In football, it’s often said, “The games to remember are won in November.” Playoff hopes are forged and heroes are born during those cold nights after Halloween. However, to get there, you must survive the week.
That’s where Portland State’s success on the field can be traced to – the work that no one sees. The early morning weight-room, afternoon practices, and school work that fans don’t see. Saturday may be game day, but the real work begins six days earlier.
There is no more important time for Vikings’ football players than Sunday afternoons. That’s when they get to take a swim. Andrew Pompei, head Strength and Conditioning coach for the team, is the man charged with keeping players strong, both mentally and physically. He leads the charge in the weight room, heads up nutrition, and pushes players through hot summer workouts. Today, he gets to be a lifeguard. The players may be in a pool, but it’s far from a leisurely affair. They’re here to work, rehab, and get ready for next week.
“We spend about 40 minutes in the pool – swimming, skipping, jumping, and kicking. This is done to maintain range of motion in most of the larger joints, and decrease the amount of force or impact.”
Pool periods are designed to transition the players from one game to the next, in more ways than one.
“We also want to get the blood circulating; to flush out any soreness or unwanted bi-products from the game.”
“Flushing out” is a must. No matter how a player feels, they know that the following Saturday, they must be ready to do it all again… And again. And again. Having been a collegiate player himself at Coe College, Pompei knows what his players are feeling. He also knows how to keep it going throughout the season.
“Being the strongest, fastest, or whatever, only matters if you are those things in the playoffs. No different than being as good or better in the fourth quarter as the first.”
Classes, girlfriends, and family – all these obstacles can impair a player’s focus. That’s where strong leadership comes in. A typical day in the life of a football player involves a litany of obligations: lifting, practice, film study, classes and homework. It’s a balancing act that requires self-control. It also requires leadership, something this year’s team has in spades. Jaycob Shoemaker, a senior linebacker, is the team’s vocal leader, on and off the field. He knows how easy it is to get off course.
“The main distraction is outsiders. If you’re winning the games, everyone loves you, but the moment you aren’t winning, everyone one has something bad to say…”
He takes it upon himself to keep the team focused, “I try and make sure that the next game is the most important one to us. Always reminding [us] that it’s important to not look past the present.”
A season can derail quickly if there’s a void in leaders. When things go south, it takes a group to keep everyone in check, and keep the locker room together. For Shoemaker, and the rest of this year’s senior class, they know time is running out, and their voices are more important than ever.
“It’s a lot easier to stay focused ’cause you can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The steps down to the weight room are long and ominous; gray brick walls line the hallways, a dingy floor squeaks and creeks as the players scamper in half asleep, no matter the time of day. One look inside tells you all you need to know about the mind frame of PSU football: Work hard, skip the frills. There’s no fancy equipment, no plush juice bars, no massage tables. Squat racks, Olympic lift areas and dumbbells line the walls. There are no distractions. No excuses.
During the season, players lift twice a week, usually Tuesdays and Thursdays. They lift at varying points of the day, depending on their school schedule. They come in shifts, some as early as 6 am. If a player doesn’t lift in the morning, they lift after practice. Big lifting sessions are put to the side. This is about keeping players healthy, preventing injuries, and rehabbing existing ones. It’s as much mental as it is physical.
“If they’re feeling good, they will believe in their abilities. It’s when the body is really hurting that most of the kids will start to pull back, and it’s much less likely that they will perform at their highest level.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t put in the work. According to Shoemaker, Saturdays are the easiest of the week. “During weights we try and get after it making sure we get all the hard work in. Due to how much we get after it on those other six days, game days are easy.”
The Vikings sit at 6-4 on the year, a marked improvement from last seasons 3-8 campaign. There is more leadership, more talent, and more of a purpose. In his fourth season on the job, Pompei has learned how to get players in the right frame of mind.
“If you can get the players to buy in and work as hard as possible all the time, you will be see results no matter what you have them doing.”
Riding a three-games winning streak, the Vikings have put themselves in the post-season conversation. Staying focused and finishing strong, every day of the week, is the difference between success and failure. In his office inside the Stott Center, Pompei exudes confidence. His attitude is infectious, his message clear.
“I’m always telling our guys, we have to continue to get better in all aspects. That we can not be satisfied with success if we are on a win streak, and that we have to have pride to dig ourselves out of a hole if we have lost a game or two.”
Whether it’s the pool, weight or film room, players have many ways to improve. And they better take advantage of them. There are, after all, only six days until Saturday.