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August 5, 2011
Bodies By Blasquez
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Change is inevitable. Without change -- without adaptation -- we fail. After the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl, Utah players said that their California foes seemed gassed, seemed out of breath and tired at the end of the game. Seeing as that particular game was contested at sea level, that seemed to be a bit of a red flag.
"Many of the labs that we'll have in there, we'll be able to tie it into what we call our normal, traditional training, in order to accomplish the end game, which is performance," Blasquez says. "What we're trying to do is implement the best sports science that's out there in all of our areas. Strength training is strength training. Nutrition is nutrition. How can we find a way, within our college environment, working with student athletes, to be able to optimize nutrition, to optimize strength training, to optimize movement? Those are the things that we're trying to get better at. Some of it is being able to take things that they may be doing in a laboratory and saying, 'You know what? We may not do it just that way, but we may take what's good about that and what applies in our medium, in this world, to our athletes, and utilize that, and then, again, create some protocol and system around that so we can do it at a high level with a large number of athletes."
Beyond test tubes and blood analysis, the new center will include a state-of-the-art weight room with digital touch pads tracking each rep, each pound lifted, each pound gained and lost and each drop of sweat. Ok, that last one may not be real, but the rest of those metrics are.
"I think it was probably pretty close to four years ago, now, where I got in the weight room and I decided to use computers to start tracking some of the information that we're doing on a day to day basis," says Blasquez. "Strength and conditioning coaches always use Excel formats and computers to track, but to actually have a computer in the weight room, we're picking up information about what the athletes are doing while they're in there was kind of a new deal at that time for us. As we got into that process, I started expanding it, and we started looking at having multiple computers and linking the computers, and then what information that we're taking in from the athletes and how we're using that information and then getting it to run reports for us.
"We eventually got to a place where now we actually have monitors in the weight room -- touch-screen monitors -- that we can get all their workouts on those monitors, and when they enter their weights from a particular exercise, that automatically runs reports for us. So, instead of having to crunch numbers and go back and look at things, the system's already set up so I can just click a tab and the report's already there."
All of that, in the name of efficiency. But not just on the coaching side. Fewer lifting data points floating around in a lump of grey matter already taxed by girls, quizzes, homework, lecture notes, midterms, finals, rising costs of gas, scooter parking permits and the physics of beer pong mean more room for learning new pass rushing techniques, puzzling through blitz packages, route trees, read progressions and protection schemes.
"Instead of guys working in here or going through the motions or picking up a weight, not knowing what your real goal is, you're exercising with a goal in mind. A big part of it's physical, and part of it is psychological," Blasquez says. "Going in and really attacking their workout and really going in there with a sense of purpose, I mean, it's really helped us with that. The key for it, for me, was how can we create a deal that's non-intrusive to the athlete? You can do this kind of thing, and you can have them walk around with a laptop, and that becomes very intrusive. It's something else that they need to think about. I've got athletes coming in, and they're going to squat. I want their mind, their focus, completely dedicated to what they're doing. I want them to know exactly what they're trying to accomplish, and I want them to attack it. What we've done is we've created a method that really gives us both. It allows us to track the athlete and it allows us to monitor them in a better, more efficient way, and it's doing it in a non-intrusive way to them, and at the end of the day, it's really saving our time as a staff on the end game, in terms of running reports and those kids of things. It's very useful for us, in terms of tracking."
Blasquez earned a degree in kinesiology and certifications in athletic training and strength and conditioning. He worked as Director of Outreach at Muir Hospital Orthopedic center in Walnut Creek. As he says, it's not necessarily about the 'how' of lifting -- moving a weight from point A to point B -- but the 'why.' He's concerned as much with his athletes' heads as he is with their biceps.
"It's efficiency, and what it allows us to do is to see if we're really doing what we intended to do in this training session, and this is a piece of that. Not all of it; just a piece of it. The objective side of it, the actual numbers, the weights they lift, is just a piece of it. I can look back and say, 'OK, here's how you progressed,' for two reasons: one -- what can we learn from that? -- and two, let's set some goals moving forward. Here's where we were two weeks ago, here's where we were last week, here's where you should be the following week. Let's make sure we're task-oriented, we're goal-oriented, so that when you walk in here, there's a sense of purpose."
And so far, the team has responded. Players strut around the surge facility with their shirts off, proudly showing off their newly-acquired muscles.
