During the season, we call upon a former Irish football captain/great to share his insights into the previous week’s game.
With winter conditioning coming to a close and spring practice less than two weeks away, we asked Joe Schmidt – captain of the ’15 Notre Dame squad -- to relate his experiences and those of his teammates in the days between the bowl game and the start of spring practice, which generally spans about two-and-a-half months.
Winter conditioning is the term used for this valuable time when the players recover from a grueling season and begin preparation for the next one, which reaches another phase when the annual 15 practice sessions are conducted.
What exactly does winter conditioning entail? We called upon Schmidt to provide the specifics for Irish Illustrated as well as the various phases of the two-and-a-half months prior to the start of spring drills.
We get a little bit of time off after the bowl game. Let’s say we’re in a New Year’s Six bowl like this year. We get from Jan. 2 until when we start school again, like around Jan. 14. So we get that two-week period off. But if we played in the national title on Jan. 10, we still come back on the 14th and that’s when we re-assemble.
That Sunday before school starts, we have a check-in for the football team. It’s a whole new team now – the seniors are gone -- so generally Coach (Brian) Kelly will have an introductory state-of-affairs to set the groundwork for the off-season to come and the season to come.
I wouldn’t say the first two weeks (of training) is optional hours because they go back and forth with weight room hours. We’re not really ever out of the weight room because we come back and we start working pretty shortly thereafter.
Winter conditioning is a lot of running and a lot of lifting. This is when as a team, we try to get strong and big. This is where you want to start trying to make your weight and strength gains, and if you need to make a substantial change in your body and strength make-up, this is the time to do it.
At the same time – at least in my opinion – it’s a delicate balance. If you’re a young player, you want to do everything possible to continue to get better and work harder than you think the other people are working. If you do that, you can get burned out easily, which is why I say it’s a delicate balance. It’s balancing the pendulum where on one hand, you want to work hard and get better, but on the other hand, this is your one break in the season’s grind.
There’s very little interaction with the players and the coaches. Maybe a few meetings. The exit interviews for the year happen at this time. Coach VanGorder or Coach Sanford and Coach Denbrock and all those guys will have an exit interview with you from the season. They’ll go over your production and the overall layout of the year.
It wouldn’t be fair for me to say that the context of the interviews and the meetings that are happening at this point in the year involves the coaching staff creating new goals for everyone. Each coach knows how he wants to develop a player and this is the section of the year where that’s communicated from coach to player, and also from player to coach.
You meet with our nutritionist. A lot of times you’ll have your bod pod done so you can see your body composition makeup. They’ll say, ‘Okay, Joe, you’re at 13 percent body fat. If you start adding these few things into your diet, maybe tweak this, you can maybe lower that by a percent and put some more lean muscle mass on.’
After the season is over, everything is focused on being as good as you possibly can be for August, which is why spring ball is the development period that it is. All the older guys know these reps are critical in getting ready for the upcoming year. But the older guys all know this time is only important in the overall conversation of how it improves you from January to August. It’s all about where you are come August.
Leading up to spring drills, we have team workouts and weightlifting sessions. The team workouts are different in their makeup in that the coaches are there and they’ll run you through different drills that are categorized as winter workout drills, football-related drills. We have a regulated number of these workouts.
We’ll get out there and we’ll have bags and ladders and tires and things like that. Those are the videos you’ll see the strength staff posting. Guys are flipping tires inside or maybe the guys are doing a mat drill, or a wave drill if you will.
Another part of that is the Camp Kelly workout, which is essentially the team workout times four and usually outdoors. Those vary, depending upon where coach wants to do them.
We go Monday through Friday. Generally, we lift four times a week, and that middle Wednesday, it’s a different workout. You’re moving more, mobility stuff, it’s less of a lift and more of a movement day.
Even on the days we lift, we’ll try to go outside and move around. It’s not like Monday we’re lifting and Tuesday we’re running. We’ll do a little bit of each on all the days unless it’s just a straight team workout day.
We do this in the morning before classes. Winter workouts are 7:00, 7:30 or 8:00. Power (linemen) go at 7:00, big skill (linebackers, tight ends) at 7:30 and skill (receivers, running backs, defensive backs) at 8:00, unless it’s a team workout, and then times can change.
