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Redbird Response: Staying strong amid adversity

Man instructs players

Director of Strength and Conditioning Jim Lathrop watches over football players during a pre-practice stretch.

The Richard and Fran Owen Strength and Conditioning Center, which can be found on the lower level of Redbird Arena, is one of the busiest facilities in the Athletics Department. Opening most days at 4:30 a.m., the 9,200-square-foot space is the training center for the 400-plus men and women student-athletes who participate in Illinois State’s 19 varsity sports.

As the name implies, most of the facility is dedicated to strength and conditioning, but it’s also home to a cardio center that is often used by coaches and athletics staff. At almost any time of the day, if you walk by and peer into the facility through the glass windows, you can see a member of the ISU Sports Performance staff working diligently with student-athletes to make them better.

That facility, along with many others on campus, is now quiet as student-athletes and staff are away from campus due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However, that has not deterred Director of Strength and Conditioning Jim Lathrop and his staff from doing everything they can to help fulfill their mission of preventing injury, improving strength, and promoting recovery for Redbird student-athletes.

Like many other groups within Athletics, the Sports Performance staff has had to get creative in the ways they can assist student-athletes at home. It’s not something that is completely foreign to Lathrop and staff, who are used to putting together plans for student-athletes away from campus during breaks.

“We have periods of time each year where we provide them with off-campus programs they can work on from home, so we have some practice at this,” Lathrop said. “Those plans are very structured because we have a set amount of time we know when they will be gone, and we also know when they will return. This is different though, because we don’t know how long this will last and we are having to work on a week-to-week basis with most of our teams while still having long-term goals in mind.”

Lathrop and his staff have been meeting weekly via Zoom to talk through scenarios with each of their teams and use each other as sounding boards for workout ideas. As one can imagine, training varies sport-by-sport and what works for one group may not work for others. The strength staff has also been in regular communication with the head coaches of the respective teams they work with to update them on plans and get their feedback on goals for their athletes while they are away from campus.

As early as last week, the coaches were able to send instructional videos to their student-athletes to work on and then were able to evaluate videos from the athletes sent back to them. New legislation from the NCAA late last week made things a bit more difficult and the staff was once again forced to adjust on the fly.

According to the NCAA’s COVID-19 Question and Answer guide: “A student-athlete may not report voluntary athletically related activities to
institutional coaches or staff members. However, student-athletes may post to their own social media account a voluntary athletically related activity, not at the direction of an institutional staff member. This action does not constitute reporting back to an institutional staff member.”

“The staff was working hard to find new ways to use technology to send programs to the athletes and we were having some good success with that, but things changed late in the week and we are no longer able to have them send us those workouts for evaluation,” Lathrop said. “That’s hindered the process a bit, but we will continue to find ways to communicate our plans effectively with them within the rules set forth by the NCAA as this moves forward.”

One other hiccup for the Sports Performance staff is tailoring workouts for the student-athletes without knowing what kinds of equipment and apparatus they have available to them. Over those summer breaks, student-athletes at home can go to any number of gyms or training facilities near their hometowns to get their work in. With many of those places now closed or having limited access due to stay-at-home orders in many states, coaches and athletes are having to get creative with what they’ve got at home.

“The staff has had to work hard to communicate with the student-athletes to see what kind of equipment they have available to them,” Lathrop stated. “Some of them have weight rooms in their basements or garages but others have nothing on hand. So, we’ve developed a lot of body-weight workouts that don’t need specific equipment. If they have access to some resistance bands, we can work that in or if they have use of a bar in their house or backyard for chin-ups, we can use that. We’ve even had some of our athletes use old cinder blocks or filled up water jugs at home and put a bar between them. The creativity has been great and many of them are sharing with their coaches and teammates to help each other out.”

The Sports Performance staff, in conjunction with the Athletic Training staff, is doing everything it can to make sure student-athletes at home have the support and guidance they need to continue to rehab injuries as well to recover effectively. Add in the support of Sports Nutrition and the Redbirds have a detailed workout plan and menu waiting for them each week while they are away from campus.

“The creativity has been great and many of them are sharing with their coaches and teammates to help each other out.”

The longer the coronavirus restrictions keep student-athletes and staff away from campus will only make things more challenging for Lathrop and crew. However, he believes the current crop of Redbirds will do everything they can to stay ready until their return.

“You always worry about the longer you are away from them, the more they will drift away from the plan,” Lathrop stated. “Our staff has been working hard to maintain those lines of communication and keep them motivated as best as we can. What I’m encouraged about is that we have a great group of student-athletes here at Illinois State that have a goal and a desire to be the best they can. So, I don’t think we will have a lot of issues when we get back.”

No one knows for sure when collegiate athletics will return to some sense of normalcy or what it will look like when it does. However, one thing is certain: the day will come again when loud music will pulse from the speakers of the Owen Strength and Conditioning Center and the loud voices of the Sports Performance staff will be heard in the hallway of Redbird Arena as they motivate Redbird student-athletes in their preparations to compete for championships.