All work and no play?

Collegiate athletics are intense. This is a well-known fact that only intensifies the higher the level of play. As the division increases (from Division III to Division II to Division I), so, too, do the expectations and pressure. As with any field, the higher the stakes, the more people are willing to cut corners. In all honesty, the potential rewards of keeping a roster spot or coaching position are too good not to.
 
In the world of competition, more seems to always be better. One more sprint. One more lift. One more of whatever will get that team or player an advantage over the opponent. But when does this mentality go too far?
 
A little over a week ago, at Oregon University three football players were hospitalized after going through an offseason workout conducted by the team’s strength and conditioning coach. All were suffering similar symptoms and one of the players was officially diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which a person’s muscles break down alarmingly fast. Some of the byproducts of the muscle breakdown include a protein called myoglobin, which is devastating for the body’s kidneys and can lead to kidney failure.
 
According to the Los Angeles Daily News, the players were part of a group instructed to perform “push-ups and up-downs for nearly an hour.” If it seems excessive for a workout seven months away from the official start of college football, that’s because it is. Further validation for this insanity is the fact that a few days later, according to an ESPN report, Oregon suspended their strength and conditioning coach for one month without pay.
 
Oregon certainly did the right thing as the school has now changed its system of reporting going forward to involve the Ducks’ director of performance and sports science. All three players are now listed as “good condition” in the hospital, according to ESPN. But still, this is an issue and a risk to players’ safety and health that should not have occurred in the first place.
 
Overall, this is not to highlight the mistakes of a Division I football program. This is to call attention to the ones who are doing right by the offseason, and using the time for what it’s truly for — time off football. In this instance, the team in the spotlight is Wheaton’s own football team.
 
The Thunder coaching staff understand that their players are student athletes with an emphasis on “student” first. The staff, starting at the top with head coach Mike Swider, desires for Thunder players to use the extra time in the offseason to grow in four areas of their lives: spiritual, physical, relational and academics.
 
For Swider, this growth in the players’ walks with Christ comes before all else. This growth includes 20 football small groups of five to six players within each group. These groups give players a smaller group with which to be transparent with each other and hold each other accountable in a way in which is nearly impossible within the context of the team as a whole. Mission trips and the encouragement to attend a church each Sunday also add to the team’s potential spiritual growth.
 
“The offseason also provides an opportunity for us to increase what we do intentionally to help inspire these kids spiritually,” Swider explained.
 
Of course, the Thunder are also hoping to increase their strength, speed and stamina in the offseason with multiple voluntary workouts per week: four lifting ones and two speed workouts. In a stark contrast from what was witnessed at Oregon, attendance is not taken at these workouts.
 
Relationally, players are expected to spend time not only with their own team, but also with friends outside the team. Upperclassmen also set up different opportunities for team bonding like simply throwing the football around, playing intramural basketball, going dress-up bowling, playing indoor mini golf, three-on-three basketball tournaments and local scavenger hunts.
 
“That’s the first reason they [players] came here,” Swider said, “because they want to immerse themselves into a social community of men that would encourage them to love God.”
 
Many players also study together, and the ones who are doing well help the ones within their same major who are struggling, according to Swider. This teamwork further promotes team bonding.
 
“Our offseason allows them to spend even more social time together,” explained Swider. “It provides our kids an even greater time socially and allows them to do other things, as well as train.”
 
And herein lies what the offseason for college athletics should really be about: “other things.” Of course, it’s important to keep up fitness and strength levels, but the offseason should undoubtedly center around time away from football and the stress — both mentally and physically — that ridiculously difficult offseason workouts can cause. Oregon’s football program is certainly evidence of that.
 
“We’re trying to promote balance and we’re trying to build a culture in which these kids love each other,” said Swider.
 
Hear that? The magical word that should define all offseason sports programs, whether football or otherwise?
 
“Balance.” That is truly the focus of this Thunder football team and something that other programs can learn from as well. By allowing players to step back and enjoy other aspects of campus life, they will undoubtedly come back hungrier than before to compete come spring workouts and the beginning of the season in the fall.
 
“The greatest warriors fight not because they hate what’s in front of them, but because they love what’s behind them,” said Swider.
For the Thunder, much of the team’s success originates in the fact that players’ love for one another is forged in the offseason away from the gridiron. In the fall, Thunder fans are sure to see the fruits of this balance play out in major ways both on and off the field.

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