ready for activity. One bad score doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad because we know that performance is going to be cyclical. So that gives us a pretty clear picture of how they’re recovering.
MJ: How do you communicate this data to your athletes with purpose?
FW: Most importantly for me what that does is enable us to have a conversation with the athlete if the numbers are starting to show something. After doing this for 17 years you start being able to look at guys and think, ‘hmm, he looked this way earlier and now he doesn’t look right, something isn’t right.’ Then you look at the data. What does the data say? Well speeds are down. Heart Rate Variability is poor. Something might be going on. Then you call the kid in, ‘Hey Johnny, what’s going on? Everything ok?’ And then you can have a conversation. I’ve never been a big fan of the 24 hour monitoring system where you put a bracelet on a kid or you send him home with something that’s tracking their sleep. I think that’s too invasive and too intrusive. I think that it doesn’t enable you to have good conversation with the athletes. What we’ve always wanted to do was have the athletes be a part of the process, not apart from the process. They should never feel like they are being subjected to the training. They should feel like they are a partner in the training and that we’re doing this together.
MJ: What does that conversation loop look like?
FW: They come in, they give us feedback. We utilize that feedback to help develop the training processes that they need. Then we go through that day. Then we watch and see, what does the data say? How did they perform? How did they look? What feedback are they giving us? And then we just continue that process. We’ve got five different levels of training in our program. As the athletes go through the program, they actually get more autonomy. So freshman come in. Freshman need to be told what to do and how to do it because they’ve never been exposed to the type of training and work that they’re going to see. College football is not even the same game that high school football is the same way that professional football isn’t the same game that college football is and guys need to understand that. The speeds are different. The work capacities are different. The tactics are different. The techniques are different. And what we’ve got to do is get the guys prepared for that. As they become more advanced in their training age, we start giving them more and more opportunities to give us feedback. To where, when we have guys in the elite program, we’re doing a lot of auto-regulation work with them through velocity based training. When they’re coming in, I’m saying, “hey Mike, how do you feel today?” “Coach I feel great. I want to do safety bar squat today because I know that that’s what gets me the most ready for Saturday” or “I want to do the Pit Shark because my back’s bothering me today and I know that that’s going to help set me up for success.’ You and I have built that relationship over the last 4 years. You can trust me. I can trust you. I know you know what you need to get yourself ready to go on Saturday on Game Day. And we allow the athletes to do that. We’ve done that at other places we’ve been and had a lot of success with it.