For modern football players, relationship with trainers is seen as more of a partnership

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz has stressed in recent days the need for his staff to be demanding of players without crossing the line into becoming demeaning.

This admonition comes after dozens of Hawkeyes of the past, primarily black athletes, have openly questioned the way they were treated by longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle. In college athletics, it is strength coaches like Doyle who spend by far the most time with the players, being able to work with them nearly year-round.

Many Hawkeyes have credited Doyle with helping them gain muscle and compete at a higher level than they thought possible on the football field.

A darker side of that relationship has emerged in the past week.

Former Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson tweeted about a time when Doyle deliberately stepped on the fingers of players who were getting ready for a workout. Other black athletes complained that Doyle would threaten to “send them back to the ghetto” if they didn’t work to his standards. There were accusations that Doyle tried to control the clothing players wore or the way their hair was styled.

Chris Doyle has led the Iowa football team's strength and conditioning program for 21 years. He's on administrative leave now after dozens of former players pointed to a pattern of racist and demeaning behavior.

Doyle, 51, has been placed on administrative leave while Iowa athletic director Gary Barta leads an investigation into the claims against him. Doyle has denied any racist or unethical behavior. Ferentz has said he’s interested in hearing out all of his former players, with the goal of improving the culture within the program he has led since 1999.

What went on in Doyle’s strength and conditioning room was kept from public view. Fans and the media are not allowed to see that part of the football operation.

But it is true that football workouts are typically more demanding than those for other sports, said Joel Seedman, who trains high-level athletes at his Advanced Human Performance facility, including NFL players.

“There kind of is that mental toughness component that goes with football,” Seedman said. “A lot of that toughness factor is built into the football practices themselves, so during training and conditioning it’s not absolutely essential to beat them up. But they still need to get high-intensity training. I think the mentality that’s followed football for all these decades, there’s kind of a tradition behind it. Football athletes, they’re kind of expected to give a certain level of effort.”

In 2011, Doyle and his staff pushed the players so hard during offseason workouts that 13 of them were diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue that can lead to lasting kidney damage. All of the players recovered, and one was awarded a $15,000 payout from the university. Doyle was ordered to never have players engage in that specific workout regimen again.

Seedman, who has a Ph.D. in kinesiology and has been training professionally for 17 years, said he’s noticed a change in what motivates modern athletes. They are increasingly looking for a partnership with their trainers, interested in finding out why they are doing certain exercises instead of just blindly following a script that was devised years ago. They don’t respond as well to trainers who try to get results through screaming.

“I think athletes want to see that their coaches are more interested in their careers than they are,” Seedman said.

“You have this transition era for coaching, especially in football, where you still have your old-school traditional styles that don’t really explain the science behind it. It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, we’re doing this because this is the way we’ve been doing it.’ And you have some coaches now who are maybe a little bit younger who take a more modern approach, a more scientific approach. And I think athletes are kind of seeing these two sides of coaching now that they may not have seen a decade ago. I think they’re starting to appreciate more that kind of detailed explanation and scientific rationale for the methods.

“I think just the day and age that we’re in, you can only push athletes so much, trying to challenge their manhood. It doesn’t work. I think maybe it would have worked better a decade or two ago. That approach never worked that great to begin with, but over the last several years it works even lesser.”

Seedman said it’s not necessary to befriend the athletes, that a professional distance is desired. But he agrees with Ferentz, that belittling athletes is never the answer.

Ultimately, it’s up to the athletes to motivate themselves, Seedman said. You have to trust that they have the desire to improve.

“I find that if I cross the line and try to be buddies, it doesn’t work out. They don’t take you as seriously,” Seedman said.

“When they understand that I’m not looking to work the daylights out of them or just be a drill sergeant, oftentimes they’ll give me more effort.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.