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Athletic programs across the country are reeling in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic during these unprecedented times. 

Strength and conditioning coaches in particular thrive off of in-person interaction and utilize very specialized equipment in order to keep their athletes in tip-top shape. Now, with no contact and no access to the facilities, Michigan football strength coach Ben Herbert and his basketball counterpart Jon Sanderson are trying to figure out how to keep their guys in prime condition. 

Herbert was Jon Jansen's guest on the In The Trenches podcast this week and spoke specifically about the challenges of keeping guys in shape from afar.

"I think the key for us at this point has been, fortunately, the type of winter that we were able to have," Herbert said. "Our guys were very locked in, they were very in tune with refining all of the things that they needed to refine. That varies from position group to position group, individual to individual and then some of the things that we wanted to work on collectively as a team. The tone that they set in the winter, fortunately for us, was very positive. It has created momentum into this situation. 

"The attention to detail and the participation with a very high percentage of the team, has been very good. The job for my staff and I is to make sure that we give them clear, concise information and that we’re flexible. Different guys have different resources. As this thing nationally has changed from day to day, week to week, different guys had access to different things, so we’ve been very flexible, very creative in making sure some guys that have weights and they have programs that reflect a variety of things that they can do developmentally."

Herbert mentioned some of the team goals because they really are different from player to player. In order for each student athlete to accomplish what he needs to, Herbert has had to really focus on the details.

"Some guys have virtually nothing other than their body weight, which, there are a lot of things that we do in our program where your body weight is a powerful tool when used the proper way," Herbert explained. "So, we’re making sure that we give them the tools and the insight and the information for them to then administer the work that they need to administer to be sharp and be prepared when we go back to work together as a group in Schembechler Hall. 

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"We don’t know when that is and quite frankly, that is not at the forefront of our minds. What’s at the forefront of our minds is what we can do today to be the best that we can be and to do everything that we need to do to sustain our level of preparation. We'll just take it day by day until we get the green light, and then we’ll be back to something that feels a little bit more normal."

Joshua Henschke of spoked with Sanderson earlier this week and got some great quotes about how U-M's basketball strength guru is handling the pandemic. Sanderson's breakdown of the situation was similar to Herbert's. Dealing with players remotely is not ideal for any type of coach, but when players can lose muscle mass, muscle tone and endurance in just a couple of days, strength coaches are really fighting an uphill battle.

"The biggest challenge is guys are at home,” Sanderson said. “Guys have all gone their separate ways. Our facility, initially, we thought it was going to remain open. Initially, it was like, alright, the facilities will be open and we will do small group training. We had tons of plans. Our entire strength and conditioning department were making plans for X-amount of athletes in the facilities at a time. The reality set in. Alright, they’re home.

"Now, I’m at a place where all the guys have their home programs. I had to be creative. I had to sit down and get information from all the guys. For example, does your dad have a basement weight room set? Does he have dumbbells? Does he have a Bowflex? Some guys had some equipment and, you know, we could actually work with this and make do temporarily. Some guys have very little and some guys have a little bit. I think two of our guys have a fairly good amount of equipment. My base template was you basically don’t have anything. You’re grabbing a suitcase for weights, you’re grabbing a milk jug. Anything you can get your hands on. This will be a lot of basic training and building up our conditioning tolerances. Train a day or two in a row, give a day off, train three in a row—those are examples of things that will happen.”

Brown's Breakdown

I'm really anxious to see how both teams react to being at home and away from the facilities for so long. 

We heard from Juwan Howard all season long about how mature and driven his guys were. If they really are, they'll take this seriously and come back when they can without missing much of a beat. I don't expect anyone from any program to return way ahead of where they were when the pandemic hit, but maintaining needs to be the floor. Obviously there's only a handful of basketball players who have to figure this stuff out on their own, so it should be easy to track once we return to normalcy.

With football, you're talking about more than 100 student athletes. That's a lot of guys to stay in contact with and push in a certain direction. Obviously some players are going to stay disciplined, focused and on track, but some won't. I'm curious to see who those guys are and I'm sure the coaches are too.

As unfortunate as this entire situation is for the sports world, it pales in comparison to what's happening around the planet. Still. all college programs are dealing with the same issues, which levels the playing field at least. It's not like Michigan or other Big Ten teams are going to be behind teams from the SEC or ACC. Other programs from other conferences are at home too. Everyone is just hoping to return to normal, and it's up to guys like Herbert and Sanderson to make sure the players are as ready as possible when that happens.