"The style that he brings and the different lifting and attitude that he brings, he brings a new element. He brings the team together. That's the biggest difference," Jones says. "When he first came, from the first lift, from the first time around the field, he didn't go easy. He introduced his stuff and it was so hard, but after the training, he was like, 'That's just a little introduction.' We were like, 'God! That's just the introduction? What do we have in store for us?' The one thing he does, after the end of each lift, we come together and we do a large circuit, so it'll be different lifts, different types of lifts on one area. If it's a bicep circuit, then we're going to do different biceps lifts around the room, and we have a partner and it'll be 30 seconds each. We'll do the same thing twice and there will be eight or nine stations and stuff like that, so after every lift, we do that.
"The one thing that I just love is that after every lift, we all come together. When you're done with your lifting, you don't go. You have to wait until everybody's done, and you all come together and we end together. We'll do that hard circuit at the end, then group core work, and we all end together. It's so hard, but it's so effective. It adds bulk and it adds strength, and that's the one major thing that I love what he does."
After a disappointing 2010 season, getting the team to buy in to togetherness, a sense of accountability, was an easy -- but necessary -- task.
"As far as sayings, we got this new logo that says, 'Team Matters, Everything Matters.' It's kind of contradictory, but 'Team Matters,' we really appreciate that a lot," says King. "The team matters. I feel like we've just become more of a family."
Whether on the spring camp practice field, doing winter workouts on Witter Rugby Field or in the weight room, Blasquez has instituted a dress code of sorts. No one stands out. No one is different.
"Right now, I think one of the major differences is bringing the team completely together," says Jones. "We have matching uniforms, and nobody wears anything that's different. Nobody sets themselves apart from anybody. Those shirts that have 'Team Matters' on the front and on the back, so on every lift, every time we're on the field, even when we're in pads, all of us look in-uniform. He brought that here to the team."
Blasquez's philosophy centers around the total health of the individual, both physical and psychological. Despite being in excellent physical shape himself, he has put the players themselves in charge of motivating one another, to, in a sense, turn themselves into coaches.
"The offensive line and defensive line, what they've done is they've put together the strongest guys to go against each other and make them spend the most time with each other, and I really feel like it's strengthened the bond," says King. "I don't know who's idea that was, but now they have the big guys -- the O-line and the D-line and the tight ends -- lifting together and we do a lot of things together, separate from the skill and speed guys, and I think that's really strengthened our communication and growth as a whole team."
That includes even the little things, like simply counting reps.
"Part of execution is communication: your ability to verbally communicate with your teammate -- with your partner," says Blasquez. "Some of the things we did early on were very simple, like counting each other's reps. If I'm lifting and you're my partner, you're right there, counting my reps out for me. Pretty soon, those reps turn into a little verbal cue -- 'Hey, come on, you've got it! One more! Two more!' -- and then, pretty soon, these guys started feeling very comfortable communicating with each other, pushing each other and talking to each other."
Instead of camping out in one area and overseeing his weight room, Blasquez gets down and dirty, looking into the minutiae of every rep, the mechanical aspects of every movement.
"The program now seems more personalized and more structured for each individual athlete, for their weaknesses and strengths," says King. "I feel as if coach Blasquez didn't come in and assume that we know how to lift weights properly. He assumed that we're just babies in this stage, that we're in the baby stage of lifting weights. I think that might have been a misconception by our prior strength and conditioning coach, assuming that -- since we were football players, that we've played and we've lifted to the point of getting to Cal -- we were sufficient or good enough to lift without hurting ourselves. Coach B came in with the mindset that, 'I'm going to have to re-train these young men,' and that's exactly what he's done."
That's translated to the field, given the players the confidence to push each other on each snap, each drill, each hit.
"The 'what' was the squat and the clean and the bench and the things that we do in here, but how we function in that environment really was the focal point coming into the offseason as a team," says Blasquez. "These are the areas we want to work on, these are our focal points, and we want to extend that into everything that we do, whether we're on the field and we're doing conditioning sessions, whether we're in the weight room and we're lifting, and the whole thing was that these are skills, which implies that they're learned, practiced behaviors. The whole concept here was, let's do that and let's see that carry over on the football field.
"It was a two-fold deal for me: One, the communication thing, and then two, it was a concentration thing. Concentration, communication and effort, to me, were the surrounding pieces around how to get guys to execute the things we needed to do. For us, we're working, and every day we come here, we have a sense of purpose. We're punching the clock and we're going to accomplish something as a group and you can look at the sport science and the periodization and the progression and all the technical aspects of what you do, but the bottom line is, you've got to go to work, and you've got to put the time and energy into what we're doing. I think they're doing that, and as a result of that, and the way that we're approaching our work, I think we're getting a lot out of it."
