Illinois Strength & Conditioning coach Aaron Hillmann has no illusions about his role for the Illini football team. He has extremely important responsibilities, but he realizes it is a supportive role rather than an end in itself.
"It's a unique role in the program in that we spend more time with them than anybody else. Also, I'm not the one determining playing time. We're just here to help that athlete develop to his fullest potential.
"The other unique thing about what I do is, they didn't sign up to do this. They signed up to be football players. I'm asking them to do things exercise-wise that are uncomfortable. You've got to give the body a stress that makes it say, 'Oh oh. If I don't adapt, something's not going to happen.'
"I think that's okay. I'm not trying to teach someone to lift weights for the rest of their lives. I'm not trying to teach them to run gassers for the rest of their lives, although I'd like for a lifetime health program to be part of it.
"I need to sell them on doing this for the next 4 to 5 years and help you get to where you want to be. That's where the relationship becomes very unique."
Hillmann must design training to fit the needs of each football player. Having a full staff of qualified assistants helps that task immensely.
"I'll tell you this. One of the huge advantages I have here is that Coach (Tim) Beckman allowed me to a hire a football strength and conditioning staff. The four guys I brought in, Dave Andrews, Aaron Burkhart, Austin Addington-Strapp and Freddie Walker, obviously I'm biased, but they are in my opinion the best strength and conditioning staff in the country.
"What that allows us to do, it allows us to individualize the program. If there is a holy grail in training, it is individualization. Everyone doesn't adapt at the same rate. You get different players at different developmental stages.
"The needs of a true freshman offensive lineman are very different from a fifth-year senior defensive back. Sometimes the task of training 105 or more football players can be daunting. But with a staff of four people helping me, I break it down where we are training 6 to 8 players at a time."
Hillmann varies his approach based on the time of year also.
"Everything we do is documented, every rep, every set, the progressions. There's times for general training. For instance, everybody went through the same types of stressors in terms of the winter program. But even their progressions in their weight training, everybody starts at different levels. So instead of drawing a big net, we're able to use our fancy lures.
"The time of the year when we really see this program become more position-specific in terms of energy system work, and then any alterations in our general physical preparation that we need to make to allow that specificity to occur, happens in the summer.
"And then especially during the season, in-season strength training is completely underrated. It's a big thing in the off-season, but it's during the season that we make our money."
Hillmann believes a holistic approach is essential.
"Everyone wants to compartmentalize training, and it's wrong. You've got strength training, and you've got conditioning, whatever that means. You've got practice. It's not. Everything's got to be integrated, it's training the football player.
"If you've got too many cooks in the kitchen and are not integrating globally, accumulatively, the training load, we are doing them a disservice. We have to be able to realize our training load out there on the field. If we don't account for that and allow that to happen, we miss our goal."
Everything Hillmann and his staff do is designed to improve the product on the playing field.
"In being supportive of the process, our charge is to account for the stresses and loads out on the field. At some point, that must take precedence. And that's what's great about being a strength and conditioning staff. Not only can we integrate our training, but we can integrate ourselves with the football staff.
"For 10 years at Bowling Green, I was in charge of our weight team sport, which was fabulous. I was throwing big nets. In my mind at that time, I felt like I was doing the best job that I could. But it's different with a football team."
In part four of this five-part interview, Hillmann talks about the importance of nutrition for football players.