We're here in the cold, cold winter now folks. The Superbowl is over. No games coming until September. Spring ball hasn't even started yet. Recruiting season is now over after the signing day extravaganza. Sure we've got some Junior Days to look at, sort of, but by and large the football is off the radar until spring ball starts up late February and early March.
While fans complain about the lack of football and how it is gone until spring games at the earliest the players are leading a bit of a different life. Players don't have the luxury of "boring" and players don't have the agony of "nothing to do" in the offseason.
Nope, your players are now starting the worst part of the year; winter conditioning.
Oh, winter conditioning. The start of the building a championship move. The beginning of jockeying for spring depth chart positions. The time where freshman get baptized by fire and seniors get reminded that they aren't really shit either in the grand scheme of things.
Winter is the time where the walk-ons, the scholarship guys, the stars and the scrubs are all about the same. Winter is the time where the fifth year senior offensive tackle who has started three seasons is learning whether or not he can count on the freshman cornerback. Winter is the time where that fifth string walk-on quarterback is as much a part of his position group as the Heisman candidate right next to him.
Winter is also a bitch. Plain and simple, that's what it is; a bitch.
Summer sucks because you're running and lifting and it's hot. That struggle is clear. Running is hard. You have to make your times and then you do some pass skeleton stuff and go to the pool. That's summer. It isn't exactly easy but it also is not winter.
Winter is the most universally hated aspect of college football by the players. But, it is a necessary evil. Winter is about team building, teamwork, team worth and a team's work.
As you see from that UGA video at the top there aren't exactly words to clearly and concisely describe the hell that is the mat drill and winter conditioning but we'll try most certainly.
Tape doesn't do the exercise justice. It just looks like guys rolling on the ground, shuffling around, pushing sleds and doing ladder drills. There is no accurate depiction of the perpetual motion involved in the hour long sessions but here goes:
The winter conditioning is a series of stations set up with position and strength coaches each running their own drills. Bars, ladders, hurdles, cone drills, take offs, chutes, sleds and yes, the dreaded mat drills themselves. Different teams mix things up a bit but at the crux they're all the same; a handful of stations with teams split by position groups, balanced to each have a similar number and lined up at a given station to start the morning. Also balanced so that no one gets any actual rest between their turn in the drill and their next turn in the drill.
Oh, and how can I forget morning. Yes, morning time. Between five and six in the morning is your standard start time. Some folks rock and roll at five, at UNC we were a six in the AM start. That's six in the morning dressed and ready folks. Not six to the facility. Not six to get your clothes on. Not six to stand around. Not six to get your ankles taped. Six in the AM, dressed and ready, locked and loaded because at 5:59:59 the whistle is blowing and you're getting ready to flex.
If you show up at 6:01 you might as well stay home because you're done son.
The beauty of the winter conditioning isn't that it is a complicated exercise in football. Really, the drills themselves are quite simple. Shuffling, back pedaling, sinking hips, Icky Shuffle, karaoke, high knees, bear crawls, monkey rolls, up-downs and the like. However, the mental aspect comes into play as you work towards finishing the drill. Both the individual stations and the overall hour long session of conditioning.
When you're tired your mind gets weak. You lose focus. These sessions are designed to combat that. Unlike running 300s or 110s or gassers where it is just you and the clock trying to make your times with winter conditioning there is, like in all football, a team element. This is where "Finish The Drill" and "Do it right to it light, do it wrong do it long" come into play.
Players are tired. Their bodies are drained. Lungs are burning. Some guys have already given it up to the puke bucket. None of that matters because your teammates need you in these trenches with them. A properly run session is a beautiful thing to see. Perpetual motion of all the teammates pushing for a common goal; finishing the drill as strong as they started.
And an unfocused drill is an ugly one.
Nothing makes a player cringe quite like hearing the whistle a minute or two early and knowing that signifies that you're starting that period over again. Unless of course that whistle comes between periods for a group not hustling to the next station, which again means go back and do it again.
For the bars that means taking off when you're supposed to; after the man in front of you hits the second pad. For the hurdles it means hopping in after your man clears the third obstacle. For the four cone you better be at the mark when the first guy gets to the corner. On the mat it means diving out as the group ahead of you is passing the coach.
Oh the mat. The drill that all of this centers around. Many different theories on how to attack the mat. Some guys like to start with the mat. Some want it in the middle so they can finish on an easier station. Personally, I liked to finish on the mat. Get through the bars, the hurdles, the cones, the ladder, the shuttles, the sled and cap it all off with the mat.
12 men in a group, four groups of three on the mat. Coach calls out "READY, READY" and the feet start chopping. On the "HIT" you're jumping on to the mat, standing up chopping your feet. He points left, you shuffle left. He points right, you shuffle right. He points down, you hit the ground and get up. He claps and thumbs up, you sprint past him to another coach who breaks you down and you jog back into the line.
That next group better jump on the mat as he thumbs you past or your group has to go back to do it all over again. As you are jogging down the edge back to the line the group behind you is finishing and the third group is up. Then the fourth group is up and your next.
Fourth group takes off and coach points to the ground, you're diving out on to your chest before getting into a bear crawl position, chopping your feet, butt low. He points left, you shuffling left. He rolls right, you're doing a seat roll to the right. He points up, you're exploding into the air and then back down into the crawl position. He says get out of there and you hit your chest and get up sprinting to the second coach as the next group dives out to take your place.
Then you're back up again. Back to diving out. More seat rolls. Then he'll mix it up and get you doing monkey rolls. Please don't screw this up.
It looks like fun. It isn't. You're exhausted. You're disoriented. You're jumping and rolling. You're listening and looking for the go signal. There's a teammate flying over you and then one underneath you. Then you get the go signal to take off for the the coach.
That's mat drills. It happens so fast. There is no complaining. Hell, outside of picking up your teammates and making sure they aren't lagging, forcing a repeat, there isn't much talking at all.
There's no bending over. No grabbing shorts. That's weakness.
This is winter for your favorite college football player. This is what they're doing before they have class that morning. This is what they get up early for in Febraury. This is what makes all former players feel connected. We can all talk about the mat drills. Just check out a twitter search for "mat drills" and you'll find plenty of gems that generally mean nothing to folks who haven't done them.
It's their first step towards being champions. Their first step towards a bowl game. Their first step in the next season's fire. The boys are out there getting after it, wish them luck.
Oh, and they still have to go to weightlifting, that never stops.
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