Archive for February, 2011

Lessons from Super Bowl XLV

Posted: February 12, 2011 in General

The Green Bay Packers Super Bowl victory culminated 3 years of clear and decisive decision-making. General manager Ted Thompson, head coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers stuck to a mission and reached the ultimate goal for an NFL team – a Super Bowl ring. It was not an easy path. Here were my 3 observations from Green Bay’s Super Bowl triumph.

Leaders often have to make tough and unpopular decisions to reach the big prize. In 2008, Coach Mike McCarthy became engaged in a controversial struggle with Brett Favre, when the quarterback decided to back out of his announced retirement. The Green Bay Packers are a storied franchise, and other than Vince Lombardi, no one Packer was more legendary than Favre. Favre felt entitled to his old starting position, but McCarthy had moved on and was grooming Aaron Rogers as the future quarterback. GM Ted Thompson backed his head coach. It was certainly not a popular decision with the fans in Green Bay. Ultimately, the Packers traded Favre to the Jets for a 4th round draft pick. This was a very unpopular decision that took conviction and guts by the Green Bay organization. McCarthy and Thompson had a plan and they believed that Aaron Rodgers, who had been Favre’s back up for the past couple years was their man. McCarthy was willing to take the criticism, realizing that if he failed, he would probably lose his shot at being a head coach. Despite his unproven pedigree, Aaron Rodgers was Thompson and McCarthy’s choice to lead their team. I am sure they had to convince not only the fans and media, but also veterans on the team. After two seasons as a starter, Rogers has developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. The rest is history. Lesson: Believe in your plan, deflect criticism and hit your target.

Mental toughness is as or no more important than physical abilities. In 2008, Aaron Rodgers replaced Brett Favre as starting quarterback with the Packers. The weight and pressure of replacing a “legend” must have been immense; from his teammates, media and fans. Denver has never been able to replace John Elway. Miami has not replaced Dan Marino. I am sure that the prospects that tried to replace these quarterbacks faltered partly due to the pressure. Rogers was sacked over 50 times in 2009 and suffered through two mediocre seasons from a record standpoint. His quarterback rating was good, but I am sure he was hearing the grumbles. This is a team sport and your record defines you. In 2010 Favre was now playing for divisional rival Minnesota. I am sure this created even more pressure for Aaron Rodgers.

The gamble on Aaron Rodgers paid off last week. He did not crumble under the pressure of his “inheritance” or the big game. He also showed class by not reminding every one of their lack of faith in him when he took Favre’s place as the field general of the Packers. He accepted the Super Bowl and MVP trophy with class. Lesson: Mental toughness and focus rule. Throw in a dose of humility, and you have a champion.

No one player is more important than the team. This is true in sports and just about any endeavor that requires a group for overall success. Brett Favre is a sure bet, first ballot hall of fame player, but unfortunately his last few seasons will be remembered for his selfishness. Putting himself and his ego above the team. Don’t get me wrong, the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings are partly to blame. They let him get away with it. McCarthy and Thompson called his bluff after he had “unretired” on the Packers in 2007. His teams did not know who to draft, how to set up their offenses, and practice repetition was limited due to his showing up for training camp late. The Jets and the Vikings sacrificed long-term success for possible short-term outcomes. One player effected multiple decisions. Ultimately, the Packers moved on and they have the trophy and the ring. Lesson: Individual goals are important, but they have to match the overall team concept and mission.


For all that have forgotten, I am a sports performance coach/physiologist and athletic director at Joe Gibbs Racing. My job consists of recruiting, training and engineering fast pit stops. Simple. How I got to where I am today is covered in this new blog. I hope to update a couple times per month. Bear with my writing skills. I am an awful writer. I will get better. It is a goal.



Memorial Day 2004.  I was enjoying a great late spring Carolina day with my beautiful daughter. Other than the “flu like” symptoms I was feeling, I was having a great time.  Along with the fatigue and malaise was an aching in my right leg. I had done a pretty running session on the treadmill the day before, but this felt different from a typical muscle strain. Over the next 72 hours, I would find out that these symptoms were more than the flu and aching muscles.

