At this point, strength coach Aaron Wellman is doing all he can to prepare Indiana’s football team for a season.
He just doesn’t quite know when that season will be.
Or, if the subject is the 2021 calendar year, if it will be seasons. Plural.
“We’re always looking at, OK, what are the demands of the season and when do those demands begin?” Wellman said. “If that’s August 1, let’s work backwards 10 weeks and let’s prepare for August 1. Right now, we’re in this time where we don’t have a clear understanding of what we’re preparing for. Nor do we have a clear understanding of the loads that these guys will encounter. And how many weeks they’ll encounter. And how long between the kickoff of the 2021 season and the end of the 2020 season will be.”
It’s a long list of unknowns for a strength coach. Science tells them when to train athletes, and how hard, depending on when a season is being played. Properly scheduling workloads builds “chronic resiliency” in the muscles, as Wellman put it, which not only improves performance but reduces the risk of injury.
Wellman said he doesn’t know any more than the media when it comes to the Big Ten’s potential football schedule, whether it starts around Thanksgiving or sometime after the New Year. He would like to know the plan sooner rather than later, though.
“Obviously, the sooner, the better, right?” Wellman said. “If we know we’ve got two to three months to prepare, the training program looks vastly different than to say ‘Hey, in four weeks, you’re playing.’ … We try to monitor every yard our players run, the volume of the lifting sessions, the intensity of those lifting sessions, on an individual basis … and that’s tough to do if, again, we don’t have a true endpoint, right? If we don’t have a true date, or how long we have to build.”
For now, the Hoosiers are working out four times a week, just looking for something consistent to make up for lost time in the spring and summer. But they aren’t going too hard, too early, because Wellman doesn’t want to miscalculate and put his players at risk of soft tissue injuries.
“The two biggest risk factors are previous injury, which we have a hard time controlling after it’s happened, but also just large, acute increases in training loads,” Wellman said. “If they say the season is, boom, three weeks away, all of us are going to feel a sense of responsibility to increase these training loads and demands to get them ready for that. And, again, there are problems with that.”
Whether a college football player’s body can handle two seasons in a calendar year is somewhat unknown. IU coach Tom Allen has expressed concerns about playing too late into the spring semester, especially if it compromises Big Ten football in the fall of 2021. Penn State’s James Franklin has been a proponent of using domed venues, generating speculation about a season that could start as early as January.
Two seasons in 2021 could be feasible, but it’s definitely “uncharted waters,” according to Dr. Michael G. Ciccotti, director of sports medicine at the Rothman Orthopaedic Institute, as well as the medical director for the Philadelphia Phillies and the president of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
“This is a brave new world, right, doing it this way,” Ciccotti said. “That doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t work out, or these athletes couldn’t do it and do it injury free. But we as their health care providers — the doctors, the athletic trainers, the nutritionist — we have to collectively be vigilant about identifying those that could be at risk because of a prior injury. Or if we identify someone that has an injury, we may have to intercede and modify or decrease activity, or remove them from participation altogether.”
Rest is rest. Along those same lines, it’s not possible to “rush physiology,” Wellman said, like when an athlete ramps up for a season. But fortunately, technology has improved in ways that help measure how athletes are responding to stress.
There are a myriad of devices that can track an athletes’ vital signs, including heart rate, blood pressure, and even hydration. But Ciccotti points to more advanced systems like receptor pads, or “force plates,” that measure how much force an athlete generates on certain movements. A baseline can be compiled to figure out an individual athlete’s measurements when healthy, and any deviation from that will raise red flags.
It’s not a cheap solution, and it takes man hours to collect and store the data from these digital assessments. Luckily for IU, Wellman, who came over from the New York Giants this offseason, has experience in this area. Wellman said the IU football program has been screening athletes for baseline data since last Thursday.
“For the last week we’ve been assessing our athletes on about 12 to 15 different metrics, for that reason, to get a gauge on neuromuscular fatigue and neuromuscular status, asymmetries that may exist in the lower body at high velocities,” Wellman said. “So we’re continuing to do that and we will continue to monitor athletes. And certainly if there’s a piece of technology, or another metric, that we feel will help our athletes, we’re quick to embrace and see if it fits in our program.”
There are also old-fashioned ways to remedy the concern of athlete burnout.
“One of the best monitoring tools is to simply have an honest conversation with an athlete and say ‘How do you feel today? What’s bothering you today?’ Wellman said.
Just managing an athlete through this unorthodox football season — or two — will be a challenge. Wellman admitted an “exorbitant” number of contests in a calendar year would be “problematic.”
“Particularly because we haven’t had the training on a consistent basis to prepare for those demands,” Wellman said.
The next several weeks will allow the Hoosiers a chance to start down the path of readying themselves for whatever is coming.
Clarity on what exactly is coming, though, would be welcome.
“The sooner we know and have some clear cut guidelines and a calendar,” Wellman said, “then the better decisions we’re going to be able to make as coaches.”