The results are hard to ignore. Big offensive lineman Geoffrey Gibson has gone from his entry weight of 340 pounds to a svelte 315. King has put on 10 pounds of muscle and cut 15 pounds of fat, the majority of that coming from his core, chest and thighs.
Spencer Hagan has gone from a 190-pound wide receiver to a 220-pound H-back/tight end, thanks to Blasquez's program, with 25 pounds of muscle being added to his upper body.
"It's efficiency, and what it allows us to do is to see if we're really doing what we intended to do in this training session, and this is a piece of that. Not all of it; just a piece of it," says Blasquez. "The objective side of it, the actual numbers, the weights they lift, is just a piece of it. I can look back and say, 'OK, here's how you progressed,' for two reasons: one -- what can we learn from that? -- and two, let's set some goals moving forward. Here's where we were two weeks ago, here's where we were last week, here's where you should be the following week. Let's make sure we're task-oriented, we're goal-oriented, so that when you walk in here, there's a sense of purpose."
The first order of business for Blasquez and his crew when they took over was to figure out just what kind of clay they were going to be molding, particularly when it comes to the offensive linemen.
"That's where body composition comes in. We assess all of our athletes on a very regular basis," Blasquez says. "We look at body composition, percentage of body fat and lean muscle mass, and we correlate that with strength. Particularly with offensive linemen, is their weight moving up, and if it is, what kind of weight is it? Did they put on five pounds of body fat, or did they put on five pounds of muscle? In the case where we're trying to lose body fat, OK, they lost three percent body fat, but what's their strength doing? Did their strength drop with that? Because, if it did, we need to make an adjustment. At the end of the day, what we're looking for is a heavy athlete that's mobile and strong, and if we drop the body fat off of them, and their strength is dropping, now I don't know if we've done anything but make them worse."
Beyond the usual Bod Pod tests, Blasquez has incorporated even more detailed diagnostics that scrutinize every ligament, every joint, every tendon.
"We met with each coach, got with them, 'Hey, what are the things that we're doing well? Where are the areas that we're struggling in?' We assessed and screened every one of our athletes," says Blasquez. "We looked at mobility, flexibility, stability. We had some surgeries -- what are those surgeries? Are there things that are there that we can learn from to be able to readjust our training a little bit? -- so the physical assessment side, clearly, is there. To be able to go back and then, at the end of the day, just knowing some of the primary standards for those positions, and based on those things, you build your program."
The screening process involved complete work-ups and work-outs from each player, to find a weak knee here, a muscle imbalance there.
"The screening process for us has been really good. What we'll do is, it's an individualized deal for us. We'll assess each athlete, determine what the areas are that need work and then we'll assign them corrective exercises to be able to deal with that, to be able to resolve those issues, and then we reassess them on a regular basis to make sure we're going in that direction," says Blasquez. "Sometimes, some of those things, is it crystal clear? Is it going to prevent an injury? You just don't know. But, you're attacking it. You're being proactive. There are others that are crystal clear - man, if we would have found this, this would have at minimal, affected performance, and in a worst-case scenario, could lead to injury. So, we're dealing with that a lot, and it's really helped us with the athletes."
Problem areas that had yet to be identified became painfully obvious through the screening process, and in some cases, just plain old weight lifting actually exacerbates those problems.
"We've had athletes that came in through our screening and we turned up some significant mobility issues, which they've been able to correct," says Blasquez. "The feedback is, they're moving better on the field. They change direction, they play lower, we're getting some of that feedback, and you can draw a correlation to the mobility work that they're doing.
"If you don't assess them early on and screen them, you never learn those things maybe until they get in pads and coaches are going, 'Why are they playing so high? Why can't they do this on the field?' Some of it's technical, and some of it's physical. I think, on the physical side, we're able to attack that and we've been able to make some progress so far."
Beyond tailoring workouts for each player, Blasquez and his staff have worked with the position coaches to specifically engineer programs for each position group, determined in part by the motions they will be using on the field. For quarterbacks, of course, there is no single lift that can increase velocity, not that it stops Blasquez from drawing up a series of workouts with as much flair and creativity as the most revolutionary offensive coordinator draws up a play.
"One, the torso, the midsection, from the ground up, the rotational movement pattern, that's something we do strengthen. The speed of the ball from that rotational movement coming from the front side is something that we spend a lot of time on with rotational exercises, but it's really about a progression: Do you have a base level of strength throughout your entire body? Do you have specific strength, which would be rotational strength, and do you have stability?" he says. "A lot of times, we look at the decelerators in the arm to make sure it can support the release of the ball, so we're strengthening that portion of the shoulder, which is the backside, we're on top of the rotational movements and we stay on top of the mobility so they can move through a full range of motion in the throwing motion.