I was 48 years old and not really a competitive athlete anymore, but had been cross training and using weights a lot for the first time in my life. I came from a team sport background in baseball and soccer when I was young. In my 20’s, I transitioned to being an endurance athlete and also windsurfed quite a bit. Running and cycling became popular and I became a pretty good middle distance runner, with an occasional sub 16 minute 5k times not uncommon. In my thirties, cycling became my sport of choice. I was never that good at it, but I was passionate about it. I put in lots of miles on my bike over a 15-year period.

In 2003, cross training in the gym became more conducive to my lifestyle, which included much travel for my coaching practice. I had clients all over the Carolinas, and met many of them at gyms that I contracted with. Why not take advantage of this type of training environment? I had been and endurance training junky for years, and had been taught that, if you had time, cardio was what you did. Strength training was secondary. I started to change my thinking on the mix of cardio and strength training. As we age, we lose muscle tissue. I noticed a difference and I liked it.  I felt better and my weight was easier to control. I had never understood how easy it was to put on weight despite all the miles of predominantly aerobic exercise.  This more balanced training approach was one of the first self-experiments on the effectiveness of my training, and in what I prescribe for my athletes today.

While I worked with and partnered with medical doctors over the years, I prided myself (not good) in never seeing them professionally. Other than seasonal allergies and some sinus issues, 46 years had been pretty event free. Other than some Achilles tendon issues, I don’t even get nagging injuries.

Two days after that Memorial Day in 2004, I found myself in the hospital with a 104 fever and my right leg purple and swollen to nearly twice its size. Red streaks ran up the inside of my leg towards my groin area. IVs poured powerful antibiotics into my system to stem, what was apparently a serious infection; MRSA, a type of staph infection that has become common in the last 20 years. Since I was working out in a lot of gyms, it probably entered my system via a blister on my foot from a dirty locker room floor. I had never been admitted to a hospital in my life. I helped design services for them, visited people in them, managed people in them, but never on the “victim” side of the IV.  I was not in control of the situation and very scared in a way that I had never felt. . The doctor told me that they had started the IV just in time to save my life.

I have experienced my share of success/failure cycles that come with life. I was enjoying the journey, but this incident was the beginning of a passage that I did not expect. Being sick and not in control. Two weeks out of the hospital and the color to my leg was returning, but it was still very swollen. It looked horrible to me. The right leg was appreciably bigger than the left. I figured it would go away, but my doctors told me that, by delaying getting into the hospital, I may have destroyed the lymphatic tracks to that leg, and swelling would be something I would deal with the rest of my life. It could be managed and not painful, but would not completely go away. At the time, that did not bother me very much. What was a little swelling? I could deal with it. They were wrong about the pain part too.

Summer 2004 to 2009. An hour after getting up every morning, (see foot below)  I would need another size shoe on my right foot! By the end of the day, the swelling was up to my knee. Prescription level compression stockings were helpful, but a difficult to put on every day. Diuretics helped, but I started having cramps all the time. The socks hurt more than the swelling. Both treatments were discarded.  I was told I could exercise again, but an atypical fatigue also set in. I was not recovering from workouts.  I was told this could be side effect of the illness, and it could last indefinitely. The “patient” end of medical care was frustrating me. I hated it. I stopped viewing myself as an athlete. I started to view myself as a victim. I started to understand what I had been failing to recognize and acknowledge for years – being a patient can suck. Maybe this was pay back for my impatience with patients/clients over the years.

I began to get horribly out of shape. I decided to bury myself in my work and ignore my health. I had begun consulting at Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) in Charlotte. Traveling from Chapel Hill, to Greensboro, to Charlotte, sometimes all in one day. 5 am to midnight on many days. I made other people better at the expense of my own health.

