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From The New York Times
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Inside the Stanford weight room earlier this football season, there were weight vests and wooden sticks and core boards. There were kettle bells and roller pads and something called a Bod Pod, a white, egg-shaped contraption that measures body fat.
There were football players, too: pairs with legs bent, a towel held between them for balance; others climbing ropes like back in gym class; working on hip mobility and shoulder stability; the focus not on brute strength, even for a team as physical as Stanford.
And there was Shannon Turley, the architect of a training regimen among the most distinct in college sports. He is Stanford’s director of football sports performance, and for years, he felt it necessary to write letters to N.F.L. scouts to explain the Cardinal’s nontraditional approach. He stopped that practice this year in the wake of Stanford’s success.
Turley’s impact speaks as much to availability as ability. The coaches recruit speed and size and talent. He believes the best players, the ones most on the field, who sustain the most collisions, also carry the most injury risk. His first priority is to keep them on the field.
From 2006, the year before Turley arrived on the Farm, as Stanford’s campus is known, through last season, the number of games missed because of injury on the two-deep roster dropped by 87 percent. In 2012, only two Cardinal players required season-ending or postseason surgical repair; this year, only one.
In an era in which injuries are more scrutinized than ever, this has made Turley something of a celebrity strength coach. Counterparts from other colleges visited. As did N.F.L. personnel. As did Australian Rules football teams. The student newspaper wrote a three-part series about Turley. Bleacher Report compiled a big article. The National Strength and Conditioning Association named Turley its strength and conditioning coach of the year in 2013.
Stanford lost quarterback Andrew Luck, running back Toby Gerhart and Coach Jim Harbaugh to the N.F.L., and yet the Cardinal will make their fourth consecutive Bowl Championship Series appearance Wednesday in the Rose Bowl against Michigan State. The year before Turley arrived, Stanford went 1-11.
Turley considered all that inside his weight room, as he surveyed the flurry of activity around him. “This,” he said, “is real-world applicable man strength.”
This is the era of the strength coach in college football. Strength coaches oversee conditioning in the off-season. They also deal with being allowed fewer scholarships.
Turley is a strength coach, and he is not a strength coach, or not exactly. Strength is not his focus. Function is. Balance is. Flexibility is.
His approach is grounded in physics, on the premise that low man wins on contact, that to get low requires mobility and stability and the ability to apply force in the opposite direction. His players bench press, but he cares more about how they lift — with hands closer together, without bouncing the bar off their chests — than how much. He wants them to bend all the way down when they squat.
Freshmen in Turley’s program do not lift weights upon arrival. Instead, for the first few weeks, they do “body work,” or push-ups and pull-ups and squats or lunges without weights; basically old-school, military calisthenics.
“You have all these different genres of training, and we steal from them all,” Turley said. “CrossFit. Bodybuilding. Power lifting. But ultimately, it’s none of those. It’s a system we’ve developed to train football players.”
A self-described terrible athlete, Turley was always better at training for a sport than playing it. At Virginia Tech, he volunteered as a student assistant trainer. He noticed the best players in the weight room often were not the best players on the field. That made little sense.
He read research papers and went to clinics and peppered trainers and physical therapists and doctors with questions. He watched YouTube clips. He devoured training manuals.
Eventually, he developed a basic program, or seven basic programs, divided by position groups, with one for linemen and one for quarterbacks and one for hybrids. Some of those are personalized for specific players with injuries or weaknesses that require variations.
Turley does not need a “horrendously large weight-room floor” or “Brazilian hardwood floors.” He wants equipment that is versatile and efficient. One of his favorite exercises, the push-up bridge, in which players stabilize their body in a plank position and spell out words using one arm, requires only a towel and the floor. The core boards are leaned on and stood on and can be used at practice or in the weight room.
This can all seem a bit strange at first, said Trent Murphy, a senior linebacker. Turley eliminated Murphy’s nagging injuries and helped shape him into an N.F.L. prospect.
“Most people don’t get it,” Murphy said. “And that’s fine.”
For the subtle art of injury prevention, the Cardinal stretch and stretch and stretch. They stretch before and after lifts and before and after practice. They stretch for fun.
Even Coach David Shaw has a tailored program. He spends most fall Saturday afternoons standing on the sideline, which tightens his lower back. The work afterward, according to Shaw, involves his “posterior chain” and stretching. A portion of what cut down on Stanford’s pulled muscles and hamstring tweaks — “Shannon’s immeasurable impact,” Shaw said — also works for its coach.
Turley pays particular attention to his players’ Functional Movement Screen scores. The F.M.S. is a durability index, what Turley calls “a predictive, quantitative analysis of quality of movement.” That is the first test he conducts. It evaluates seven movements and scores players as balanced, functional, overpowered, dysfunctional and injury prone. It shows if a player executes a movement better with his left leg than his right, pointing out asymmetries.
Although Stanford players may not perform as well in the bench press, or in the 40-yard dash at the N.F.L. combine, they often top the charts on F.M.S. scores. Asked for an example, Turley cited Richard Sherman, a fifth-round pick who became a dominant cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks.
Sherman arrived at Stanford before Turley, and he remembered all the “gruesome injuries” and teammates lost for the season. He still applies many of the techniques he learned at Stanford, like the core board.
“We have an advantage when we get into the N.F.L.,” Sherman said. “It shows you how little scouts know in their assessments. I’ll roll with Shannon Turley.”
In addition to the weight-room work, Turley encourages his players to incorporate yoga and hot yoga. Stanford used to bring in an instructor, until N.C.A.A. rules limited the number of strength coaches.
Many players sign up on their own for classes with Nanci Conniff, a yoga instructor at Stanford since 1999. She worked with the men’s and women’s golf teams, the women’s swim team and football players. She found Turley especially innovative. They cared about the same principles. They wanted balance; players with large chests needed their shoulder blades drawn back; specialists needed loose hips, not tight ones.
“These are things that you do for Grandma and Grandpa,” Conniff said. “It’s not exclusive to football players. Except that with football players, there are more elements to move around. They’re bigger guys. You can’t twist them into a pretzel.”
Turley no longer mails those letters, addressed, “Dear N.F.L. Scout.” But he still must justify priorities and defend practices.
Asked what N.F.L. scouts should focus on, he says ankle mobility. The ankle begins the chain of movement. Such thinking enabled Stanford to outscore its opponents in the first and fourth quarters by 144 points in 2010, 115 points in 2011 and 102 points in 2012.
Others have taken notice. Brett Fischer founded Fischer Sports, and every spring, many college football players arrive there to train for the combine, players from major universities with major muscle imbalances and poor range of motion.
“I tell all the guys,” Fischer said, “all the giants, the huge-looking guys, the Adonis-looking people, if you cannot move, you will not last. It’s a game of speed and movement and the lowest player wins.”
Or, in the vernacular on The Farm, it is real-world applicable man strength.