Tragic Death of a College Athlete Demands Balancing Safety and Essential Resiliency

Jordan McNair died at the age of 19. A call for better communication, principle-based training, proper planning, and greater caution in physical challenges.

On June 13, 2018, the Maryland offensive lineman, Jordan McNair, died at the age of 19. McNair struggled while finishing a set of 110’s at the University of Maryland football workout and was found to have a body temperature of 106 degrees upon admission to a local hospital. The incident and subsequent death received surprisingly little national attention until more recently.

I’ve had trouble finding any more details other than the facts listed above. As I have an incomplete understanding of the events that took place at Maryland on May 29, 2018, this piece is far less a commentary on the circumstances that led up to McNair’s tragic death than an attempt to create context and a broader perspective in light of our cultural propensity for over-reaction. While, it is easy to come up with a quick, definitive sound bite, the reality is that the truth is our goal, and truth often fades behind the cloud of inflammatory rhetoric.

As Maryland football camp started, and this story became national news, the masses responded with typical outrage, convinced that heads needed to roll. Indeed, there was cause for an investigation and a significant likelihood that the events could have been handled better.

The Role of a Strength and Conditioning Coordinator

I’ve experienced first hand that the role of a Strength and Conditioning Coordinator is largely to educate coaches on training principles and best practices.

There is a long tradition in competitive sports of coaches taking pride in “bring out the puke buckets” style training. Strength coaches implement structured, progressive, programs that balance many training goals while attempting to optimize adaptation.

To do so, we often have to invest a lot of time changing cultures that have normalized destructive beliefs, such as:

  • “More weight is always better.”
  • “More time training is always better.”
  • “More exercises done is always better.”
  • “Less rest is always better.”
  • “If it is hard, it is good.” (I’ve heard this last phrase uttered more times than I care to remember).

In short, strength coaches work hard to shift the culture from a random, quantity-driven approach to an intentional, quality-driven approach.

When I go to design a program, my priorities are, in this order:

  1. Do No HarmTeach each athlete to execute with technical form and correct movement patterns that will present in injuries down the road.
  2. Needs Analysis – Examine the physiological demands of the sport and develop a program that balances the many training needs that athletes need most to prepare for their competition.
  3. Build A Strong Team Culture – Create a culture of hard work, discipline, and player-led accountability to promote resiliency and clarity and the best values.

The final priority must be checked by priorities one and two. It may, occasionally, be of value to insert very challenging work that exceeds the minimal essential training dose to create team unity through challenge and prompt the resiliency and solidarity that is only born of shared adversity. However, these challenges are best inserted after months of training foundation, particularly when approaching high volumes.

Off-Seasons Should Progress in Intensity.

Coaches typically want to send a message on day one of the off-season. This is not the time for a gut check. Day one should build extreme discipline with uncharacteristic clarity in expectation with attention to detail.

The beginning of my off-season features very challenging isometric hold circuits that require intensely fighting to hold and control strong, safe positions. None of the work poses any danger, yet it is very challenging. Strong team cultures are created just as effectively by the consistency of standards as by a physical challenge.

Off-seasons should progress in intensity, and arduous physical challenges should be saved for later. Furthermore, gut check sessions should not be the norm, as they can impede the body’s ability to adapt positively. It should be noted that the Maryland workout that sent Jordan McNair to the hospital occurred late in Maryland’s off-season when players were acclimated and far more capable of safely maneuvering intense workouts.

Striving for the Truth

Here is where the conversation gets dicey. Understand, I have no idea to what extent any or all Maryland staffers crossed the line and, yes, there is a very, real line. I’m not defending anyone – only trying to offer a counterpoint that helps balance the conversation. Progress only comes from a nuanced competition of ideas that earnestly strives towards truth, unfettered by the desire to sterilize honest opinions so that they land just right. So, I’ll say what many people are trying to make sense of,

“Our society desperately needs toughness. It is a balance, but it is a need. Tough teams win more. Tough people are happier and more successful. Toughness is a virtue. And yet, there has never been a time when mental and physical toughness has been rarer.”

Developing physical toughness is an antidote to modern entitlement and complacency. Every great civilization had rites of passage that communicated common values and created strong bonds through shared experience. Ours are being eliminated. We are living in an age where people are more alienated, depressed, medicated, and unhealthy than ever before. Widespread comfort and convenience have created expectations of avoiding discomfort and being instantly gratified that leave people uninclined to chase dreams and unwilling to persist when the road gets hard.

