Sep 27, 2018
Overhauling the Hoosiers

If your program doesn’t have the recruiting power to bring in the very best athletes, what do you do? If you’re Tom Allen, Head Football Coach at Indiana University, the answer is simple — you bring in the very best strength and conditioning team, and you turn the players you can recruit into the players you need.

In January, Allen brought on board a dynamic new duo to oversee his players’ strength and conditioning. Dave Ballou was hired as the Director of Athletic Performance and Matt Rhea came in as Athletic Performance Coach. According to a recent article in the IndyStar, the two have been working together for years to perfect a unique approach to strength and conditioning, and now they’re tasked with taking the Hoosiers to a new competitive level.

And Ballou and Rhea have no doubts that their proprietary formula will work.

“You take a two-star kid and put him in a four-star body, that’s how we win here,” Ballou said. “That’s how we win. And that’s what’s going to happen.”

Ballou and Rhea first encountered each other a decade ago, when Rhea was overseeing a master’s program Ballou completed through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Shortly thereafter, they both found themselves working at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. With offices next door to each other, they began sharing ideas and soon found their experiences and expertise made a powerful combination. Ballou focused on finding new ways to approach strength and conditioning, and Rhea delved into the science behind the techniques, looking especially at speed training and injury prevention.

So what are the two doing to put Indiana football players into new bodies? They are using a program that is unique in several ways. First, they avoid training players in groups by position, focusing instead on individuals. Next, they focus heavily on moves that translate directly to football.

“It’s training the nervous system to be able to fire from joint angles that they use out on the field,” Ballou said. “You mimic the joint angles they use in their position and their change of direction.”

Relying heavily on data is another hallmark of their approach. Athletes are tested in very specific ways to uncover weaknesses that could lead to injuries or compromise performance. Cameras and sensors track athletes’ work in the weightroom and send loads of information back to Ballou and Rhea, who pour over it.

From using and analyzing so many metrics, they have developed a new term. Rather than evaluating improvement simply by looking at how much a player can lift, they look at strength and speed combined and measure what they call “peak power,” or explosive capability.

“We know contact off the line of scrimmage happens as fast as 0.45 seconds, between O- and D-lineman,” Ballou said. “If our guys can produce their peak power in 0.45 seconds, we’re gonna have a chance off the line of scrimmage. Whereas if you’ve got a guy that squats 700 pounds, but it takes him 0.7 seconds to get to his peak power, the other dude is into him, and he’s going to lose.”

No less important than numbers and data is the approach the two coaches take with players. They make sure they fully understand the logic behind all that they’re asked to do and use the data they gather to inform and motivate them.

The technique is creating powerful buy-in. Four games into the season, the Hoosiers are off to a promising start, winning three straight games before falling to the University of Michigan, and players are on board with Ballou and Rhea’s process.

“They’ve found this combination of extreme intensity and science,” redshirt senior Wes Martin said. “They’ve merged that together, and that’s what makes them so special.”

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