Now in its second year of operations, the sports performance department makes sure Irish student-athletes are poised for success both on and off the field by providing a variety of services to address medical, athletic training/rehabilitation, strength and conditioning, nutritional and equipment needs.

The Performance Team: Combining Notre Dame's Resources to Make Irish Athletes Bigger, Faster, Stronger

Oct. 21, 2011

By John Heisler

When Jack Swarbrick took over as the University of Notre Dame’s director of athletics late in the summer of 2008, it didn’t take long for him to identify some priorities to address in his new position.

One of those should hardly have come as a surprise. Having worked in and around a handful of the United States Olympic sports national organizations in Indianapolis, Swarbrick knew the constant need to ensure that American swimmers and gymnasts and wrestlers could count on their optimal performances in competition – especially compared to what other countries were doing to prepare their athletes.

In some ways, it was no different at the intercollegiate level. How best to make certain Notre Dame’s student-athletes had the best preparation to compete against those from Texas or Michigan or Stanford?

So Swarbrick and longtime Notre Dame associate athletics director Mike Karwoski, who had spent most of his years on campus working in the athletic compliance area, set about creating a sports performance division within Irish athletics.

“We started with a lot of research,” says Karwoski.

“When you talk about sports performance, what exactly does that mean? How does it relate to Notre Dame and our campus? We all were on the same page, but we didn’t know initially in what exact directions we wanted to go.”

As Karwoski notes, some people’s idea of sports performance is simply a renamed version of the strength and conditioning unit. That’s not what Swarbrick and Karwoski had in mind.

Instead they created a collaborative association of units already in place in some way, shape or form within Notre Dame athletics. That group essentially involved everyone who interfaced with Irish student-athletes – strength and conditioning, athletic training, sports medicine, sports nutrition and equipment, just to name the largest of the divisions.

In some ways, it became an upsized version of what Notre Dame athletics previously referred to as the Performance Team (under the direction of now-retired associate athletics director Tom Kelly), a smaller group that also included a few coaches, administrators and staff.

Karwoski now brings the leaders of those various units together for weekly meetings – and the purpose represents a big-picture goal.

“We want to be a place where our coaches take ideas on how to get better, and we investigate them,” says Karwoski.

“We don’t want to be in a position where we are reacting to fads or fiction. We want to know what has been scientifically proven, and sometimes that’s hard to find.”

The sports performance group brought a handful of Irish head coaches into the process initially and now is working its way through the 26 Notre Dame sports with the intent of sharing information to start.

“We started by assessing exactly what our resources were in all those areas. We also made sure we understood what some other schools were doing that we didn’t do,” Karwoski says.

Ultimately, he and Swarbrick hope the sports performance group can create a listing of “best practice” options. Ideally, that could eventually include access to some sort of an on-campus performance lab that could be a one-stop shopping option for all the Notre Dame athletic programs. “We don’t have the tools for that yet, but additional resources could make something like that a reality,” says Karwoski.

The sports performance concentration already has enabled the group to take an in-depth look at particular areas of interest.

“Just as an example, we spent time with footwear and we worked hand in hand with adidas in doing so. We looked at performance, safety, games versus practice, all sorts of things,” says Karwoski.

“What’s the right gear for the different surfaces you may play on? If there are options in terms of the kind of footwear, how is that decision made? Who makes the decision, and where do the head coach and the equipment manager fit into that process? What’s the difference between competition, practice and conditioning activities, for example, in terms of footwear requirements?”

Another role for the sports performance unit is to evaluate the myriad of products touted as performance-enhancing items.

“In particular, our department is approached by all kinds of people selling products that supposedly will improve athlete performance. In many cases, there is no science behind their claims. We want to be in a position to help coaches and serve as something of a clearinghouse for performance-related items,” Karwoski says.

Chiropractic care (including massage therapy) is another example of a specific form of performance-related treatment that has become more commonplace in the college athletics culture – and more and more of Notre Dame’s coaches and student-athletes have become convinced of its benefits. Dr. Jerry Hofferth began working with the Irish track and field teams some years ago, and now he travels with the Notre Dame football squad on road trips, in great part because coach Brian Kelly is a strong proponent of that care for his players. Chiropractic care is now available to all Notre Dame student-athletes.

Substantial gains already have been made in the nutrition area – in particular with the re-introduction of a more standardized and consistent training table (NCAA rules allow one meal a day to be provided in that fashion) that began for the football squad after Kelly came on board and then extended to other Irish sports starting with the fall 2010 semester. Athletics recently hired a second full-time certified sports dietician and the sports performance group hasn’t been shy about encouraging some sort of relationship with every Irish sport.

“We’ve been very aggressive about educating in the nutrition areas. It seems so simple, but it’s so critical to the success of our athletes. Proper rest, proper preparation, proper nutrition – we can teach them what they need to know. Our coaches have varying degrees of knowledge in this aspect, but we literally have tried to force-feed some things in this area, no pun intended,” Karwoski says.

Another personnel addition is Jim Russ, who formerly worked exclusively as Notre Dame’s head athletic trainer for football and now devotes more of his attention to preventive and rehabilitative services for Irish Olympic sports athletes.

Notre Dame doesn’t have the benefit of a full-fledged medical school or hospital on campus that might provide the sorts of research opportunities seen at many larger state schools. Still, Karwoski believes there are opportunities for partnerships that could benefit Irish programs. “Even though their offices are 3,000 miles away in Portland, adidas is an example of one of our well-resourced partners that has the same sorts of goals when it comes to sport performance.”

Another new wrinkle coming on-line is an ACL prevention program organized by athletics trainers Mandy Merritt and Ann Marquez and piloted with several Irish women’s teams. It’s designed to be a “pre-hab” program.

“The goal is to identify student-athletes who may be a greater risk for this type of injury and get them into a proper training program to help strengthen and stabilize. If we can prevent one ACL injury a year, it is well worth the effort. These prevention programs also have prompted us to review other common injuries and for us to be more proactive as opposed to reactive in their treatment,” Karwoski says.

Also coming is a new web-based injury surveillance tracking system.

More than anything, Karwoski expects the sports performance division to be able to provide some sort of numerical proof for the various performance-enhancing options available to today’s coaches and athletes.

“We want to have the data to prove it works,” he says.

“(Notre Dame Olympic sports strength and conditioning director) Tony Rolinski has very established measurables based on what he is doing with our athletes. The same can be said to some extent for things like injury rates and recovery times. It’s a little bit like wins and losses.

“Can we measure them and prove they help? That’s the question we ask all the time.”

Karwoski uses former Irish basketball star Luke Harangody as a great example of a Notre Dame athlete who transformed his body and, consequently, his performance.

“When you consider what Luke and Tony (Rolinski) combined to do, it was amazing to see what can happen when you’re totally focused on what you want to improve. We want every one of our student-athletes to know they can accomplish, with our help, all those same things and more.”

Next: Part 5 – Building Championship Programs: Jack Swarbrick’s Blueprint for Titles