People who lack toughness feel overly victimized when exposed to normal life adversity. They are engulfed in self-pity and, thus, won’t display empathy. People who are unwilling to struggle for a purpose are incapable of living fully. Good team coaches recognize these trends and earnestly strive to counteract them. Of course, this can be accomplished safely, but we have to understand the spirit behind the physical challenge.

We celebrate Remember the Titans and how a diverse team shed racial bias’ and grew together through a football camp where they were subjected to three hot, brutal, practices each day. We celebrate Coach Carter, the basketball coach who wouldn’t let a troubled young man back on the team unless he finished 1,000 suicides and 2,500 push-ups in a week.

We highlight scenes like the one from Facing the Giants, where the high school football team’s strongest kid bear crawls 100 yards with a player on his back. The young man struggles and is called to find the profound power within himself by a coach who has his best intentions at heart. The coach pushes him through extreme discomfort with phrases like:

  • “I want your very best.”
  • “Don’t quit ‘til you have nothing left.”
  • “Don’t quit on me.”
  • “I want everything you got”
  • “It’s all heart.”

This is an uncomfortable, cheesy movie, but a real scene. We celebrate these scenes because they are worth celebrating. They remind us what we are capable of and inspire us in the process.

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent – no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” -Seneca

We celebrate the incredible capacity of the human body to push itself past its perceived limitations. There is nothing more empowering than hitting the point of exhaustion and realizing that you have far more strength than you knew was possible. Those who’ve experienced this transcendent, transformational experience know its power. I pity anyone who hasn’t been pushed to find their limits.

Calculated, arduous challenges do have merit. I have often suggested that all humans should have a weekly gut check where they learn to willingly enter into temporary discomfort in pursuit of a more meaningful goal, such as willpower.

Finding the Balance

The important thing for coaches is finding a balanced approach that avoids the opposite extreme.

Many coaches try to build resiliency in a way that has invited scorn and prompted smart people to mock the concept of toughness. In politically correct circles we often write off attempts at fostering toughness as evil, barbaric, rituals only perpetuated by insecure, overcompensating, mentally-damaged males, seeking retribution for their repressed rage. It is the stuff of power trips. People, who aren’t ethical or tough, mock and ridicule toughness while maliciously imposing pain to make themselves feel important.

Both Extremes Pull Us Further From Constructive Behavior.

Both extremes pull us further from constructive behavior in their oversimplification.

The reality is we don’t know where the Maryland coaches fall on the spectrum. Some or many of them may have gone too far. With such limited current evidence, we may want to walk back some of our certainty that these are all dishonorable men. The narrative has been clouded by ESPN’s report that DJ Durkin created a culture of intimidation and humiliation.

Perhaps his culture was too extreme. Or, maybe, these are the perceptions of a few overly-sensitive players with overly-sensationalized opinions. Maryland football player, Wade Lees, has come out in defense of Durkin’s team culture, claiming that the few disgruntled reports don’t accurately portray how the majority of the team feels about Coach Durkin.

As Wade Lees says, “Just because there’s two or three current players and there’s past players, there’s probably seven total out of 150 pretty much speaking for the whole consensus of the program, which is absolutely fabricated and false.”

Defensive lineman Oseh Saine echoes these sentiments, saying: “I just hope his name and reputation doesn’t get tarnished out of all this because he doesn’t deserve any of the things people are saying about him.”

There is no defending the report of a coach punishing a player by making him eat candy bars while watching the team condition. Still, it seems unwise for us to rush to blanket judgments and perpetuate the narrative that an inordinate number of modern coaches are no more than common bullies.

Even though it is rarely articulated, there is nothing wrong with a healthy measure of respect and accountability. You may call it fear and intimidation, but the truth is that every effective parent, coach, and military unit utilizes it in healthy doses.

If you skip class at a division one program, coaches will have you up at 5 am pushing towels across the floor or running suicides. If you come to practice with neon laces, superman socks, gloves hanging from your helmet, and body language that says, “I’m too cool to warm-up correctly,” you will be put in your place. Coaches may call you out as an example to the team, and that might be embarrassing to you. This is as it should be. Great individual growth and purpose come from learning to sacrifice our egos on behalf of a group.