JGR made me a full-time offer in 2006 to help improve the human performance side of their motorsports programs. Specifically, improve pit crew performance. I accepted. I had always followed motorsports, and had done some consulting work with Humpy Wheeler back in the 80s. Humpy was working different programs related to driver and crew fitness. Way ahead of his time! I also enjoyed the atmosphere at JGR. They were innovative. I liked that.

Over the next 3 years, we started to enjoy some real success on our pit crews. The changes I brought came with much work and time. I enjoyed the challenge of week-to-week competition. Mentoring and coaching made me happy. Problem solving with a measurable weekly outcomes was a great high. I still ignored my health and at the end of workdays and especially the weekly races I worked, my leg and foot would swell to nearly twice its size. I figured if I ignored it, it would get better. How often had I seen and heard that from patients and athletes?

September 2009. I decided to fix the past 3 years of sedentary living in one day, by riding my mountain bike on the easy JGR mountain bike trail. I had denied my being fat and out of shape, and I was going to solve it starting that day. Funny, my athletes and patients had argued with me over the years that I could not “identify” with them. I did not understand how hard it was to “comply” with my programs. I had never been fat and out of shape. They were right. I now understood, and would even more at the end of this day.

Before I go on, I need to relate this special story to help put my current situation in perspective. My past work had included many years working in cardiology. I had directed non-invasive cardiology programs; cardiac rehab programs and helped develop a heart program for a hospital. I had administered thousands of cardiac stress tests and watched thousands of hours of cardiac ECG monitor tapes. I could identify and read cardiac arrhythmias in my sleep. Cardiac arrhythmias and physiology is how I got involved in pro cycling years before. I had helped pro cyclist Bobby Julich identify his arrhythmia and he subsequently finished 3rd in the Tour de France. I had cyclists from Europe calling me for help. Type RSVT (re-entrant supraventricular tachycardia) into the Google search engine and an article I wrote on it years ago is still the number one hit. This article resulted in hundreds of requests for information on this condition from athletes and patients around the world. It was amazing. We helped a lot of people with this condition seek help and proper care.

Stive Vermaut was a Belgian pro cyclist referred to me by Bobby and pro cyclist George Hincapie in 2002.  This was not uncommon. My colleagues and I had helped resurrect pro cyclist Nico Mattan’s career a few years’ earlier following an arrhythmia diagnosis. Stive was on the US Postal Cycling team with George and Lance Armstrong. He had been on a routine training ride and noticed his heart rate suddenly skyrocket to over 230 beats per minute (on his heart rate monitor.) He felt lightheaded. Medical studies indicated cardiac arrhythmia and he was forced to delay his career until a possible procedure could be performed to possibly fix it. He came to the US for a consult with our cardiologists and me. Unlike Bobby Julich and Nico Mattan, his condition was not repairable at that time. Stive had a hard time with this. He had devoted his whole life to his craft. He had a wife and they were expecting a child. Stive wanted to ride and continue to race. A few months later, Stive passed away while training on his bicycle. I was devastated, but understood why he could not stop riding. Stive could not identify with being “sick” He was a world-class athlete. He was in denial, which is very typical of athletes with health issues or injuries. His passing should have been a lesson for me.

I made one lap on the mountain bike. My heart rate monitor showed 170 beats per minute. In my fitter days it would not have broken 100 beats per minute. I was embarrassed by my horrible lack of fitness. What happened next, I probably can’t definitively say. I was on the ground. I sat up very light headed. My heart rate was well over 220 on my Polar monitor. How long had I lain there? 10 seconds? 2 minutes? I knew this must be serious because I had felt some “extra heart beats” right before falling. We all have them occasionally and I thought: No big deal, I was probably a bit dehydrated. But with my background, I knew was possibly a sustained arrhythmia. Maybe it was benign. The heat caused it. Maybe I was dehydrated. Yes, that’s it. No big deal. Denial would be my only friend on this one. How could I possibly have the condition I had come to be known for helping other people with?

