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Toughness Drills: When is it appropriate to step in?

edited August 2015 in Discussions
Toughness drills, these are the drills that coaches utilize to "toughen" or punish their athletes by way of extreme duration, weight, or excessive contact. Many of us that have played sports have participated in them, and if you haven't played sports its possible you have witnessed these drills during your career as an Athletic Trainer. When I played football in college we had a drill that defined this "toughness". Every year like clockwork it would come, it signified camp was coming to a close and the starters were close to being chosen when we started this infamous drill. Players based on position would line up on opposite sides between a row of cones a few yards wide and roughly 10 yards long. The coach would blow his whistle and each player would sprint full speed at the other with the intention of plowing through the other. It was basically playing chicken without the cars. Just like this drill that came like clockwork, so did the injuries. Without fail every single year injury after injury happened running this drill. Yet, it was still a tradition that wasn't even thought twice about.
As a healthcare professional it makes me cringe to witness drills that are intended to punish an athlete with no rhyme or reason other than that. At what point does the Athletic Trainer step in to protect the athlete? Is it ever appropriate to interrupt a practice at all? I know plenty of coaches that would bite your head off when you call a practice or postpone a game because of thunder or humidity so I can only imagine what would happen if the Athletic Trainer stopped a drill that was particularly detrimental to the health of the athlete. Have any of you reading this encountered drills like this that without fail caused injury? Or has anyone stopped a drill because of this? Please share a story ,if you have any that relate to this topic.
Post edited by Audric Warren on


  • Ahhhh ... the battle of wills and won'ts, do's and don'ts ... The line between stepping in and staying out is traversing a very slippery slope. It generally becomes a major power struggle and if you have ever been competitive yourself then sometimes not losing the battle obscures winning the war. Our priority is the health and welfare of the student-athlete. That being said, as a general rule, no one likes to be "made a fool of" especially in front of their colleagues or athletes...
    Over the years I have found that dangerous / questionable practices and traditions are more likely to be modified when the Athletic Trainer follows the chain of command and quietly speaks/discusses concerns with the Head Coach. If an expeditious change in practices does not occur then a polite e-mail detailing the discussion should be sent to the Coach as a follow-up,
    with a copy sent to the AD and team physician.
  • Elizabeth
    Thanks for joining the discussion. I feel like its always a losing battle when trying to educate certain coaches on these types of drills. I usually get the typical responses of "kids these days are soft" or "back in my day". I also have that little bit of fear in the back of my mind to not speak up because of the unfortunate world of athletic politics can easily create an environment of coaching staff vs. Athletic Trainer, especially when you CC the AD or the team physician.
    Do you have any personal experiences with these situations?
    Audric Warren MS, ATC, CAFS, NASM-PES, NASM-CES
  • You certainly have valid concerns and politics will be ever present in the world of athletics... However, keeping your AD and team physician in the loop is critical when preventing a catastrophic injury as well as covering your proverbial rear-end. In terms of e-mail ... it often comes down to "picking" your battles... bearing in mind that once it is sent it is saved somewhere ... f-o-r-e-v-e-r.
    I have been certified almost 30 years and have definitely encountered inflated egos and stuck-in-the-good-ol'-days-just-not-educated-individuals. I might be able to write a book or at least a very long chapter with examples of questionable "toughness" practices. I just probably ought to wait another 30 years before I write it to see if anything can top the situations I have been confronted with.
    I will give you two examples which can be classified under several headings ranging from laughable to incredulous... both of these incidences I inherited when I took over the duties as a new hire ...
    1) About 10 years prior to the "new ruling" on limited contact days in football I brought up my concerns about the toughness tradition you eluded too in your article... I found it necessary to "educate" the coach a bit as he believed that the players needed the repetitive hitting to prepare them for game situations and.... to build calluses on the brain ...
    2) The ritual of marathon-running football players an hour, for "conditioning", following a 2 hour practice. Known to some as "separating the boys from the men". To add insult to injury the players had to run in full gear... Having never played football, I didn't fully appreciate the problem until I had to "dress" the bleeding nipples.
  • Elizabeth
    I definitely agree that one should be weary about what you send to the administration or coaches because it can either be of great help or a great hindrance at some point when it comes to make a decision on whom or what needs to change. You are definitely right you could and should write a book about your experiences. Both instances are flat out laughable. To think someone would even say something like "build calluses on the brain" is pretty bad. Have you ever had the administration have to get involved or has your coaching staff pretty much understood/put their egos in check when you approached them?
    Audric Warren MS, ATC, CAFS, NASM-PES, NASM-CES
  • If I had a nickel for every time I was told "back when I played" I would be very wealthy! I once worked with a rugby coach who thought it an outstanding idea to acclimatize the team by having them wear dark garbage bags under their black training kits, in 85 degree weather. While my first inclination was to step in and tell him hell no, I managed to wait until the team had moved to the (shaded) try zone to warm up/stretch. I spoke to the coach privately so as to not escalate the situation (although he was none too happy with my intervening), and informed him he was putting the athletes at risk for heat emergencies or worse, in particular, the athletes who carried the sickle cell trait. When he didn't heed my warning, I decided the best course of action was two-fold: 1. When I got home that night, I printed out heat illness information from the KS Institute, NCAA rules on athletes making weight via rubber suits (banned when all those wrestlers started dying from this practice), and the NATA, and 2. I composed an e-mail to the team MD, detailing what had transpired, as well as links to the articles and position statements I had printed out to give to the coach. I was, technically, and independent contractor with this team (this happened in my 9th season -- different coach from when I started) and this was a (university) club sport, so I didn't have an AD to report to. The following day, I went in early and spoke with the coach and gave him the articles/position statements I'd printed out. I framed it as "I realized I've done a good job of educating you about concussions/head injuries, but not so much on heat issues since we don't usually have to deal with that here." It defused the situation minimally, but he still responded with "I've done that many times as a player and a coach, and there's never been a problem, and rugby is a tough sport." My response: "There's never a problem until there is. We also teach proper rugby technique before tossing a kid into a game -- we don't just run them into brick walls, we do what we can to minimize injury risk." Fortunately, he never tried to bring out the garbage bags again. I'm not sure his bosses would have backed me -- they also went through those types of things when they played sports, and tend to think it "builds character and toughens them up."
  • Rachel