As a young player, it’s something you have to get used to. Getting out of bed and then trudging over there, it’s going to be snowy and cold. It’s a difficult time for a young player. They’re battling against themselves.
I experienced it and it was tough. For me, I wasn’t having a lot of success as a young guy. I wasn’t doing a lot right in practice. I was working as hard as I possibly could, but obviously it was a long-term plan. It’s hard when you’re trudging through the snow every day and you’re not seeing any fruits from your labor.
It’s tough to realize these reps are as critical as they are, not only in a practice in the spring, but also those bench reps and squat reps, which are just as incredibly important in trying to build the foundation. With each coat of paint, you get a little bit better and a little bit better, and if you can compound that growth over four or five years…
To be more productive at an older age, you’ve had all these reps in the weight room and on the field and after a while, it all puts itself together in this tight little package. You wrap it up in a bow and you say goodbye after four or five years.
Now this is all assuming that you’re healthy coming out of the season. I wasn’t last year. Being injured in the spring, it’s common that a lot of guys will play through the year with a certain injury. A lot of guys are having surgery during this time.
You get your MRIs, you get your X-rays, you get everything checked out that you have been managing through the year. Even for the guys that are (leaving Notre Dame), I got my MRI and now I know what’s wrong with my shoulder and I’m planning my surgery now. Of course, I’ve got less of a sense of urgency in that I don’t have to be back for spring ball.
For those guys that are returning, there is an injured-guy contingent that probably isn’t going to participate in spring ball and is doing the modified, injured-guy workouts.
This is a tough time because you have to come in early for treatment – before a lift or before a team workout – and then I’d do treatment after that for a certain amount of time.
For me personally last year, my ankle was swollen and painful, and then I would go to class. After class, I’d come back late-afternoon and do another treatment session.
It’s another battle with yourself if you’re injured because you’re hardly a part of the team. I couldn’t run, so when everybody else was running around and doing the running workouts, I was doing some awful cardio contraption that we’d come up with.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time doing it. Coach (Aaron) Wellman worked a lot with me and we’d come up with fun ways to get work in. But it’s a whole different challenge when you can’t do spring football because of injury.
From an injury perspective, you’re meant to be a warrior to do everything you can to continue to play. There’s a difference between being hurt and being injured. As long as you’re not maiming yourself for the rest of your life…although to a certain degree, football does that in general. But as long as you’re not disabling yourself for the future, you can fight through some things that you might not think are possible.
I hurt my shoulder the second week of training camp. I didn’t say anything about it because it’s kind of irrelevant. I didn’t tell anyone about it during the year in that you don’t talk about stuff like that. I wouldn’t want anyone to have an unfair advantage knowing that. It wasn’t keeping me from participating on Saturdays. I felt I could still play at a high level and help the team.
As long as I could still contribute, I was going to do everything I could to be out there and participate to my fullest capability. There wasn’t much I could say during the year or even now that I’m done at Notre Dame. That doesn’t change.
The reality is that when it comes to injuries, it’s everybody. There are very few people that can make it through a whole season without certain bumps or bruises or whatever. Some guys are luckier than others. It’s part of the game and part of the every-day struggle. You have to learn to deal with pain.
Coach (Paul) Longo is a great strength coach and he does a good job of monitoring the team and knowing what we need through this whole process and getting everybody on the same page.
We’re constantly looking for new ways to get us better and build us up. Coach Longo, Jake Flint, Coach (David) Grimes, Coach Wellman and Tyler Plantz in the interim…All they do is think about ways to improve our performance on the field through the weight room. I think they do a good job. They’re definitely challenging us. Our record late in seasons has been pretty good, especially how we’ve developed over the last five years and how I felt we competed with a top-tier team in the post-season this year versus three years ago.
It’s obviously Coach Longo’s show, but Jake has been around for so long and he’s very wise. He always has ideas. Coach Grimes has a different perspective in that he was very recently in our shoes and can help with that aspect of training. He’s also very good at speed and quickness and those kinds of ideas.
With spring practice beginning in a couple of weeks, the last week before spring break is some hard workouts and you’re really getting after it. Then you go into spring ball and really focus on becoming better football players with a lot of technique and fundamentals.
That’s winter conditioning. It really tests you, especially the young guys still adapting to the process.