DragonDoor.com Interviews Jeff Fish
Director of Athletic Performance – Atlanta Falcons
by Adrienne Harvey, RKC Level II, CK-FMS
September 29, 2012 03:48 PM
Dragon Door: Given your extensive experience coaching strength and conditioning, what led you to try kettlebell training with your athletes?
Jeff Fish: I began researching the role of movement-based methodology in the early 2000’s and was fortunate to meet Pavel in 2005. I learned a great deal from him—this was the first obtainable information I found for implementing kettlebells in a workout plan. At the time, there was very little information available on safe, proper kettlebell techniques. Now, I had the fundamentals of how to execute the exercises, and felt comfortable adding them to our plans. Very quickly, I realized the power of the kettlebell as a training tool, and how it could expand and produce general and specific performance improvements that I could not achieve with other equipment.
Atlanta Falcons Running back workout drills
Dragon Door: What are the particular advantages with kettlebell training over a more traditional approach to strength and conditioning for professional football?
Jeff Fish: When I look at how to improve an athlete’s performance—no matter the skill level—I have many variables to assess: fundamental movement patterns, mobility, stability, restrictions, strength and power symmetry, core stability and dynamic coordination, prerequisite movement proficiency, just to name a few. When I look at improving some of the key qualities for a professional football player—specific joint static and dynamic stability, functional strength and power output, metabolic training, efficient core function, transfer and application of force—the kettlebell is a tremendous choice to achieve results in a fast, safe manner while simultaneously improving overall movement.
Dragon Door: What are your top kettlebell exercises for football players?
Jeff Fish: I started implementing a program with kettlebells in 2005, using get-ups, different presses, squats, and single leg movements. As an alternative to a barbell on the back, we train with them in the rack position, so the player maintains good torso posture when they’re working their lower body—subtle things like that go a long way. I put together a complete teaching system addressing developmental stages, starting with new players who may have never even seen a kettlebell, up to a very advanced level—for players who have trained with kettlebells with me for a number of years.
We start with a base program of four exercises, and as the athletes become more proficient, we advance them into stage two movements. Eventually they progress to where they’re doing everything imaginable.
Atlanta Falcons In Season workouts
Dragon Door: Sounds like you’ve made this process very efficient!
Jeff Fish: Yes, instead of spending an hour and a half in the weight room, we averaged only 45 minutes to an hour. This was great for two reasons: first, the guys felt like they really did a good workout, second, they felt like they could still practice their sport afterwards.
Dragon Door: Sounds like the idea of aiming to feel stronger after the workout, instead of exhausted…
Jeff Fish: Yes, that’s 100 percent true of our guys—no matter what position they play, they almost always leave feeling more energized than before the workout. They feel better, they’re moving better, and they’re excited about practicing afterward, too. Many players told me after this year’s first pre-season game that they feel different.
Dragon Door: How else are you using kettlebells? Is there specific sequence you’re using with swings?
Jeff Fish: We teach the double-arm, single kettlebell swing, next the single-arm swings, and then two-arm, two kettlebell swings where we can load them up pretty good. Once they get the mechanics of the swing, I transition them to cleans as long as they understand the hip hinge movement, how to finish their hips, tilt their hips, and get their quads tight so they can protect their back. I try to teach them to clean as quickly as I can, because cleans can link circuits and combine lower-body and upper-body movements. For example, a sequence of cleaning, pressing, cleaning, squatting, etc.
Dragon Door: Are your guys training kettlebell cleans alone, or mainly using them as a link between other exercises?
Jeff Fish: We do both—training cleans by themselves, and in many different complexes—I like that about them. Also, they’re a quick movement where guys really have to think about being quick with their hips, they have to absorb the weight quickly as compared to a swing. The clean is really crisp and it’s impressive to see a group of athletes lined up, and almost synchronized doing cleans. It’s pretty awesome to see.
Dragon Door: Since implementing the FMS with your players, how has it affected game play and injury prevention/recovery?
Jeff Fish: The FMS is a starting point. It’s a guide and an evaluator to our overall system. We use it to evaluate every player before prescribing any exercise. We will never just write up programs or give someone a program that was successful with another athlete. The FMS gives us a look into an athlete’s current state of movement potential and limitation. It also shows me where I can start an athlete in terms of strength training exercises. It allows me to give them the appropriate challenge without elevating the injury risk of an over-demanding plan. We truly build the plans around each athlete. We always use this “baseline” score to evaluate our system of prescription. Basically, if we do a follow up FMS on an athlete in 6-8 weeks and they have improved their score by three points, then we know our corrective strategy prescription was accurate. We also have a baseline to hold us accountable in our rehabilitation efforts.
In terms of game play, a more efficient athlete can perform at a high level for a longer time than a heavily restricted/asymmetrical athlete. Also, by reducing the risk factors, we have a greater chance of our players not missing games due to injury. In most high level sports, to lose your “stars” for extended periods of time usually spells disaster in terms of wins and losses.
Dragon Door: Has it also helped to prevent injuries during training as well as during a game?
Jeff Fish: Yes, I have used the data to prescribe movement-based drills at the appropriate levels and times during the off-season. At that time of the year, athletes are not at their optimal performance levels. While we are eager to work with the athletes and help them improve, we must also keep in mind that it won’t happen overnight.
Dragon Door: How often do you administer the screen?
Jeff Fish: For the most part, we do it about four times a year. Obviously if a guy gets injured, then it’s a part of determining if he’s ready to return to play. Or, if other circumstances arise where we need to do a pre and post screen. Usually, we’ll do it four times a year: before our off-season program, after our off-season program, right before training camp, and then about halfway through the season.
