How to Build a Bully: Inside the Stanford Football Strength Program
“We bow to no man, we bow to no program. We are going to build a bully.”—Jim Harbaugh
In the winter of 2006, on the heels of their fifth straight losing season and an embarrassing 1-11 record, belief that the Stanford Cardinal could put a competitive team on the field was wavering. There were even rumblings that Stanford should drop down a division, presumably to compete against its brainy Ivy League brethren, or drop football altogether.
Cue the fiery Jim Harbaugh and his young staff. They recognized that while Stanford could not lower its academic standards to broaden the talent pool, it could take advantage of the Stanford student-athlete's unique psychology and "inherent competitiveness," as current head coach David Shaw puts it, to build a winner.
Before that process could start on the football field in spring practice, it would be introduced by the Kissick Family Director of Football Sports Performance, Shannon Turley, in summer conditioning. He was, and still is, responsible for planting the seeds of belief in Cardinal freshmen and getting the upperclassmen to buy into the philosophy the Harbaugh regime was selling and Shaw continues to sell.
"When you are losing and you are 1-11, there are people that are frustrated," said Turley. "They know that there are things that are unacceptable being accepted and they want a change."
To begin, Turley said the Stanford Player Development team enlisted the aid of upperclassmen who were "borderline obsessed" with change. "Then we empowered them so they could impose their own expectations on the roster, which is so much more effective than any coach talking."
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If there were a way to statistically quantify a team’s bully factor, it would be rushing yards and rushing yards allowed. These stats are heavily dependent on a team’s ability to control the trenches and impose its will on the opposing offense or defense. Classic bully characteristics.
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In the six years since Turley brought his strength and conditioning program to The Farm, as Stanford is known to many, the defense has cut the number of yards allowed per carry nearly in half, and the offense has more than tripled its production on the ground.
A bully was born. Here’s how Stanford did it.
"I Don't Care How Much You Can Bench"
There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles on The Farm; the Stanford program focuses on simplicity and execution. “I don’t have a lot of secrets or gimmicks,” said Turley. “There is an old school way that probably works. It’s been working for a long time.”
Turley does not have some sort of magical formula, nor are his players putting up Zeus-like numbers in the weight room.
"I don’t care how much guys can bench squat or power clean," Turley said. "It has nothing to do with playing football. Football is blocking and tackling. It’s creating contact, avoiding contact and gaining separation if you are a skill guy on the perimeter. That’s football."
What they are doing is building one of the most comprehensive and successful player development programs in the country through highly specialized training, personalized by position and player.
Stanford’s player development team focuses its efforts on injury prevention, athletic performance and mental discipline—in that order. Basically, the Stanford weight program doesn’t worry about having the "strongest" guys in college football. It focuses on football strength, technique and making sure the best Cardinal players stay on the field all season.
“This is an unusual and forward-thinking focus,” said Will Carroll, the Sports Medicine Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. “I guess we should expect that from Stanford. Most teams use the weight room and even advanced tools like Alter-G treadmills, SwimEx pools and the like in a caveman fashion. It’s all get bigger, get faster, which is easily measured. Injury prevention is more subtle.”
The guiding principle is “do no harm,” and Stanford has been wildly successful in doing so. In the six years since Turley took over the Stanford strength program, games missed due to injury has decreased 87 percent.
“That kind of drop is stunning,” Carroll explained. “I think most programs would be happy with 10 percent. For an NFL team, that kind of drop would be worth a win or more, as well as about $20 million in lost payroll.”
For those who say numbers in the weight room are important measure of success on the field, Turley would counter with the example of Stanford’s 6’5”, 313-pound All-American guard David Yankey, who Turley says can barely bench his own body weight.
‘‘He’s got to have some pop, I get it,” said Turley. “But isn’t the rate at which you strike more important than moving a bunch of weight around really slow?”
Turely explains that bench press and squat goals don’t even factor into his thinking when he designs a workout for a player. He is concerned only with a player’s ability to move as he needs to on the football field.
