Early Freshman year I was introduced to the person who would become the bain of my existence for the duration of my college basketball career. His name was Coach Fitzgerald, and he had taken over the previous spring as head strength and conditioning coach. To say he was a stocky 6’1 would not do the man justice. He was more boulder than man, 250 pounds of barrel chested meathead. He kept his hair short and his neck shorter. His posture was fit for a man who played high level college football and presumably spent the rest of his years perfecting the deep squat and hang clean. The first experience I ever had with him would prove to be a good foreshadowing of what our relationship would be like for the duration of my basketball career. I went into the weight room with my teammate Evan in order to get acquainted with everything. I also wanted to consult with Coach Fitz about something that was going on in my knee, because at this time I was naive enough to think he knew what he was talking about. As we were performing our squat reps I asked him to listen to my knee. Each time I bent down to squat there was an audible pop or clicking noise. I was disconcerted. Coach Fitz could have cared less.
“Don’t worry about it, it’s nothing.” This “nothing” was a precursor to debilitating tendonosis that would cripple me for much of my junior year, but no big deal right? This was a brief and telling introduction to the bizarre world of Mr. Craig Fitzgerald. Take what you know about sane, reasonable weightlifting and throw it out the window. This was going to be a whole different level of craziness. Coach Fitz had little concern for such things as rest, recovery, or fatigue. If you were not going all out all the time, then you were going to be in the doghouse. This is a fine philosophy to have if you design a workout that suits your players needs. Coach Fitz did not design a workout that suited his players needs. He had one lifting sheet he gave to all of us, and this was often the exact same sheet that the football or hockey team used. The three sports could not be more different, but designing a specific program for each sport would have been way too much for his feeble mind to grasp. (some things his mind could grasp: handing out protein bars, yelling, running stadium stairs.)
One story highlighting Coach Fitz’s unique brand of intensity came in the weeks spent preparing for my first ever collegiate game. We were playing Vermont, and Coach Fitz repeatedly mentioned how he had some sort of prior relationship with the Vermont strength coach, and how he really wanted us to get the win. These feelings came pouring out when a couple players were reacting too slow in moving their bench press bar in order to adjust the height of the support beams. The bar was loaded with a 45 pound plate on each side. In order to expedite the process for the players involved, Coach Fitz marched over and grabbed the weight so that the crash bars could be put in place. He then began beasting out curl after curl and yelling “Ya! You think the Vermont Coach can do this!? No way the Vermont coach can do this!” There is no doubt that the Vermont coach could not do as many reps curling 135 pounds as the man I saw before me. Problem was, Coach Fitz let this macho, you-are-only-as-good-as-how-much-weight-you-can-throw-around mentality drive his whole approach to training athletes.
The lifts would generally start off with 10-15 minutes of rigorous abdominal work. I’m not talking “do a hundred crunches then go stretch” I’m talking “we are going to be lying on this floor until you all are crying and it’s going to hurt your abs every time you sneeze for the next week.” The ab session would always end with us having to perform some diabolical exercise involving keeping our legs up in the air for an undetermined amount of time. This would quickly degenerate from working the abs to straining the back, until there was pain everywhere and you forgot what you were training in the first place. Fitz truly thought these exercises were making us stronger in spite of any pain we were feeling. If anyone’s legs hit the floor that was grounds for starting over, and there would be times were we would work on our core for half an hour.
Even worse was when he would farm out the ab responsibilities, or any activity for that matter, to one of his many “interns.” Now, I don’t know who would ever want to learn from Coach Fitz, or what path you have to be on in life to be a 25 year old, unpaid member of a low level divison 1 strength and conditioning staff. What I do know is that these people tried with all their might to get into Coach Fitz’s good graces. They talked like him, dressed like him, and I swear a few actively tried to look like him. Maybe being squat and burly is just the ideal body type for strength coaches. These guys seized any responsibility thrown their way with such vigor and enthusiasm you would think they were auditioning for a starring role in the upcoming film “Who Can Possibly Inflict More Pain on the Harvard Athlete than Craig Fitzgerald?” This was truly their moment in the sun. They screamed in your face. They slapped you on the back. And boy did they put you to work. A simple set of medicine ball pushups became an inquisition, and they were determined to catch someone whose chest did not touch the ball, or whose knee grazed the ground. The worst part was that at the end of every intern-run session Coach Fitz forced us to give them a round of applause. How humiliating, to have to praise the one who inflicts so much pain and suffering.
All staff offered one of these pieces of tried and true Coach Fitz approved advice, no matter the exercise or circumstance:
1. “Get lower!!!” –The absolute, hands down favorite phrase of anyone working in the weight room. It was suitable for any excercise involving a squatting motion. Their determination to make you get as low as possible was never swayed by wobbly knees, grossly hunched over backs, or even the occasional person who would simply crumble to the floor while being forced into an unnatural position with so much weight on their shoulders. If it were possible for me to do a squat where I somehow was able to sit, then lie directly on the floor, then raise back up, I think the coaches would die and go to strength coach heaven. (Strenght coach heaven by the way, features bodybuilders instead of angels. All the clouds are equipped with squat racks, the only chairs are plyo balls, and every meal is made with at least 3 servings of creatine.)