I went inside and showered. I would try to forget about this episode. It can’t be serious. I had seen many elite athletes with heart issues. How could I at 53, living such an exemplary, healthy lifestyle have anything wrong with me? How powerful are the thought processes of denial and rationalization? I have a race to travel to tomorrow. I can’t think about this. No doctors for me.

I finished the season 2009 with no more issues, but I really never pushed myself physically. I know I was chronically dehydrated and sleep deprived. I could not show weakness. That’s the racers way. That’s what they call it in this business. Being a “racer”. All sports have their term for it: Being a “gamer”. It’s probably very dysfunctional. Look what Jay Cutler is going through. His leg could have been hanging off by a string, but even his peers ridiculed him.

Spring 2010. I had to get a physical and I had been noticing more and more “extra heart beats”, especially at night. Some tests confirmed what I knew. I still refused to do anything about it. The season had started and I was on a mission to

I am going to leave out most of the 2010 season. I basically played Russian roulette with my life from about June 2010 to December. I was luckier than Stive. I repressed any possible consequences of the denial I was in. I was being very selfish and foolish.

December 2010. Lets just say I am fixed for now. I have a clean bill of health, other than the obvious obesity and sleep deprivation.  That’s all I will say. Arrhythmias often take people in their sleep, so I did not get much sleep in 2010. I was not going to be attacked in my sleep! I did come to a conclusion that sleep was overrated for me though. I had also avoided exercise of any kind after that day on the mountain bike in 2009. Stive had died exercising. Those were poor excuses. My diet had turned into a disaster. I ate anything and everything. I guess it made me feel better. Well, I had the clearance. I’m ready.

In late December 2011, I embarked on a 6-month plan of self-experimentation in the arena of personal health and performance improvement. I was motivated by a lot of things. Tim Ferris’s new book showed me a lot of things that I have personally observed as a physiologist and coach over the years. I am going to implement some self experiments based on some of my personal observations from 30 years as a “prescriber”. I would not simply just follow unquestioned research. Hey, I have learned something from 30 years. What had worked for me over the years? What had not? Had I been prejudiced by what I was coming to believe was a crappy and biased “system and industry”, afraid to push the limits for fear of being ostracized? Well, after living in fear for a year, I am no longer going to let that stop me.

Over the next year, I will document my experiences as I start to follow the programs I have previously prescribed for others along with some new stuff. I will either succeed or fail, but will enjoy the journey. I always do.

I believe the lifestyle I live, as a coach in a professional sport, is very hazardous. I know it is. The coaching lifestyle is littered with terrible heath stories. Cancer, heart disease, and anything stress can be associated with. This landscape will provide a challenge. I love what I do. I am passionate about it. I want to do it for a long time.

Hopefully other may benefit from my stories and future blogs. It is tough to admit shortcomings, but I am feeling good about it.  There are more lessons on what not to do already revealed. Don’t do what I did! I was wrong and selfish to ignore and deny the health issues I dealt with. I did have people who helped me through it all and I believe that’s why I am still here despite my stupidity.

Update: Phase 1 of my program was a low glycemic/slow carb diet revision with little or no exercise for 30 days. I also started a very selective supplement program, which I will talk about in a later blog. Full exercise training starts the last week of January. The diet alone has resulted in 17 lbs. of weight loss. I have been prescribing low glycemic eating programs since 2003. After years of the “fat consumption will kill you”, I switched to this approach with both clients/patients and athletes. There is no question that this type of eating has produced the best results for health and weight control for me and with my athletes. There are many approaches to a slow carb/low glycemic diet, and none of them include the Atkins type diet that most people associate with them. More specifics later.

Coming soon:

  • The goals
  • The first 60 days- what am I doing? Eating, training, supplements
  • Week in the life
  • The role of tech in getting better
  • Why can’t we remain children
  • Human performance and motorsports

Ankle and foot post race 2009. It hurt a bit.

Life in 2010. Not any more.

February 2011