Chasing Rabbits to the NFL: Lessons From Muck City

You don’t need world-class facilities to foster young athletic talent.

In 2007, ESPN ran a story about the rich talent pool coming from the region they call Muck City. Located on the banks of Lake Okeechobee in the Florida Everglades, Muck City features two towns: Belle Glade and Pahokee. Together, these towns have a combined population less than 30,000.

Other talent hotbeds in the country are private schools with open enrollment, or schools benefitting from the best facilities and most qualified training professionals. For example, California’s Mater Dei High School produced three NFL quarterbacks between 2001 and 2009 and employs professional strength coach Scot Prohaska. The school’s facilities, tuition, and atmosphere are closer to Notre Dame than a traditional high school.

Muck City has none of those frills. The area has a median income of $27,000. But despite the lower economic profile, Muck City’s schools routinely win state championships in the intensely competitive state of Florida and produce professional athletes. In fact, the region has produced more than sixty NFL athletes since 1980, most notably Fred Taylor, Anquan Boldin, and Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes. In a world where youth training has become big business, this region has created a training formula for speed and agility that doesn’t require the employ of celebrity coaches or top facilities. It’s time we examine this training bright spot.

The most expensive facilities and coaches in the world can’t replace the athletic benefit of just playing. [Photo courtesy Pixabay]

If You Want Speed, Chase Rabbits

More and more strength and conditioning coaches have realized movement quality is paramount over any other athletic quality. The emphasis has changed from individual muscle groups to strength training of movement patterns and mobility through full range of motion. As the Arizona Cardinals’ Director of Sports Performance Buddy Morris says, “I don’t care how strong you get, if you can’t move, you can’t help us.”

Sure enough, the young athletes of Muck City seem to have an advantage in movement. Why is this the case? One word: “rabbits.”

Muck City got its name from the dark soil where citrus fruits and sugarcane flourish. Most families struggle to make ends meet, so Muck City youth help the family bring in extra money catching rabbits, which yield about $3.00 per fur. No fancy cages or contraptions are used. Instead, every winter when the sugarcane fields are set on fire, the youth march into the smoke to chase rabbits.

Catching one of these lightning-quick creatures requires razor-sharp focus, speed, and instantaneous reflexes. What begins as a game of survival teaches these young men everything they need to know about acceleration, angles, using the surrounding environment, and efficient change of direction on the playing field.

In our sedentary culture, most people will never have a need for the most essential of human activities – chasing and fleeing for survival. Most students sit for eight or more hours a day in school. At home, they’re texting and watching TV. Physical education is devalued and youth physical standards have been systematically lowered. As a result, kids’ muscles become stiff and their senses dull as they lose fluidity and mindful connection to external stimuli.

Within Muck City’s poverty and lack of resources lies another of Coach Buddy Morris’s greatest lessons: “Let the body solve complex motor problems in a chaotic environment.

Integrate Play Into Periodized Programs

If you talk to most coaches about their training for speed and agility, they’ll show you a litany of ladder drills and cone drills. The 20-yard shuttle is our modern bread and butter for teaching change of direction. Most coaches fail to realize the best agility training for your sport is your sport

Agility is not pre-programed. It relies on reaction to external stimuli and subconscious calculations to determine the best angles and timing. Unfortunately, for most sedentary youth there is some necessary re-teaching of how to change direction, accelerate, and move in general. These natural skills are lost to a world that rarely offers recess after fourth grade and where pickup games and free play have been replaced by video games and television. 

The best speed training is running fast. The best agility training is reaction and play, and the best mobility is animal-like flow. If we stay in tune with nature and encourage play and creativity, then our children will be both happier and far more athletic. Create an environment where youth continue to move, and allow our kids to scrape their knees while having fun. Let them play, chase, and react as they would in nature, and you’ll see speed and agility most sports coaches wouldn’t dream possible.

This doesn’t mean coaches can’t continue to systematically train mobility, change of direction, acceleration, and absolute speed. Rather, these lessons from Muck City should shape how coaches view periodizing their year:

  • In the post-season period, I recommend games for mental recovery and a cross-training general physical preparation element.
  • The early offseason is the time for rigid structure both in the weight room and field. This is the time for teaching of many qualities and how movement is done most efficiently. Add a lot of mobility work as well.
  • After the initial offseason phase, implement competition and real-world agility. Utilize games and drills where movement is not programmed and the kids react to stimuli. Enter coach react wave drills, chaos movement squares, and games. Tag variations may be the best teacher of agility, short of a life spent chasing rabbits. Utilize this game often for its training benefit, as well as the joy and psychological release offered.

Jeremy Boone created a series of movement based games, which is a fantastic resource for any coach and should be implemented at every level. These games will model skills and isolate trainable components within the realistic context of a game. For younger athletes, basic body weight resistance work in the fundamental movement patterns along with these games may be all that is needed.

Money Is No Substitute for Movement

At the school where I work its common for coaches to complain of our lack of facilities compared to other schools in the region. I am among the guilty. But what our teams lose in convenience is more than made up for in our understanding of movement and our implementation of non-traditional resistance modalities such as sleds, sandbags, and farmer’s walks. These adaptations, born of necessity, have no doubt helped us build better athletes. 

Muck City is the poster child for making your obstacles your strength. While it’s normal these days for parents to anxiously seek out private coaches and gurus to help give their children every advantage, we can learn much from those kids chasing rabbits for survival. Maybe allowing our children to play and fostering natural instincts and inclinations is the better route. Let’s not forget that in the end, sports are just a game.

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