    It's interesting how the "back in my day" mentality can be so prevalent in sports and no one seems to question it, hardly ever. What is also interesting is the moment you say that something may be unsafe you get looked at like you are the crazy one and wind up being the subject of someones anger for trying to promote the safety of their athletes.
    I think the way that you handled that by supplying evidence/helpful information definitely helped diffused the situation. You also hit the nail on the head, with the statement "there isn't a problem until there is", which is the last thing any coach, administrative staff, or sports medicine staff wants any athlete or parent to have to go through.
    Audric Warren MS, ATC, CAFS, NASM-PES, NASM-CES
  • Audric,
    Administrators never want to be blind-sided... they want to know how to respond before they have to respond.. and secretly hope they don't need to respond. Ultimately, they will be the recipient of all the complaints. I always make my administrators aware of the "situation", sometimes as a preface to what I am going to do and sometimes as a follow-up. Just as you have to "know your athletes" you also need to know your administrator and which strategy works best on whom. Only one administrator did not support my concerns and I determined that the cost of winning that war was too great... I continued to fight the battles but was exhausted and miserable. I completed my contract and picked up new employment very quickly.
    I have found that as long as a coaches do not feel as though they are being micro-managed or "attacked" they begin to seek the Athletic Trainer's advice. There is a learning curve ... and it involves collaborative efforts... Changing behaviors takes time ... I like to approach the process with "once you change the way you look at things... the way things you look at change(s)". At times it is our own behaviors that need a little adjustment.
  • Eizabeth,

    You definitely make a valid point about knowing your adminstration just as you know your athletes. The administration can make life easy or hell depending on how they respond to change. In most cases the changes the Athletic Trainer is trying to make is for the better and will only benefit their athletes. You are also very correct in how the way we approach making changes can often be a direct reflection of ourself and sometimes we need to change before we can affect change. I think it can be hard to do so sometimes because Athletic Trainers have an ego developed from wanting to be recognized as a healthcare provider. Our egos can make it difficult when the changes we try to affect are met with resistance. We wonder why someone would question us as the sports medicine staff instead of of just answer there questions because we are the sports medicine staff and we aren't infallible. Thanks for the perspective
    Audric Warren MS, ATC, CAFS, NASM-PES, NASM-CES
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