Many the Miles

September 25, 2018

For the football team at the United States Naval Academy, the 2018-19 season started with a flight from Maryland to Hawaii. Thirteen games later, it will end with a road trip to Philadelphia. Between, the Midshipmen will log 26,496 miles on the road—the most miles of any mainland program in the U.S., and more than five times as many as rival University of Memphis, which is picked to win Navy’s division in the American Athletic Conference.

But for Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo, making the miles an excuse is not an option.

“If we lose, nobody cares,” Niumatalolo told the The Washington Post in a recent article. “They won’t say, ‘Oh, poor guys, they have to travel so far.’ I’ve come to realize you just have to find a way.”

And finding a way is exactly what the team’s sports medicine and strength and conditioning staffs have been doing. They've been working on creative approaches to keeping players healthy throughout the grueling travel.

For instance, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Football Bryan Fitzpatrick, CSCS, USAW, started making adjustments during the offseason, implementing a tougher program with more lifting than usual.

“We want [the players] to make gains throughout the season so we can finish. That was the big emphasis this offseason,” he said.

However, Fitzpatrick added that the extra lifting is a balancing act.

“It’s about not pushing them too far past the breaking point, not pushing them to the level where they can’t play football,” he said. “Keep them healthy—that’s the first and most important part.”

Along with adjustments to strength and conditioning, the sports medicine staff has created “recovery packs,” an innovation designed to help players survive the miles spent on planes. Handed out as players board for road trips, the packs contain circulation-enhancing compression socks—“think grandma’s compression socks,” said Brian Blick, the team’s Director of Operations—sleep masks, earplugs, stretching bands, foam rollers, and a lacrosse ball for massaging fatigued feet. They also come with packets of electrolytes, which players drop into water bottles to rehydrate when the medical staff cues them to do so.

In that sense, being on the road paradoxically may offer an advantage, according to Blick, giving the staff the opportunity to ensure that players are taking care of themselves in a way they can’t on campus.

“When the guys are here at school, we can’t affect a whole lot because of their daily routine, so when we get on the road, we want to try and structure it as much as possible and maximize that time,” he said. “It goes back to developing controls and implementing them.”

For Niumatalolo, players’ health tops the list of priorities this season, as well. Coaching practice has become as much about keeping an eagle eye on his players’ legs, watching for signs of overwork, as anything else.

“I’m not even as involved in coaching; I’ll watch and come back to our staff meeting and say, ‘You know what? This is too much,’” Niumatalolo said. “'Can we cut back there and add there?’”

At 9 p.m., Niumatalolo can be found prowling the football offices, urging players to wrap up their position meetings and get to bed.

“The first thing I told them before we started the preseason is, ‘This is going to be the toughest beginning schedule, the toughest schedule that I can ever remember,’” he said. “There is no doubt, this is the most I’ve ever done, our staff has ever done, in preparation for the season.”

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