For an offensive lineman like Yankey, this means the mobility and stability of his shoulder, the stability of his core and the mobility of his lower body. Optimizing those characteristics allows him to get low and quickly apply force in the direction he intends to move, thus fulfilling his role as a blocker.
Stanford’s focus on injury prevention over athletic performance, along with the absence of the almighty record board in the weight room, sets its program apart from other powerhouse programs (yes, Stanford is a modern-day powerhouse).
“This functional focus, with less emphasis on big muscles and gallons of sweat, is brilliant,” Carroll said. “Each player has a function and certain movements and patterns that help him fulfill that function. Stanford is way ahead of the curve on this.”
“Our numbers are very unimpressive,” said Turley. “But we’re not chasing numbers. We are chasing lean muscle, reducing body fat and making guys functionally strong for football.”
Can't Stop, Won't Stop
Stanford football is a year-long commitment. Between the season, spring practice, fall camp and three six- to seven-week offseason training sessions, the Cardinal players are participating in football-related activities for 43 weeks out of the year. Of those weeks, 19 are spent exclusively in the weight room and on the track under Turley’s supervision.
The winter program is focused on recovery from the season, while the spring offseason program is the only time the Cardinal focus on speed and power development.
Things heat up in the summer when conditioning is the main focus. From late June through the first week of August, Turley will run his players through a variety of position-specific exercises that focus on the movements they are going to execute repeatedly in fall practice and throughout the season.
During the season, the Stanford program focuses on recovery and restoring mobility to sore bodies that have performed the same action over and over again on the field.
The stated goal of Turley’s strength program is to “develop lean, athletic players that can play with low pads and leverage and exert force in the direction that they intend to move.” Turley builds football players, not weightlifters or track athletes. “We are not training for a 40 because you don’t run a 40 in football,” he said.
All of Stanford’s workouts are grounded in the SAID (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) principle Turley has carried with him since his days as a student assistant working under Mike Gentry at Virginia Tech.
Turley “fundamentally and firmly” believes the best way to train for football is to practice and repeat the specific movements a player is required to make on the field, and he designs personalized workouts for each player accordingly.
Turley and his staff start with separate workout templates designed for each of the six player groups (skill, big skill, linemen, quarterbacks, specialists, freshmen) and personalize based on a player’s injury history and predetermined movement patterns, which usually stem from experience playing other sports or previous injury. As the players’ bodies mature throughout their careers, the workouts change.
“I think the more specialized you can be, the more things you can influence in the physical and mental development of your players,” said Turley.
All-American tight end Coby Fleener is a great example of a player who came in with a pre-existing injury—a herniated disc—that Turley was able to work around.
During Fleener’s five years at Stanford, Turley said he modified the tight end’s workout based on his injury and his individual needs. “It was a lot different when he was a 219-pound freshman and a 250-pound senior,” he said.
Don’t be mistaken—Turley doesn't take it easy on a player because he has a pre-existing weakness from an injury, poor training or overuse on the field. His challenge is to find a way to offset that weakness to allow the player to reach optimal performance on the field.
For example, Stanford senior right tackle Cameron Fleming’s right hip is “locked up” due to overuse. This is a “very predictable” situation for a right tackle, according to Turley.
Fleming plants and drives off his right leg on virtually every rep he takes in practice or a game. At Stanford’s average of 69.1 offensive plays per game, that’s 967 plays per year, in addition to countless practice reps. That’s a lot of wear and tear.
“We are going to train him as a right tackle because that’s what he is and that’s what he’s got to be good at,” Turley said. “But with that comes a certain overdeveloped musculature and firing pattern [in his hip and leg]. I can’t take it easy on him, per se, but we’ve got to do more mobility work to address his risk.”
The most unique aspect of the Stanford strength program is its focus on isometric and eccentric exercises. While other college football programs and weekend warrior weightlifters focus on the force-delivering or concentric aspect of a lift or exercise (rising out of a squat or pushing up the bench press bar), Turley preaches the control of the weight. This increases stability and durability of the muscle.
