One day, sports will return.
Of course, no one knows what day that will be. This invisible coronavirus makes it very difficult to plan.
But whenever that day arrives, the Wildcats will be ready.
Anthony Rubino and AJ Short are the two men working to ensure that the Wildcats are prepared physically for the return of sports. In this role, they have gone above and beyond to keep the Wildcats healthy during this time of gym closings and social distancing. Their efforts go beyond the scope of their day jobs, as they have introduced classes for faculty, staff, and parents.
Figuring out how to keep 1,000 student-athletes and the Saint Ignatius community in shape is a complicated task. Logistically, it takes hours of thinking, investigating, and planning. But the philosophy is simple, according to Rubino, Director of Strength & Conditioning, and Short, Assistant Director of Strength & Conditioning:
Do no harm.
"In everything we're doing, we want to do no harm. Nothing we're doing is overly stressful," Rubino says. "For example, our running is not done to total exhaustion, due to the respiratory risk of COVID-19. We want to improve or maintain our cardiovascular shape while avoiding injury."
So, the question becomes: How do you keep nearly 1,000 student-athletes in shape without an increased risk of injury?
The answer is to simplify as much as possible, while diversifying. In other words, Rubino and Short have worked to help students engage a wide range of muscles through simple workouts that can be done at home. Every athlete comes from a different background, so some Wildcats may have fancy workout equipment, while others may just have a couple of dumbbells sitting in the house, and some may have no equipment.
"We're keeping it as simple as possible. We have one Google Doc for the school," Rubino explains. "Everyone posts jumps or times on there. We've recommended various free apps to utilize a better timing system with slow motion. We've talked with every team about how to manipulate what we're giving out to what they have in their house, apartment, etc. It's important to work a wide range of muscles. You don't want bench press kings who are just bench pressing, and then they have shoulder injuries later on. You need to do rowing and other exercises to work on your glutes, hamstrings, etc."
A major piece of the puzzle has been yoga. Many Wildcats teams have done yoga in the past, but Short has made it a significant part of the Wildcats' training regimen. He hosts sessions several times a week with student-athletes across all programs.
"We were planning on offering yoga before the pandemic, and then the coronavirus hit, so yoga has become another way for the guys to continue to come together, work together, keep each other accountable," says Short. "Some guys have a lot of workout stuff, and some have nothing. But with yoga, all you need is your body. There are a lot of benefits to yoga. You can improve your flexibility, body mechanics, and awareness. It enhances your training and makes you more effective and efficient."
Many Wildcats have enjoyed the virtual workout sessions, and look forward to them.
Rising senior Nick Velotta, a captain of the football team, dreaded yoga at first but has come to look forward to the sessions.
"Going into yoga I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I didn’t think it was something I’d make a part of my weekly routine. But after one session I was hooked," Velotta says. "There are many Tuesdays and Thursdays that I dread hopping on Zoom after a workout or run, but I do it anyway knowing that I’ll feel a lot better after the practice. I’ve noticed that my core has become a lot stronger and that my breathing has become much more controlled. Each practice, I feel more engaged with my inner self. I am getting better at the poses every week, yet each session remains very challenging. I think yoga is a great way to keep us all connected. It’s the closest thing we have to team lifts right now and I hope we can continue it even when we get back to training with the team in the summer."
Beyond the physical conditioning, Short and Rubino have been focused on keeping the Wildcats fit mentally, too.
The strength and conditioning coaches frequently check in with the Wildcats. They encourage the captains to also keep tabs on their teammates. The philosophy is rooted in Cura Personalis, a Jesuit pillar that calls for educators to care for the student as a whole human being.
"We don't need to do lifting, we need to practice Cura Personalis and be Men for Others," says Rubino. "We ask ourselves, 'Did we a good job with these things?' We need to help and shepherd these young men to where they need to go. Everyone is in a different place, in terms of sport, family, socioeconomic background, and equipment-wise.
"We've been telling our guys, 'This is bigger than you, your team or your sport. Don't look at the guys at the top of the depth chart or popularity chart. It's the guys in the middle who you need to check in on. Have a real conversation, not just an obligatory text back and forth.' Overall, I believe we're doing a good job across all sports."
