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Michigan strength coach Ben Herbert adjusts to keep Wolverines going strong

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan strength coach Ben Herbert had some adjusting to do in mid-March when on-campus activities were suspended and spring football was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suddenly, the momentum he and the players had built during winter conditioning suffered a major jolt, as most of them went home to their families. And Herbert was left to navigate a world he never felt all that comfortable in if he was to help the players maintain workouts while facing a host of unknowns.

Michigan strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert says he had to adjust with leading training programs virtually.

“The first challenge was myself,” Herbert said Monday night on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show. “My mentality, I did not thrive in the virtual world, the texting, the calling, the computer, so to speak. I want to be with you. I want to feel in you in person. The mental vibe, the physical vibe, all the things we get on a daily basis.

“I found myself in the exact mindset that I despise of complaining, ‘How are we going to do it? What are we going to do? We can’t recreate.’ And I just said to myself, ‘Stop. All the things that you’re talking about, this one-on-one conversation with myself, you better flip the switch and you better do what you just said you didn’t want to do and that’s you’d better make it the best it can be.’ Literally, I had that brief conversation with myself, I got a hold of my staff, we got together and said we’re going to make this as unbelievable as we can make it. We’re going to control what we can control and we’re gonna create a dynamic interactive experience for our guys to be able to buy into, bite onto, and most importantly, get results from.”

Herbert said he his staff went to work and created a solution for not being able to work in-person with the players. There were Zoom calls, there were daily check-ins and players who didn’t have access to the state-of-art weight room at Michigan had to get creative to keep up with their workouts and send video proof.

“Once I had that initial conversation, got my mind right, staff-wise we came together and created an organized structure that I felt really good about for these guys day in and day out that was dialed in, that was detailed,” Herbert said. “It was sustainable. We could still be in that program. I didn’t know, was it going to be a week? It ended up being 92 days until we were back in the weight room and we rolled right through it. The longer we were in it, the better we got, and I was very proud of that.”

When the players returned to the football building for voluntary workouts in mid-June, Herbert said he threw his arms up to the sky, thankful for being able to get back to work in person with them.

They were able to stay in good shape away from structured training and they followed UM nutritionist Abigail O’Connor’s guidelines.

“Our guys did a great job of sustaining,” Herbert said. “The level of commitment and their attention to detail, what they displayed in the winter (conditioning) was really positive. Felt really good about it. They weren’t where we left off, but they weren’t far off (when they returned). We set that cycle and we trained Monday through Saturday. We got seven weeks of work in four weeks. By the time they go through that first 10 to 12 days, they were right back in rhythm and just feeding off each other, too. That was the cool part. They were hungry and they were ready and willing.”

Most at Michigan in leadership and coaching positions have said that many of the adjustments they’ve had to make in terms of virtual communication likely will carry over. Athletic director Warde Manuel has said he enjoys the efficiency of Zoom calls, and running backs coach Jay Harbaugh said they’ve seen some benefits in recruiting by going virtual and also having speakers address the team.

With COVID-19 protocols in place, Herbert said he modified the way he organized workouts so that players only worked with those they live with. The results, he said, were better than expected and this might be an approach he will use going forward.

“I’ve always structured training groups in the past based off position-specific, based off of class schedule, based off of offense or defensive side of the ball and a few more variations,” Herbert said on the radio show. “I’ve never structured training groups based off who you live with. Their training group was dictated by who they lived with. They only trained with their roommates. We had a few additions. Training groups were five to 10 guys. You had some houses of seven people and you had some singles, so we would add a single or a double to a group of five or six and that would create our group.

“The natural level of enthusiasm and that camaraderie that guys have, you’re choosing to live with someone because of the relationship you have, so that’s one. There’s a natural positive vibe to that. The second part is, your willingness to hold someone accountable that you’re really comfortable with is much higher, so the quality of work that was getting done and the level of competition amongst those groups was extremely high. The quality of work, the competition, that natural enthusiasm was at an all-time high. It was awesome. I never would have thought to do it like that.  There was no cross-contamination, so to speak. They were only exposed to that group of guys on a daily basis and that feeling that we had in and amongst the groups was pretty awesome.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis