An inventive instructor adapts Pilates for a high-school football team.
My teenage son Dennis is a high-school football player who suffered a season-ending concussion last fall. Once his doctors had cleared him to exercise, they advised a low-intensity approach to conditioning. He began attending my Pilates reformer classes and incorporated some mat work at home. When he returned to the weight room for off-season conditioning, he noticed a difference in his strength and wished his teammates could share the experience.
Coaches on Board
Many professional football players use Pilates exercise to improve core strength and stamina, increase flexibility and enhance mental focus. In addition, many see a reduction in game-related injuries. Knowing this, I decided to contact my son’s high-school team and offer my Pilates teaching talents to the junior varsity and varsity football teams. Members of the coaching staff (coaches, physical therapist, certified athletic trainer/RN) were eager to hear more. They’d heard that other successful high-school programs were incorporating Pilates, and they invited me to observe the team during a conditioning session.
Prior to attending, I prepared a packet for each coach, outlining the benefits and six original principles of Pilates and noting the parallels with football. We talked about common injuries the athletes incurred, as well as their lack of flexibility (i.e., tight hip flexors), knowing that lack of mobility could lead to injury. Conditioning and strength coach Phil Vitalbo, MS, CSCS, was concerned that the players would be bored by a lack of movement in Pilates or would find the stretches too static. I was able to explain how many Pilates exercises, such as prone single-leg kick and shoulder bridge, would keep the team moving while creating flexibility, core strength, body awareness and mental clarity—all needed by athletes.
Applying Principles and Practice
The coaching staff and I agreed that in order for the athletes to benefit from Pilates, it would need to be a regular part of their training. We agreed to train every other week through the end of the school year, then weekly during summer conditioning. It was then that I began to consider some of the potential obstacles: Did the boys know what Pilates was? Would they take it seriously or be rowdy and disrespectful? What could a petite, middle-aged mom of a player teach a group of tough 14- to 18-year-olds that would enhance their field presence? I addressed these concerns with head coach Matt Humbert, who assured me, “As athletes, they take their game and conditioning seriously. They want to do anything to be better. They are a good group of kids.”
Coach Vitalbo added, “Everything we do in the weight room is free-weight based, similar to football, and without the stabilization of joints and core strength, these movements cannot be optimized. The focus aspect of Pilates can also add to the motor control of one's body, making it easier for me to place the players in the correct lifting positions. Plus, the simple fact that the class is something different from their normal routine can be exciting for the players.”
At my first session, I had 50 minutes to get these athletes to trust me and buy into Pilates. Rather than using my normal style—a quiet, slower-paced approach that focused on the “how and why” of each exercise—I had to adapt to a large gymnasium (or football field, depending on weather), knowing I’d be addressing up to 70 athletes. We had no special equipment or mats.
From “Teacher” to “Coach”
I came to the conclusion that Pilates would need to be “coached,” not “taught.” Even though I believe in teaching alignment and proper execution, I knew I couldn’t be overly meticulous, as we didn’t have time for that and the players lacked the patience for it. They wanted to move. Vitalbo taught and encouraged proper form, alignment and technique in the weight room, so the athletes had a basic understanding of neutral position, making my job easier.
When designing the workout, I chose exercises that would address the coaches’ concerns. Some of the selected exercises (i.e., kneeling side leg work) were not “basic” or “fundamental,” yet they offered flexibility and mobility in the hips while giving the team a challenge. To mirror the players’ multiplanar field movements and need for muscle balancing, I chose exercises in all body positions.I began the workout in standing posture in order to establish a connection with the players, explain alignment and create focus. I also altered my cuing to make it more analogous to football, suspecting that teen boys wouldn’t buy into descriptive terms like “flowerpot,” “flower stem” and so on. So when players could not sit tall on seated twist, I asked them what was written on the front of their game jerseys. “Ringgold,” they shouted (their school’s name). I explained that I could see only the “R” and the “D.” This made them sit up and open their chests. When they moaned and groaned, I asked them if they would do that on the field. If they couldn’t handle an hour with me, how would they handle an hour on the field with their school rivals? I reminded them that Joe Pilates trained athletes and believed they needed to be both physically and mentally strong throughout an entire game. Vitalbo and the coaching staff acted as assistants. They watched me correct players’ alignment (e.g., making sure knees were pressed together in tabletop exercises) and then followed suit. They even participated in many of the exercises, showing their acceptance of Pilates, which motivated the players and demonstrated leadership. Coach Humbert was eager to have his staff assist more in the class and asked if I could provide them with a list of exercises. I created a “Pilates Play Book” that included exercises with pictures, exercise setup, benefits, execution and things to watch for in each exercise. In return, I received a whistle and a coach’s uniform to use during our sessions! I was now part of the team!
The program has been a success, which I attribute to the open-minded coaches and my ability to change my approach to Pilates. I drew from my fitness background and my experience as the mother of a teen athlete. The players’ responses have been overwhelmingly positive—“I like doing the Pilates workout,” said quarterback and team captain, Quad Law. “Pilates is a mental game, like football. You have to focus on every little detail; what your legs are doing, where your back should be, how to breathe—all at the same time. It is just like focusing on all the elements that you need to put together to create a successful play on the field. Not only is Pilates physical training; it’s mental training [as well].”
The boys are seeing substantial gains in core strength, flexibility and injury prevention. They are also gaining respect for strong female role models—something not often seen in football players. Their form has improved, and they have more body awareness. Their eyes are open to other forms of conditioning besides running and weight training. They see Pilates as a great way to train for mental and physical strength, which can enhance their playing abilities. It makes them step out of their comfort zone, just as I did. I went into this adventure as a mother of one player and now feel that all the other boys are like family too. It’s gratifying to know I can make a positive impact on the lives of these teens. While football may not be a “life” sport, Pilates exercise can certainly be a part of their exercise program for many years beyond the gridiron.