It's tough to measure exactly how well the Wildcats are doing. But Rubino believes that the vast majority of the school's student-athletes are either treading water or improving.
"All things considered, compared to the national average, we're on par. But we're way farther ahead from other individual schools, because of our culture," Rubino says. "How do we keep culture? We've had good culture since 1886. It's who we are, what we are. We check in on each other, no matter what. Our young men are growing into leaders faster than they ever have."
There are many examples of Wildcats going above and beyond.
In these crazy times, many Wildcats are striving for the Magis and using the down time to improve. Nick Velotta, Bennett Adler, Aidan Hubbard, Aidan Conway, AJ Gottschalk, and Nick Lamirand of the football team have been at almost every yoga sessions and are posting good numbers. Jon Effertz has led the charge with the basketball squad and Conway has ushered the Ice Cats along.
And of course, the men of Mike McLaughlin '85 are killing it after securing the program's ninth state title.
"The soccer guys continue to walk quietly with a big stick. They always do," Rubino says. "Their mentality is, 'Okay, Coach wants us to do X-Y-Z, let's go and do it.' Those guys have done a nice job of holding it and doing their thing. The football skill guys are also doing a nice job. Each position group has 1-2 liaisons in charge of the position group. When we come back, we'll have a lot of things we'll need to do before getting on the field. These guys will help to disseminate information, get to know our new guys, and move us forward."
Another key initative has been the distribution of heart rate monitors. Short and Rubino want to keep the Wildcats safe when they do return to the field, and prevent any heart problems.
"We distributed 59 chest strap heart rate monitors. We picked different guys in different sports who would be affected as soon as we return," Short says. "We chose mostly fall and winter athletes. We want to ensure that they were doing some conditioning. For example, we gave them to 8 or 9 soccer guys, who will wear them now and when they're back on the field. That way we can adjust workouts as we have data. During practice, we can tell Coach McLaughlin, 'These guys are working too hard and their heart rates are too high,' or, 'Their heart rates are down, let's ramp things up a bit.'"
Athletic Director Rory Fitzpatrick '88 is very appreciative of the duo's efforts.
"It's very tough to keep kids motivated when they're home a lot," says Fitzpatrick. "AJ and Anthony went above and beyond to reach out to these young men, to keep them connected and engaged. It's not the same as being in the weight room, but they are keeping the team culture alive and well. That's one of the most important functions that they fill. They fill a connection to Ignatius, which the kids are starving for. We have a lot of good people around here, and one of the best parts of my job is allowing those good people to do their thing and supporting them."
Another example of how Short and Rubino have gone above and beyond is their leadership with the wider community.
The duo has opened up yoga sessions to the Saint Ignatius community, particularly students, faculty, and staff. Short separated it into two sessions – slow flow and power flow. Combined, Short averages around 70 or so people per day of yoga.
"We wanted to be a resource for the whole community," Short said. "The parents saw the students doing yoga and wanted to become involved. It started with a couple of people and it's grown from there."
Parents are definitely enjoying it, as well.
"We just wanted to thank you for the yoga sessions. They are challenging! You talk about building a community and you definitely have succeeded," said Andrea and Andrew Conroy. "Please know you are also creating a very special weekly routine and memories for our family. We look forward to the workout and the time together. Will attends as many sessions as he can and is getting stronger every week. What you are doing is incredible. Thank you. This is so great for the boys and for our family."
"Thank you so much for leading the yoga classes! My son, Jackson is a freshman at Saint Ignatius," Kristen Gerber said in an email to Short. "I have done the classes as has Jackson, my husband and our other children at different times, so we appreciate what you are doing! I have been trying to increase the amount of yoga I do for the past couple of years and it has been a bright spot of the lockdown to be able to take your classes. You are great at what you do!"
Fitzpatrick is definitely impressed by his first-year employee.
"AJ's idea to open yoga to not only to student-athletes, but to faculty, staff, and parents was great," Fitzpatrick says. "That's great community building. What AJ and Anthony are doing is immeasurable."