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Time to Re-think “6 AM’s” March 1, 2017

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There is an oft-overlooked part to college football that has gotten out of control.  As a former Big Ten football team staff member, I had to endure what are, in the industry, known as “6 AM’s”.  The simple definition/description is that they are winter conditioning sessions for college football players, usually starting in late January and lasting until Spring Practices begin.

They are also a royal pain in the backside.  College kids have a hard time getting enough sleep as it is.  Now imagine having to get up no later than 5 in the morning and trudge yourself into the football facilities.  Show up for work all dressed in normal practice garb no later than 5:30 in the morning so you can set up the equipment for these early morning conditioning sessions.

At least we did not have to run through all those grueling drills:  that was for the players to do.  Good luck being able to maintain consciousness in your classrooms for the rest of the day.  If you miss class because you are too tired, coaches typically cook up special penalties, such as more running.  At Purdue during the Joe Tiller era, the penalty was for players who missed class to start running at 5:30 – meaning we would have to get things set up prior to that time – after which they had to join the rest of their teammates for the 6 AM B.S.

As bad as they have been, coaches have gone too far with these “6 AM’s”.  One recent example is of several Oregon football players needing hospitalization during such a session, which included an hour of push-ups and “up-downs.”  An hour, seriously?  Some of these hospitalized players were diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis, which basically involves the soft muscle tissue breaking down, then leaking into your blood stream.

But that was just earlier this year.  Back in 2011, 13 Iowa football players were hospitalized for the same problems following one of their winter conditioning sessions.

It is perfectly reasonable for coaches needing their players to be in shape.  Moreover, it make sense that they already be in shape for spring practices, so that the coaches can properly ascertain what sort of talent they have to work with for the upcoming fall season that year.  But treating these winter conditioning session as “gut checks” is horribly antiquated, and arguably abusive.

The problem is that coaches too often use these “6 AM” drills (some coaches smartly schedule them in the afternoon, but not enough of them do) as a symbolic gesture to remind players that they are under said coaches’ thumbs, so to speak.  Coaches also too often use these drills as an excuse to put them through “gut-checks”, testing their manhood so as to earn the coaches’ respect and earn their right to stay on the team.  Again, this is not always the case, but incidents like those mentioned above give that impression.

By all means, have conditioning sessions, but coaches, be both sensible and reasonable and have them in the afternoon…like sane people.  There is nothing holding coaches back from implementing these sensible solutions:  only ego and antiquated thinking.  It’s just a matter of coaches having the good sense to be practical and realize that they can get their players in good enough shape without sleep-depriving them, ruining their entire days of class, and fatiguing them to the point of needing hospitalization.  This is not the Marines, let alone the French Foreign Legion.

Give the players a break, schedule the conditioning sessions in the afternoon, and focus on getting them in shape without having to put them through daily gut-checks.  After all, they should have earned your respect by their willingness to show up in the winter to go through such hell before even putting on helmets and pads later in the springtime.  For those coaches who already honor this ethic, kudos.

College Football Drills in Wintertime February 28, 2013

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We are still in the winter season, normally associated with basketball, wrestling (the non-pro kind!) and Winter Olympic-related sports.  The Super Bowl has been concluded for almost a month by now, and the college football bowl games have been over for almost two.  But do not think that nothing is going on in the world of college football; things are anything but sleepy in that world right now, and I don’t mean the latest developments in the Fulmer Cup, either!

The truth is, college football is very active right now, just not active in the way that ordinary fans, hard-core and casual alike, can readily see or discern.  That is because fans do not see the tough conditioning drills that players put themselves through (scratch that, that COACHES put players through) during the week, often at very inconvenient times of day, to get them ready for Spring Ball.

Conditioning is the game, here.  The NCAA restricts coaches to 15 spring practice sessions, so there’s no time to waste on gassers or the like when there’s plenty of schematic options to explore to see how they play out and to try to install new offensive stuff for the regular season come Fall.

That means that these boys need to be in shape for all of that.  What is truly interesting is all the different approaches that coaching staffs take towards these conditioning sessions, starting with what their nomenclature.  One generic, all-purpose term is “winter conditioning drills,” since they last from early February, usually, to early March, though that alone varies from program to program.  Another term some teams use is “mat drills,” since some of the conditioning drills take place on wrestling mats or a similar playing surface.  At Purdue, we just called them “6 AM’s”, since that’s when these drills officially began.

Six-AM’s are a royal pain in the ass.  There, I said it.  Some coaches seem to agree, with is why schools of thought differ even on this approach, since some programs WISELY undertake these conditioning sessions in the AFTERNOON (why, what a novel idea!).  As disastrous a head coach as Jim Colletto was while at Purdue, one of the few bright spots during an otherwise dark time for the program was that he had said conditioning drills held in the afternoon, when normal people are still, you know, functional.  Coach Joe Tiller, however, in a hasty move to — otherwise commendably — change the tone of the program (and goodness knows it needed a change of tone at the time) had them in the morning, hence the term at the beginning of this paragraph.

But Purdue is not the only one; many a program from UConn to USC has had these sessions at 06:00, for whatever reason.  Luckily, there are voices of reason at big-time programs that still have them in the afternoon.  Take Georgia, for example (this policy alone strengthens my faith in Mark Richt’s adept leadership):

FYI, those human-centipede push-ups are a lot harder than they look!  Notice the presence of a red mat in the middle of the indoor practice field, though.  We never used a mat for drills on the astroturf playing field of Mollenkopf Athletic Center (field turf was finally installed in there in 2006), which might account for the absence of the mat drill term within our organizational lexicon.

Still, another interesting thing to marvel is what sort of combination of drills the coaches prefer to get their players into shape.  We never did the human-centipede push-up drill at Purdue, for example, but one constant one will find from program to program are all sorts of directional drills.  Those are simply where the coaches have players run or side-shuffle in one direction then instantly turn to run in a different direction and so on.  Players would go to various drill stations throughout the session and about four or five-minute intervals, and variations of directional drills were usually two out of several of said stations.  Because two stories of staircases leading to the coaches’ offices were located close to the indoor field, another station was to have players run up and down said stairs — ensuring that endurance and power were covered!

Clemson is considered a big-time program, but sadly they still cling to the out-dated notion of having drills pre-dawn. North Texas, an inconsistent contender in the Sun Belt, also still have their sessions before sunrise.

Notice the good examples of directional drills show in the above video.  The tug-of-war drill is no doubt a cool idea!  Another constant one sees during these drills from program to program are the puke buckets.  Part of the job of the managers are to set up these drills (meaning they must report around 5:30 AM), and part of the setting-up is placing those plastic, dark gray garbage cans in, er, strategic areas for players to conveniently access in the split second before they blow hash.  On further review, one advantage to running before dawn is that one needs not to worry about losing one’s breakfast!

At Purdue, after the players were thoroughly worn out from all the drills, to cap things off, the coaches had them run 100-yard wind sprints repeatedly.  After all of that, the session would not be completed until all the players on the team did positioning drills (lie on your back, the whistle blows, then you instantly switch to lying on your chest, etc.) to the coaches’ satisfaction.  Doing these twice a week to start out seemed manageable.  Three times a week and it wears considerably on you; but at four times a week, it pushes you towards the brink of insanity, and makes you jump for joy when it comes time for spring practices to commence.  At least we could brag, though, that we practiced while [normal] people slept!

Addendum, 04-03-13:  Yes, by now, spring practices are in full-swing all across the land, but I just came across a video of Purdue’s 6 AM drills for 2013, and naturally found that to be a great fit for the article — enjoy!