"Part of it also is preventative. Our quarterbacks come in and their shoulders are going to be sore [after throwing], so what do we do about that? You can say, 'OK, we still want you to just go through your weight workout,' but you can be very non-productive at that point. We need to make the adjustments and understand the demands of the position at certain times of the year. Part of that understanding with the quarterback is making sure that the exercises are appropriate and we're doing things to help them get through the stresses that are put on the shoulder in the game. All that becomes a part of the process."
Junior starting quarterback Zach Maynard, who spent a year away from the field due to transfer rules, has definitely benefitted from Blasquez's routine.
"Coach Blasquez has us on a tight regimen. We've got conditioning in the mornings at 6 AM on Tuesday and Thursday before we come to spring ball, and we lift three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday," Maynard says. "It's a very intense workout, so we're building muscle mass. There's also a lot of cardio, too, so we can come out here and perform."
Position-specific workouts have not only helped some of the skinnier players put on some much-needed weight, but have also assured that that weight is good weight on the larger athletes, as well.
"It's consistency, just consistency," he says. "We want to make sure that we're doing everything right along the way, and the nutritional piece is a key piece of the puzzle, making sure that they're getting their meals in, eating at the right times, getting the right number of calories, that the macro nutrients are correct, and then, in terms of the weights, staying consistent and what we're looking for. The strength is there. They're developing in terms of their strength, and the goal is not necessarily just getting a bunch of weight on them, because that can sometimes be counterproductive. We want to put some weight on them, but we want to get them stronger. We want to maintain mobility and speed or improve them, and so we just monitor them along the way and push them as far as we can within the system."
For Blasquez, it's about building a better athlete, not just a weight-lifter. It's about building a better jumper, a better sprinter, a quicker change of direction.
"Oh my God, my vert jump. I hadn't really done the vertical jump since my freshman year and with what happened to my knee, and then I had another injury last spring, so this is the first spring that I'm 100 percent healthy and being able to do everything. It's just a big difference. I really hadn't done the vert since my freshman year, and I forgot the numbers, but I just know that it's sky-rocketed," says Jones, who's previous personal best was in the mid-to-high 20s. "He showed me the numbers and how I've improved, and now I have a 35-inch vert. You see the levels on all of my lifts and my vert, and they're just continuing to go up drastically."
With results like that, you can bet Kiesau has bought in to Blasquez's methods.
"In the offseason, we work on our flexibility and our speed, loosening up our hips. To be a great route-runner, you've got to be able to separate, drop the hips and accelerate out of your breaks," Kiesau says. "It's not necessarily linear speed like everyone likes to look at; it's more about how you drop your hips and get out of your breaks. We'll work with the strength staff and get them going on their flexibility, their core and understanding their bodies more than anything."
Jones describes workouts that are grueling, multiple and ever-changing. More than anything, Blasquez fixes his athletes. He's one part psychologist, one part personal trainer and one part mechanic. When Jones came into school, his bench press was higher than his squat. If there's one thing a wide receiver needs, it's his legs; not his chest.
"He prepares us to be effective not only lifting weights, but on the field," Jones says of Blasquez. "One thing that he does that's transitioned to the field is that he's aware of what we need to do, the lifts that we need to do to be explosive on the field. He's been instrumental in what we're trying to do and where we are as a team."
In every interview head coach Jeff Tedford has given since Blasquez replaced Kraskinsi, he's sung the praises of his new strength coach.
"Coach Blasquez has done a nice job with just how they work together in the weight room and how they push each other, coach each other and things like that," Tedford says. "They're involved in each other's workouts, so that helps on the field. If they coach each other in the weight room, they can coach each other out here, and it's not so much coaching as accepting the coaching. It's easy to tell somebody what to do, but it's that other guy saying OK."
For King -- who came in with knee and foot injuries that kept him off the field in the 2010 US Army All-American Game, a game in which it had been a lifelong dream to play -- Blasquez has been a Godsend.
"I had a meniscus surgery where they took a pretty large portion out of my meniscus, and that alone, plus, I had a screw in my foot, and when I was rehabbing, I was living on my own, so I really wasn't the most mature in rehabbing it the way I should when I came in, but things are changing," says King.
What has Blasquez done to target and strengthen those areas?
"Definitely pad level, being able to run at a lower pad level with knee bend. He really, really focuses on knee bend and a strong back, just strengthening that athletic football posture," King says. "I think what he's helped me most with is just confidence in my athletic ability. He's focused on me being able to cut, to finish, to change direction and feeling comfortable in your movements and your ligaments, really staying low, a lot of things that, personally, D-linemen use in the game."