2. “One more rep!!!”– It did not matter if you had just completed 25 curls at the end of a 3 exercise circuit, if someone approached you when they could tell it was toward the end of a set, you were in trouble. They would stand behind you and plead “Cmon! You’ve got one more in you! Don’t stop now! get it get it get it GETTTTTT IT!!!” It is hard to suppress the urge to ask them whether they truly, in their hearts believed that me performing one more rep of some ridiculous tricep pulldown was going to make me a better basketball player.
3. “Push through it!!”– It seemed to me that the general, overarching goal of the strength training staff was to make sure at least twice a lift you were in a position that would cause an epic physical struggle. If it was clearly causing you intense, unnatural pain, then all the better. Then, once you had successfully been motivated to attempt that 8th rep of 195 on the bench, the staff kicked into action. As you lay on that bench, writhing with effort, back arched so high you could kick a soccer ball through it, feet splayed out in all directions, the person in charge of your lift would inevitably implore you to “Push harder!” and “Give it everything you have!” or sometimes to “See the White Buffalo!” (I never figured out what this meant, but it was a Coach Fitz favorite. I think it had something to do with exerting yourself so hard your mind just goes blank white. Sounds healthy, huh?”
4. “98% of small businesses fail! If you want to be small, that’s your business!”— This sums up another of the tenets of Harvard Strength and Conditioning. Bigger is ALWAYS better. Massive biceps and calves are not traits you particularly need or want as a basketball player, yet you can bet we spent hour upon hour doing heavy curls and calf raises. I don’t particularly need a giant back to succeed on the court, but did that stop the onslaught of lat pulldowns? No. Me, and most kids on the team, quickly bulked up once we began this program. Coach Fitz must have been encouraged by my increasing maxes in the main lifts. Yet, my athleticism plummeted. Not really the results you are looking for if you are a strength coach with an iota of sense.
4. “Use proper form! Listen to your body! Do a sport specific exercise!”— Ha, just kidding. Anyone uttering those words would have been instantly banished from the premises.
Each session had 3 main lifts. All three had 2-3 “supersets” of another exercise that you were to complete while your partner was performing the main set. The 3 main lifts were always some combination of deep heavy squats, deep heavy front squats, hang cleans, cleans from the floor, bench press and incline press. Not a lot of variation there. All involve putting your body into unnatural positions and heaving a metal bar with all your might. The supersets would be anything from pullups to bicep curls to jumping excercises. The amount of reps was always in excess of what was necessary, and there was always an intern watching you and screaming encouragement. The problem was, as mentioned before, their only “encouragement” was to get lower, work harder, or do more reps. There was never talk about tweaking something because of how you felt, or asking how your body was responding to the workout. It was a one size fits all program, except it fit no one save for maybe a few defensive lineman.
The worst of all the days was when we had to do the “Green Mile.” This entailed gripping two fat, rubber 45 pound plates, one in each hand. It took all your forearm strength to be able to hold them without the weight dropping. You then had to march with these weights in your hands for the length of a hallway that ran adjacent to the weight room, which had to have been about 75 yards. Almost no one could make it the whole way without dropping the weights, especially the guards with smaller hands. One player became a pro at dropping the weight in such a way that they continued to roll for 10-15 feet before stopping, thus saving him a precious few steps. My favorite memory of this workout was one afternoon when Erik was completing his second set of the green mile at the end of a brutal workout. The rest of the team had painfully trudged across the finish line, and we were all now waiting on Erik to finish. He was making painfully slow progress, dropping the weight after every step. It got to the point where he could just budge the weight enough to move it an inch or so forward, but no more. Finally, when he was literally 6 inches from the finish line, he could no longer move the plates. He would place his hands on the weight and strain with every fiber of his being, and they were not going anywhere. So, the whole team stood there cheering Erik on for 5 solid minutes just watching him struggle. People were imploring him to “Just pick em up. Just move um!” as if he wasn’t struggling for the last 10 minutes to do just that. We were not allowed to help Erik, he was in this struggle by himself. Eventually it became such a ridicolus spectacle that Erik threw the weights down on their side, thus technically making them cross the finish line. That was an acceptable conclusion for Coach Fitz, and we were finally released from the weight room.
Even worse days were when we had to not only complete the green mile holding the weights, but also had to do it lunging every step while holding a 45 pound plate overhead. Talk about brutal. By the end of the sequence you feel like every joint in your lower body is about to snap off. One particular day we had a circuit consisting of the green mile lunging, followed by heavy bicep curls, followed by wheelbarrowing your partner around the weightroom. That is exactly what it sounds like. One person would hold the legs of another and march them around the weightroom like it was a goddamn county fair. And it wasn’t easy!
Coming soon: The 2 showdowns (Guest Starring Stacie the trainer!)