Concentric-focused training is power-focused and creates great numbers in the gym, but it puts athletes at greater risk of injury.
"While some programs do similar things, it’s seldom the focus," explained Carroll. "It’s secondary or worse. Anyone who’s been in a weight room has done 'negative reps' or 'slo-mo reps,' but this kind of program built around those things is unique."
Turley starts all the players—upperclassmen and freshmen alike—with body weight movements or accentuated eccentrics (the lowering phase of a pull-up) and isometrics (holding a push-up or squat in position for an extended period of time). These exercises teach players how to control their bodies and learn how to have the endurance to do it correctly when they get fatigued.
Shock to the System
In their first summer in the program, freshmen work almost exclusively on conditioning, flexibility and core strength through the use of accentuated eccentrics and isometrics. They do your gym teacher’s favorite exercises: pull-ups, push-ups, body weight squats and lunges. They even climb rope “like old-school gym class,” said Turley.
The bright-eyed rookies face a big shock when they first first show up at the weight room. They don’t get to touch the weights, at least for the first three weeks.
“They want to go lift weights, but I’m not gonna let ‘em,” said Turley. “It’s pretty frustrating. But it’s part of the mental discipline. You find out who can concentrate, who can take coaching, block out the noise and keep grinding through it and find a way to meet the standard and get it done. Somebody is going to break; it’s inevitable.”
An 18-year-old’s first few weeks on a college campus are tough enough without the pressure that comes with playing football at a Division I school, so Turley is careful to ease his new players into the program. These guys are used to being big fish in small ponds. But when they arrive on The Farm, the pond expands, and the fish get bigger and stronger.
“The initial shock is the productivity and the amount of work we are going to compress into a run,” said Turley. "That volume and intensity of the conditioning is overwhelming. We get done with the first 15 minutes of warm-ups some days and these kids are already spent. The stress of having to compete when they’re already fatigued is almost emotionally traumatic."
Align Your Choices with Your Goals
Turley’s mental development program kicks into high gear immediately when a new group of freshmen arrive on campus. “The shock factor is an opportunity for you to impact their first learning,” Turley said.
He firmly believes that what Stanford football players “learn first, they are going to learn best,” which makes a player’s buy-in during those trying first three weeks all the more important to his eventual success in the Stanford program.
The first summer is all about getting the newbies “to invest in the process and develop the right habits” in football, training, diet and lifestyle. For Stanford players, investment in the process means consistently making choices that align with a player’s goals for himself and the team. Turley calls this buy-in “fundamentally important.”
Turley uses accountability and personal challenges as the major tools of mental development. He describes his program as “process-focused,” which means he sets effort and improvement goals for his players rather than chasing result-oriented goals. "I don’t care [about] the number," he said. "I care about their ability to improve it."
The team code of conduct is simple: technique, effort, attitude and mental discipline. "Four things you have complete and total control over, that take absolutely no talent and no ability. That’s where we want to invest ourselves," Turley explained. "In every situation they are in with us, they have complete and total control over that."
Ownership is of paramount importance to the psychology of Stanford teams. Every summer the seniors draw up a team covenant with Turley. The seniors use the covenant to set the goals for the season and an action plan for how to achieve them. They take ownership of the covenant and self-police the underclassmen.
As you can imagine, the 2007 version looks a lot different than the 2012 version. The 2007 version is cluttered, unfocused and reflects a losing culture. The mission and goals are very outcome-focused, and there are a ton of rules that might fall under the common sense umbrella. At the bottom are a few statements basically begging players to buy in.
“That’s a pretty awful team covenant,” said Turley. “It was great for what we needed at the time, but that shows you where the culture was.”
The 2012 team covenant only lists one goal: Win the Pac-12 championship.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted; photos by author unless otherwise noted.
Follow Max Rausch on Twitter @MaxHRausch.
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