Aside from injury recovery, a substantial portion of Blasquez's job is dedicated to injury prevention. Whether the cause be an old, worn-out Momentum turf, having to switch from grass to dirt at AT&T Park or inherent physical flaws, it all falls on Blasquez's broad shoulders.
"I see, I see my job as that's a huge piece of the puzzle. I don't know, I think strength coaches see it to some level, to a certain degree. My background in sports medicine, it's a huge piece of the puzzle for me," he says. "How we attack that here is through screening and really assessing the athlete in the most effective way that we can in order to be able to prevent injuries from happening in the first place, so we'll look at the body from the perspective of mobility and stability, and we're going to make sure that if we're going to put someone in a weight session or a speed session, whatever it may be, that their body is truly prepared for that. A lot of times you can get in there and accomplish moving weights from point A to point B, but it may not be done in an effective way, whereas they're actually becoming more durable and actually being able to accomplish those movements with more efficiency. Sometimes, they're just moving the load from point A to point B, and you're doing the contrary -- you're unstable and just getting the weight up."
It's not just about technique. It's about execution. It's about perfection in every aspect of an athlete's life.
"A big part of how we attack the offseason is that we knew that we wanted to get them to execute in the weight room," says Blasquez. "We needed to create some sense of purpose around execution, and for us, there's what you do and then there's how you do it. The 'what' might be squatting, we might be doing a certain type of weight work, we might be strength-oriented, it might be explosive-oriented, but how we do it, and how we work as a group and as a unit became, to me, the primary area that we really needed to emphasize and focus. That started with execution.
"We knew that one of our primary goals was to go into spring ball as a more cohesive unit -- guys who communicated better, guys who were concentrating, tenacity on the field, to go in and execute. That being the goal, the physical aspect of it, there's markers along the way, when you look at strength numbers, explosiveness, vertical numbers and mobility and all those things that are measured, but morphing them together really allows us to get to where we're trying to get to."
A more cohesive unit means no excuses. If you let down your teammate, your brother, or if you don't have the mental fortitude to get over nagging injuries, respect and teamwork begin to erode.
"I would say the biggest difference in our offseason program has been our strength coach," says Tedford. "I mean, all the things that he has brought to the program with the style of training, the motivation, the team policy of holding each other accountable in the weight room, I think if you talked to any of our players about the difference in the weight room and the way they're training, I've heard nothing but great, great feedback from that."
Injuries are as much Blasquez's province as building muscle, so if there's a way he can mitigate the chance that a player will be felled by a minor injury, you can bet he'll take it. Even the way players react to adversity -- like a practice field not being quite ready on time due to installation errors -- has become one of Blasquez's mandates.
"You can look at it two ways: You can get frustrated or you can turn a negative into a positive. I see this as a negative turned into a positive. How do we overcome? How do we adapt? Are you going to allow something like this to be a built-in excuse, or are you going to be able to spin that and turn that into something that makes you stronger?" says Blasquez. "Our concept is to do that. I don't care what it is that we're dealing with. If something happens, how do you adjust to it? How do you problem solve? It becomes another skill set, and that's the same requirement that I put on the guys when they come in. If something comes up, OK, what's your answer? How are you going to manage that? How are you going to solve this issue? How are you going to be able to perform in this environment? It's really kind of a spin, a mentality and an approach that we're asking our guys to think of, to think through, because stuff like this can become an excuse for you, and we're just not going to have that. There are just no excuses for poor performance."
At least now, the excuse won't be conditioning. It won't be lack of fitness. It won't be lack of strength, mental or physical. Not if Blasquez has anything to say about it.
"I'll tell you, though, I think the first part is that athletes really do well when they clearly understand what expectation is," says Blasquez. "If they're unsure or if there's a grey spot, I think that really creates a lot, so what I try to do with them, is I try to make sure that whatever we're asking them to do, there's crystal-clear understanding that this is what the expectation is. I think that helps a lot. The athletes will respond when they know clearly what they're going to do. The second part is -- and it may not happen right off the bat - but down the road, and within a couple of months or three months or five months or something, they'd better start seeing some results. Athletes want to get it right, but until they see those results, then they're really, they might be a little hesitant. I think right now, what's gone on, is one, the expectations are pretty clear, and two, they're seeing results, so I feel like right now, things are going in the right direction. We've got our base in, but we've got a lot of work to do. We've got a lot of work to do, but I feel like we've got a decent start."