No One is Watching, Now is the Time
(A Message to Collegiate Athletes)
“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
⁃ John Wooden
When I was accepted into the University of Louisville, it was on a single scholarship offer. I was a “no star recruit” at a time when a player became a two-star recruit only after committing to a Division 1 school. Whereas I didn’t start on varsity at Elder High School until my senior year, I left UofL as a four-year starter, starting 49 consecutive games, becoming a 1st Round Draft Pick to the Buffalo Bills at number 28 in the 2009 NFL Draft.
As I reflect on the current times we are living in, where COVID-19 is affecting everyone’s lives, I find myself thinking about what I would be doing if I were a collegiate athlete at this time. I think of all the student-athletes in their homes right now, locked out of workout facilities. Many do not have conventional gyms they can train in. Spring practice was cut short or not participated in at all.
My friends, I’ve been thinking about you. I feel your pain, and this one’s for you.
I’m writing this in hopes of passing along to each of you all that I’ve learned in my journey thus far, as I firmly believe if we are open, we can glean wisdom from those around us who have lived through something already.
As we all know, this pandemic has brought about unprecedented times for which it is hard to draw any parallels to. Yet there is a time that this stay-at-home season is bringing back to mind for me. It was 2004, back during my college athletic career, during the month of May…
Those Summer Days
See, in the current landscape of college football, athletes can stay on campus and take classes year-round, which means that the dorms are open for them to live in year-round and they can receive scholarship checks each month to pay their bills.
Not the case back in 2004.
When I first got to Louisville, we were not allowed to take classes during the month of May unless you needed the class to graduate or remain eligible. I didn’t qualify for either of those stipulations, so I found myself with a decision: I could go live at home and train at my high school, or stay in Louisville with an opportunity to workout with the strength staff all summer, as long as I found work to make rent, car insurance, and other bills. I opted for the latter, and here’s why:
I redshirted my freshman season at Louisville but was able to travel with the team and gain good experience. I stepped into spring practice that year as the starting right guard. A few practices in, I wasn’t feeling myself. I kept getting sick and I was completely drained. Turns out, I was diagnosed with mononucleosis. Over the next three weeks, my weight dropped from 300 to 278 lbs.
So back to that decision I made to stay in Louisville in May of 2004. In order to fully recover from getting sick, I knew I needed to get the best strength training I could and that meant staying at Louisville. It meant an extra month of position drills, high-quality strength training, and film work that I would have had the opportunity to receive had I gone home that summer.
In other words, an opportunity presented itself to get better.
Staying in Louisville that summer meant an extra 8-9% of work that I was going to get under my belt. I figured if I could do that four years in a row, I would get about 35% better than my competition. At the time, the competition was the other guys on the offensive line of my own team– I simply needed to get on the field. (Later in my career, the competition I focused on beating were the top defensive and interior linemen around the country that were also NFL Draft eligible.)
Listen, during this pandemic, I get it– you are locked out of facilities for a period of time, and it might feel even, as though you’re locked out of your “be better” moment as an athlete.
But this whole season reminds me a lot of those college summers. If you stayed on campus as I did, we had access to facilities, but many athletes went back to their hometowns and still found a way to get better.
Four Habits to Build
I don’t know what you have done as a student-athlete to this point, but in order to stay on top of your game and gain a step on the competition during this time, here’s my advice to you…
Position work every day
Jaguars HC Doug Marrone suggested to me at one point of my career that I do drills in the mirror so I could see exactly what I was doing with my technique. I’m extremely thankful for that advice. Ravens OL Coach Joe D’Alessandris used to crack jokes in meetings that I was sore because I was up all night doing drills in my dorm room at training camp.
Repetition creates muscle memory, which then shows up on the field without having to think about it. That is key in sports. Get to the point where all of your technique is now just muscle memory. Then you can focus on the play and what your opponent is trying to combat you with.
Become a master of your craft and fall in love with the process of doing so.
Improve your body composition
It’s tough to eat nutritionally, giving your body what it needs during this time away from the facility where almost all meals are provided. (Welcome to the old month of May!) Nevertheless, it’s imperative that you do it.
Video chat with someone in the athletic department and have them help you shop for groceries. There will be someone on staff that will be able to teach you how to shop cost-effectively while also feeding your body what it needs to put on muscle and lose fat.
In combination with eating healthy, focus on working out as much as you can. It may not look like your traditional workout at the facility, but get some type of workout in. The strength staff at many schools are on social media posting workouts that anyone can do during the quarantine. If your strength staff isn’t doing them, find one on social media that is!
Use this time to do a self-evaluation on yourself where you watch all your snaps from last year in practice and/ or games. Pinpoint exactly what you personally want to improve on, and make it happen through your position work, strength work and conditioning sessions.
Study your opponents. For some of you trying to get onto the field, your opponents may be the guys on your own team that you’re going against in practice. For others already playing in games, watch films on who you will be facing this year in the conference and take notes on them so you can save yourself time during the busy season.
Watch films on players you look up to in your position. You don’t need to be anyone else but you on the field or court. You were accepted into whatever school you’re at because of your own skillset, tangibles, and intangibles. Find techniques in the games of other athletes that allow them to perform at a level you strive to be at. Watch the way they play until the final whistle and emulate that. Watch how they carry themselves. Steal bits and pieces of their technique and add them to the arsenal of skills you already possess.
Improve your mindset
What you think about is what you become. This is an extremely tough time for almost everyone across the world right now. We’re all in the same storm, even though we’re not all in the same boat. During this gut-wrenching time, do a self-check: What are you fueling your mind with?
Read books that positively fuel your mind and soul. Listen to uplifting podcasts. Watch YouTube testimonies of athletes you look up to and figure out what fuels their journey. Have conversations with loved ones, mentors, and coaches that would push you to chase your dreams of playing a professional sport for a living.
This time is a gift. How are you using it?
I’ve come across this saying many times since this pandemic started and in my opinion, it carries real weight:
“Use this time to be better, not bitter.”
It’s understandable that anyone would get bitter about the current circumstances. Missing out on the spring semester and competing in the spring and summer. I would understand if there was complaining about leaving campus and heading back to environments for some that they left for a reason. No one would blame you for missing meals provided for you and now you’re struggling to figure out where your next one is coming from.
Yet still, I urge you to use this time to get better. Let the pain of what you’re going through fuel you. When you leave a legacy at a school, that is something no one can take away from you. When you chase your dream of playing professional sports and you make it, no one can ever strip you of that accomplishment. Use this time to pass up the competition while they may be resting on their laurels. Pass them up and move up the depth chart, the all-conference team, the all-American team, or the draft board.
“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
⁃ John Wooden
No one is watching you during this time. You may have to work hard right now without a pat on the back. Don’t stress it. You’ll get plenty of adoration one day when this is all behind us and you finally come back to school with improved positional technique, improved body composition, better film knowledge, and an improved mindset.
For now, keep your head down, your hands to the plow, and focus on getting better. The choices you make today will become your legacy tomorrow.