State of the Hogs: Rewards

Mental rewards are important. Bret Bielema knows all of the tricks. Chris Smith and Austin Jones confirm it can be as simple as a sweet treat on Sunday night.

I can remember the interview with Hayden Fry the day Bret Bielema was hired as head coach. Fry, Bielema's coach at Iowa, knew what Arkansas players would get, a man who they play hard for and love.

There are different ways to coach. Different ways to motivate. Without question, Bielema understands all of them. He can be tough, but he also is quick with a hug or a pat on the back or a reward.

Some players have talked about getting a text or an invitation to the office of the head coach for praise after making a high grade on a test. They said it had been their experience that you didn't hear from the head coach unless a mistake had been made in the past and it was not pleasant.

Strength coach Ben Herbert talked about mental rewards in a winter interview as he unveiled his philosophy to this reporter. He said nutrition and hydration were more important than weight lifting, although all go together to form the total athlete in his program. Sometimes it's as simple as having consistent breakfast and we found that out in the early part of training camp in August when Alex Collins got headaches for skipping the day's first meal.

Bielema lauded players in a March interview just ahead of spring drills for the way they had embraced nutrition. He said he saw fullback Kiero Small push away a cheesecake at dinner. Bielema said he could have eaten three of them, because they are that good. Small passed.

Herbert's message last winter is worth repeating.

"It's about setting the body up to be successful to reap the rewards of the work," he said. "That part is very real. It's the type of foods and fluids and the amount of sleep they get. That sets the table for who they want to be."

Herbert seemed like he also understands that there is fun to college.

"I think you have to be realistic," he said. "There is always room for mental health. There are some things that are not best for the body, but it might be good for mental health. You want good mental health, too."

And, a 5 a.m. workout might not be best for the body. It might not produce good eating habits. It's all about the timing of the meals and when to splurge on something that might not be healthy.

"There are two reasons to go really early," he said. "It may be that you want to make them uncomfortable. But the other reason is that if a guy has class conflicts and you have to go early.

"But I don't like those 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. workouts. College students go to sleep sometime between 11 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. It's just a fact. When you go real early, they are in that four-and-a-half-hour window. What I've seen, they like to wake up at the last minute possible, then train on an empty stomach. That affects their ability to train at a high level.

"Meal frequency is so important. If you don't eat breakfast, your blood sugar is running low by lunch, then they grab a quick meal, fast food maybe. Most quick snacks are not good, so now they have another two or three hours without proper nutrition.

"Then, they have an intense activity. Then, they binge at dinner because they are starving. And they wonder why their body composition is bad? "My goal is not for them to eat less, but to eat more frequently and for it to be dense food that helps them in recovery.

"We are making progress, but some are stubborn. Sometimes you have a very talented guy, with very unhealthy habits. When you can get them locked in, the progress they make is ridiculous."

Herbert said he's not asking for perfection in nutrition.

"It's about timing," he said. "I tell them they can make mistakes. You can have some things like ice cream. Just make the mistakes early in the day. Don't make them at 10:30 at night, when they don't have a chance to burn them up. Do it at 10:30 in the morning. I don't want them eating 4,000 calories in the evening. I want it spread out.

"Still, we have some guys who don't understand. They are changing. And as they change, they are going to see that they flourish. I just want them to understand they can't eat frozen pizza every night.

"They might change their habits for two weeks and don't see a lot of change in their body. But if they do it for four weeks, they are going to get hooked. We are seeing that now."

Back to now, one of the things eliminated from the training table by Herbert and the nutrition specialist employed by the football program is ice cream. Players love the homemade ice cream presented by one of the catering companies.

"It's great," senior defensive end Chris Smith said Wednesday night. "Great. We love it."

So Bielema set that up as a mental reward after victories. Players were polled in camp and asked for a suggestion for a special treat on Sunday night after victories. The players voted ice cream.

"So we came in Sunday night after practice for dinner, there it was," Smith said. "Ice cream and all the toppings. Sprinkles. The works.

"Coach Bielema knows how to motivate us. He knows how we think as players. He's always ready to do something that he knows is going to get us excited. We cheered."

Apparently, it was wild cheering. Smith said part of it was knowing their coach would take care of them. The other part was the realization that it was a reward for winning and the players plan for more of that.

Linebacker Austin Jones, mature 22-year-old senior, said it should not be minimized.

"Coach Bielema is all about rewards," Jones said. "He said he loves lobster and crab. We asked for ice cream, but he said if we beat certain teams, the reward on Sunday night will be lobster and crab."

Smith said, "That's right, he's always talking about lobster and crab. We know what's out there if we keep winning. It will be good."

Yeah, good mental health is important. Good hydration is really important.

Hayden Fry was correct. He knows Bielema. And he knew what was in store for the Razorbacks. Just like Wilson Matthews was when Fry was on staff in 1961, Bielema is the tough guy on the field and someone players love off the field. It will pay dividends, kind of like adding sprinkles and the cherry on top.

Bret Bielema and Ben Herbert before a practice.

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