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In 2006, Pat Fitzgerald became the youngest head football coach in the Big Ten when he scored the top job at Northwestern University at the age of 31. By 2013, he had guided the inveterate underdogs to a 9-3 record and a Gator Bowl victory. He also became embroiled in a larger NCAA controversy when his players voted this spring on possible unionization in the wake of a landmark decision by the National Labor Relations Board. (The school is appealing the NLRB decision; the player vote will remain secret until that’s sorted out.) Here he discusses technology, weightlifting, and the overspecialization of sports training.

What’s your first advice for athletes across the board?

Growing up in the ’80s, I played multiple sports. I really think that the well-rounded approach is somewhat lost today on our athletes. I’m much more a proponent for a broad-based experience. The skill sets that it takes to play multiple sports are very different. In our game, if you’re looking at a skilled player, you wonder why he has a hard time catching the football. Well, maybe he never played the outfield in baseball! A lot of kids run track, and you see a lot of improvement in speed mechanics, which is great. I encourage a more holistic approach of being well-rounded.

What fitness trends are you seeing picking up steam in football right now?

On the whole I think that there’s just a lot more information and awareness out there these days about the right athlete lifestyle. Instead of just saying, “Hey, I have to gain weight so let’s go grab a bunch of this and
a bunch of that and just have calories,” it’s about adding the right calories and putting the right fuel in your body. We’re trying to look at how proper rest plays into peak performance and avoiding injuries. For instance, I’m not
a baseball expert, but I see this spike in Tommy John surgeries. My first inclination is that young people are throwing too much, throwing year-round, and throwing too many curveballs.

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And in football there’s this idea that lineman even as early as high school need to weigh at least 300 pounds. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it’s much more important to be healthy and athletic than it is to be big. Some kids get way too big way too fast. “You’ve got to be 300 pounds” and “You’ve got to bench-press 400 pounds,” I think, those are old-wives’ tales.

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Do you think we’ve reached the peak in terms of football popularity?

No. I think that medical trends are catching up with the athletes. I think that maybe what’s been perceived as negative [with concussions] has raised terrific awareness in the medical field, in coaching, and for athletes. What are the best practices in the short term? How can we do the things preventively? This is the discussion that’s been ongoing for a few years, and it’s just making, I believe, football stronger.

How do you see technology changing the athlete?

Years ago, it was a big bench, a big squat, and a big hang clean—and get in great shape—and you’ll be fine. Now we’re using an integrated approach with nutrition, rest, and strength training, and the tweaking of the rules with the technology, with the pads, the helmets. [And with data trackers,] understanding your body — all those things are critically important to make sure that we can be as proactive as possible from an injury prevention standpoint and from an optimizing standpoint in terms of individual athletes. A lineman trains differently from a quarterback. Twenty-five years ago everybody trained the same way.

You’re a young, well-liked coach. How does one avoid becoming say, the next Lane Kiffin?

I can only speak for myself. It’s about showing our guys the way instead of pontificating our thoughts. From my perspective, you’ve got to really work hard to surround yourself with people who are better than you.

Do you get in the weight room with your players?

I’ve got a little bit of personal pride. I’ll go work out. My numbers aren’t what they used to be, but I’ll definitely get out and run a practice. I’m very active in our practice. I work to improve my flexibility. I work my tail off to improve my sleep and rest and balance my diet.

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