The importance of proper hydration is drilled into Nick Watkins and his teammates daily before, during and after practice.

Preseason Practice Update - August 19

Aug. 19, 2015

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Just a quick glance at Notre Dame’s schedule for Wednesday and it became obvious that it would be a long day — the team’s third and final two-a-day session of preseason camp.

The Irish would rise for breakfast, practice in the morning, eat lunch, meet to discuss the morning’s practice, practice again and then have dinner. Fans might focus on the practices and what was discussed in the meetings. The three elements whose importance in the success of the day, and the season, are becoming more widely known nationally — breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The college sports “arms race” of the last decade has been in the area of facilities as colleges built palatial venues for their student-athletes. The new “arms race” is student-athlete welfare. However, while the national focus is relatively new in this area, Notre Dame and head coach Brian Kelly have been ahead of the curve.

The Irish strength and conditioning, athletic training and nutritional programs have been working in sync for years. It is the way these three intertwined units prepare the Irish football players for days like Wednesday which ultimately influence the eventual success of the team.

“All three of us have to work together to supply our guys with what they need to recover and meet the demands,” head football athletic trainer Rob Hunt said. “From a nutrition side of things, it’s food and fuel. From our side of things there’s injury care, injury prevention, injury treatment along with supporting the food, fueling and rehydrating process. Strength and conditioning has the same piece. What they did yesterday prepared them for what they’re doing today in terms of neuromuscular firing patters. All of these things blend together to support these guys and give them the chance to make it through two practices successfully and productively.”

Hunt’s area grew this past summer with the addition of a fourth full-time athletic trainer for the football team when Tori Hommel came aboard from LSU. Hommel augments a staff of full-timers that also includes associate athletic trainer Mike Bean and assistant athletic trainer Steve Smith that supports football year-round. Additionally, during preseason camp, the athletic training room is usually bolstered with baseball’s Scott Stansbury and hockey’s Kevin Ricks as neither of those teams have arrived on campus yet.

The result is a shorter wait for student-athletes to receive the care they need and the ability for certified athletic trainers to provide each student-athlete additional attention. That large staff of six full-time athletic trainers makes a difference in August.

“The volume of injuries that we have during training camp is our highest amount,” Hunt said. “I want to say that almost 50-percent of our injuries for the year happen during August. The ability to have another set of hands and eyes from someone with expertise in athletic training to serve our players is not only a benefit for me and my staff but our guys.”

It is hard to go 50 feet within the walls of “the Gug” without running into a collection of Gatorades, energy bars, fruit or other healthy snacks. The team’s meals are heavy on lean meats like chicken and salmon, protein-rich steaks, vegetables, and an abundance of carbohydrate-laden meals for bulking.

In his first year with the Irish ahead of a nutritional staff of three, sports nutrition program director Dwight Allison has been immediately impressed with the attention paid to their food by the Irish.

“We’ve created a culture of good habits,” Allison said. “KeiVarae (Russell) told me that he’s like a Ferrari and doesn’t need to be performing like a Prius or a Toyota. They understand that their engine has to have premium fuel in it. This is one of the messages we give to them and, because of that message, we’ve been doing well.

“The athletes understand they can’t take in a bunch of junky bad calories — fatty things that are going to thicken up their blood and make their muscles feel sludgy. We make it easy on them by providing all the right choices for them. All they have to do it pick the right flavor or type they like. That makes their lives a lot easier.”

On hot days, student-athletes can sweat off seven to nine pounds. Notre Dame’s entire roster is weighed both before and after practice to help monitor their condition. Modern technology, including GPS devices help the strength and conditioning staff, along with the nutritional and medical team properly assess each individual student-athlete’s immediate needs and areas of potential concern.

The team’s coaching staff and athletic administration shares this student-welfare-heavy vision. After Notre Dame’s morning practice on Wednesday, Kelly made it a point in the team huddle to stress getting properly rested and refueled before the afternoon’s second practice. He talked more about their conditioning than their football performance.

“What Notre Dame does exceptionally compared to the rest of the country is the buy-in from the coaching staff and administration about how important nutrition is,” said Allison who came to Notre Dame this summer from Baylor. “A lot of programs have started to catch onto that but Notre Dame has been ahead of the curve. The fact that coach Kelly took time at the end of the practice and talked about nutrition today — recovery, fueling your body properly and taking advantage of the wonderful menus we provide — put us head and shoulders above other programs.”

The daily grind of ingraining good habits into its student-athletes helps Notre Dame on days like Wednesday. The team has put in lengthy strength, flexibility and agility hours in the weight room to condition their bodies for a taxing two-a-day. Their minor injuries from camp have been assuaged by an enlarged athletic training staff. Their bodies are primed with energy from being fed properly.

Names like Paul Longo, Rob Hunt and Dwight Allison are unknown to the average Irish fan, but the team which Kelly and his coaching staff hope to guide to January glory would be lagging behind without them on days like today.

“Not everyone supports sports medicine this way across the country,” Hunt said. “We feel like it’s not only a benefit for our athletes, but it’s a benefit for our coaches because the healthier (the athletes) are, the more opportunity they have to be successful.

“Our athletes want to be successful. Keeping them healthy is a key piece. Our athletes are our most important asset. Their health, in my opinion, is their most important asset. Being able to take care of them from a health side of things is integral to our success.”

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— written and compiled by Leigh Torbin, athletic communications assistant director, and Michael Bertsch, director of football media relations