There are levels and degrees that we have to be willing to differentiate. We shouldn’t deny kids water, but what about addressing the entitled freshman who steps out of a 5-minute warm-up to grab a water bottle? Hazing is bad. The hazing deaths we see from fraternities are indefensible. The manner of conduct we see from coaches on Last Chance U, is unacceptable. Those are extreme and should not be used as an argument for the opposite extreme.

A Healthy Degree of Teasing, Pranks, and Horseplay

There is not a coach’s office, locker room, or group of close male friends in the world that isn’t characterized by a healthy degree of teasing, pranks, and horseplay. These are essential elements of their companionship, not cultures of bullying and humiliation. Our men need connection. They’ve evolved to thrive in tight-knit bands working together for a common purpose. There are very healthy degrees that could be misconstrued as humiliation in today’s culture of safe spaces.

It is not the roughhousing and jokes that are causing widespread depression and anxiety; it is the lack of community, connection, and shared values. Again this is not to defend cases that go too far. However, we need to be able to express that there is a necessary balance because the new McCarthyism of the extreme politically correct is built upon some very damaging assumptions.

It Isn’t a Binary Argument.

It is in vogue to bash anyone who ever raised their voice to a child and any coach who didn’t know the exact work to rest ratio of a conditioning gauntlet. To a degree, this is a healthy counterbalance to the “if it is hard, it is good” coach. And still, while his sentiment is wrong in its universality, it expresses a genuine need. People who hold other opinions aren’t all idiots – there is often a degree of truth from which we can learn.

“What causes what should be a diverse portfolio of ideas to collapse in terms of the diversity where everyone starts representing the same point of view with tiny variations.” -Eric Weinstein

Recently, Tony Gentilcore’s phenomenal strength blog featured a piece by David Otey, CSCS. Otey used the Maryland event as an opportunity to call attention to the signs of heat illness and fundamental norms of a training culture that help prevent such awful accidents. I don’t dispute anything Otey says until the very end where he makes a broad statement about conditioning tests and team challenges.

As Otey says “generic training and standards of what we can expect can be thrown out the window. Arbitrary training protocols and ‘toughness’ challenges are a thing of the past.”

I agree and disagree. Arbitrary training protocols are recipes for disaster. It is oversimplified to take standards and challenges and throw them out the window.

This strikes me as the sort of thing that sounds good but is not prescriptive for team coaches.

  • Team coaches should worry about team toughness and culture.
  • They must worry about standards and rally around challenges. This does not mean that everyone does the same work. Exceptions must be made all the time.
  • We must have a thumb on the level of all our athletes.
  • We must be conscious of their current state and willing to back off and auto-regulate the plan for all or few.

It simply isn’t a binary argument, and it is not fair to assume the worst when a tragedy happens.

Otey concedes that “Ultimately, we cannot avoid all situations.”

On May 26, 2018, James Hampton, a top high school basketball player from Charlotte, North Carolina, suddenly dropped dead in the second quarter of a Nike Elite Youth Basketball game. It was a freak accident, and no one was to blame. Unfortunately, these things happen every year. Maryland’s incident was not necessarily so innocent, yet certainly not indicative of extreme negligence.

We should strive to be smarter. We should heed Otey’s timely advice about better communication, principle-based training, proper planning, and greater caution in physical challenges. This does not exclude the need for coaches to fight against a culture of instant gratification, learned helplessness, and mental frailty.

We Need Group Challenges.

We need a group challenge. Not the stupid, injury-inviting style that unfortunately proliferates among unqualified strength professionals. But, a well planned intentional challenge in the vein of Navy Seal style log training rituals that have helped create a culture of integrity, competency, and leadership that few ever approach. No, we shouldn’t push athletes like Navy Seals, but we can’t call all standards and challenges stupid. We can’t assume people are idiots because something terrible happens.

The top priorities of youth sports are to:

  1. Push scholar-athletes to be ethical, capable, contribution-oriented citizens with the skills and inclinations necessary to create their future and leave the world better.
  2. Create resiliency, adaptability, and toughness that help scholar athletes chase their dreams and overcome life’s inevitable adversities with composure, confidence, and gratitude.

We cannot afford to sacrifice transformational challenges that foster growth and resiliency. The best route is a balance that follows well thought out conversation rather than dogma. As I clarify in the IHD Mission Statement, we should strive for truth and the principles of human thriving. Let’s not lobotomize the conversation by oversimplification.

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