Dragon Door: Even though it’s highly individualized, do the players perform their correctives in a group? How are you programming correctives?
Jeff Fish: That’s one of the challenges. Often, we are basically handed a limited block of time, because the players have meetings and all sorts of responsibilities. Since the corrective exercises are very individualized, the first few sessions are focused on teaching and grouping players who need similar correctives together. Early on, it’s a lot of coaching because of the little details of these exercises.
On the first day of our off-season program, we screen everybody. As soon as we get those numbers, long days and long nights follow as we write everybody’s program, and determine how we’ll teach it over the next couple of sessions. Also, we have to make sure the screens are accurate so we know that a player actually improved or changed, and the numbers are not just a result of lenient scoring. I always have to follow-up and make sure I’m noting all the details.
We have to keep with it every day, I have guys going into their fifth year here in Atlanta who still have to circle back. Just like a swing coach in golf has to watch Tiger Woods every day at the driving range, a player can lose their movement suddenly without feeling it. That’s when a good coach can help with a trained set of eyes and the right cues, “Remember to fully extend your hip there. Your glutes are really not firing, you’re just kind of resting.” A coach has to be on it every day.
Dragon Door: Have you found that specific kettlebell exercises and FMS correctives translate into better performance on the field? If so, which ones?
Jeff Fish: Yes, there are certainly many that influence correction and conditioning. At the end of the day the top priority in this system is to reduce injury risk factors and enhance movement. Therefore we need to look at how we blend the two areas of correcting poor patterns, and improving our performance variables (functional strength, power, and speed) without negatively affecting the other. For example, we strive to achieve symmetry in all aspects of physical development and utilize the Turkish get-up as a means to improve that quality.
Dragon Door: How have your methods reduced the training time necessary for the team’s strength and conditioning?
Jeff Fish: This is an area that I think needs to be addressed to a deeper level in team sports. I often consider what would be “ideal” for certain players or training blocks, however I always have to make modifications due to time limitations. In team sports we are given set parameters to train our athletes—sometimes from our leagues or conferences, and sometimes from our sport coaches. I am always excited about the challenge to produce the desired result with whatever time is allotted to me.
Another key element to keep in mind is that individuals need time and opportunity for skill improvement practice. This could include meeting time, on-field specific practice with the team or individually, or a specific group practice. In my position, I believe my input on the improvement of the athletes is a means to an end. If I “smoke” my athletes just to put my stamp on them for the day and it does not allow them to practice or improve their skill set that day or the next, then I have slowed the overall skill acquisition process. I try to be very efficient to create my athletes with added time to pour into their skill set—this is why I choose exercises that produce multiple benefits wrapped in multi-joint movements. This allows me to accomplish the goals of efficient, repeatable sessions that improve skill development.
Dragon Door: You’re the Director of Athletic Performance, how does this role differ from a Head Strength and Conditioning Coach?
Jeff Fish: My responsibilities are basically those of a Strength & Conditioning Coach with the additions of organizing all the moving parts of a total performance system at this level. For example, I will coordinate with our Head Athletic Trainer/Physical Therapist for our workout and rehabilitation plans to ensure seamless execution and efficiency. I also help coordinate our nutritional program for proper fueling at given times of the year, and generally any variable that pertains to athletic performance and its implementation. In a nutshell, it revolves around organizing all performance team members into a single philosophy and mission—at the end of the day the athlete is the ultimate beneficiary. All team members have to have a singular purpose, and that guides us daily.
Dragon Door: Is there a common weakness with football athletes—regardless of position—and how do you improve it?
Jeff Fish: I see the majority of restrictions stemming from hip asymmetry and shoulder mobility limitations and/or asymmetry. We address these immediately by determining what strategy will be most effective. We determine if it is a mobility or stability dysfunction causing the issue, or if is there another possibility. Some athletes who have trained a certain way for years have some of these issues as well. Planning and movement modifications combined with sound corrective work can make a positive impact fairly quickly.
Atlanta Falcons Matt Ryan training workout
Dragon Door: What are the essentials for a great athletic performance program for football?
Jeff Fish: Teamwork—all team members have to live the philosophy. They must be consumed with being a part of the team and helping the athletes achieve higher levels of performance. Because, regardless of age or skill, everyone has areas which can be improved. Some essentials for the sport would begin with a broad foundation of movement potential. Attributes relating to performance should be optimal relative to specific position demands. I would also encourage some thought into the specific work capacity needs based on position. For example, I would hesitate to use the traditional methods of running 110’s as a way to “condition all your players”. I really like the work capacity results we have achieved using kettlebells as a weighted object with our players. It is specific to our needs when it comes to repeated bouts of engagement on the field.
Dragon Door: Can you share some instances of performance increase or injury recovery as a result of your approach with the Atlanta Falcons?
Jeff Fish: Over the last 9 years of doing screens, corrections, modifying workouts, and changing my methodology, I have so many examples.
Dragon Door: How is compliance with the players? Does it take them a while to accept the system?
Jeff Fish: Back when I first implemented FMS, I made sure to know it inside and out because I knew I’d have to explain some of these very foreign concepts to the players—who may or may not be interested. But, I found out that many of the guys were very interested to know what was going on with small issues they’ve never been able to figure out. The real power is when you can identify an issue and alleviate the restriction with a corrective exercise strategy. It’s like the old nursery rhyme where the lion has a thorn in his paw, a little mouse removes the thorn, the lion is then indebted to the little mouse. When I can help a player who has had chronic low back pain or knee tendonitis for years, and all of a sudden it’s gone, he’ll be 100 percent on board with the program.
Dragon Door: That is fantastic—thank you so much for sharing this today.
DragonDoor.com Interviews Jeff Fish
, Atlanta Falcons