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UK football embracing High Performance revolution

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Erik Korem is in his first year leading Kentucky football's High Performance program. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Erik Korem is in his first year leading Kentucky football's High Performance program. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This is the first of two stories on Erik Korem and the High Performance program he and Mark Stoops have brought to Kentucky football. Stay tuned next week to read about the international roots of the program and Korem's continual learning process.

Looking around Erik Korem's workspace, football isn't the first thing that comes to mind.

Other than a detailed report of a few pages he'll soon be presenting to his boss, his desk is clean. He scrolls through color-coded spreadsheets on the two monitors set up in front of him, but Korem talks of custom-built software that will eventually replace much of Microsoft Excel's everyday function. He uses phrases like "best practices" and "predictive models" sure to be repeated in board meetings inside skyscrapers in New York or Chicago.

But Korem works on the ground floor of the Nutter Training Center. His spreadsheets analyze the performance of Kentucky football players. His boss is Mark Stoops.

In essence, his office is the heart of the High Performance initiative taking over all facets of the program. With Korem - UK's High Performance Coach - leading the way, the goal is simple.

"What we want to do is make sure that, physiologically, they're at their optimal level," Korem said.

Simple as that guiding philosophy may be, putting it into practice is anything but.

To that end, Korem, his staff and his technology are involved in everything from strength and conditioning to developing practice plans to monitoring the sleeping and eating habits of UK student-athletes.

"What I am constantly investigating is: How do we get our guys ready?' " Korem said. "How do we monitor their state of readiness? Are they fatigued? Are they psychologically stressed? Are we overloading them? Where do we need to back off? Are we susceptible to injury?"

The program is the first of its kind in college athletics and even American sports, says Korem, but what's going on at UK didn't come together overnight. Korem began to apply sports-science principles when he was at Florida State and Stoops took note. When he was tabbed to become a head coach for the first time by UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, Stoops knew he wanted to bring Korem with him.

But as important as Korem may be to its execution, he makes it clear that High Performance is Stoops' baby.

"It's his brainchild," Korem said. "He's made it all possible. He's just letting me and my staff roll, which is fun."

The installation of the High Performance program has not been without its challenges. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot is the lone assistant on Stoops' staff to have worked with Korem, which made spring practice a training ground for coaches as much as players as they learned how to interact with Korem and the information he provides.

"This doesn't really happen any place where you've got this guy explaining to you about practice and why we need to back off or push this guy harder," Korem said. "That's a new concept. At first, there's a learning curve."

Over the last six months, Korem believes the learning curve has been scaled.

"I think everybody's getting really comfortable and they realize, number one, that this is Coach Stoops' idea; this isn't Erik Korem's idea," Korem said. "And then number two, I'm here to support them. I'm here to help support their decision-making, I'm here to help make them better coaches in any way I can. It's more about a servant attitude than it is me telling people what to do. That's not what it's about. It's about serving our coaches and serving our players."

In many ways, Korem's primary function with the coaching staff is to be a funnel. He has a wealth of data at his disposal, but he knows there is such a thing as too much information.

"We just have very simple things so these coaches can make fast decisions," Korem said. "That's the whole deal: You can have all the information in the world, but if you can't make a quick decision off of it, you're wasting your time."

For example, Korem is developing a stop-light system for coaches to use in practice to protect against injuries. If a player is designated green, he's good for full-speed work. Yellow means the player should be treated with caution.

As for educating the players, Korem is taking a slow and steady approach.

"We don't want to overload our guys with questionnaires or things to do after training," Korem said. "We start with a couple things to get them really comfortable and have them master that. And then we move on and add another little piece."

During the summer, coaches are prohibited from working with players, but not Korem. Not everyone may like the NCAA rules that limit practice time, but Korem believes they benefit student-athletes.

"This is a superior model in my opinion," Korem said, referencing the international sports programs that have inspired much of what is being installed at UK. "They need a time where they can purely focus on biological development: power output, getting healthy."

Korem is certainly taking advantage of that time. He has devised 12 different training programs tailored to fit different positional groups. Beyond that, workouts are customized further based on individual injury history and a number of other factors.

"Our linebackers don't train the way our quarterbacks train," Korem said. "There's some crossover, but that's why we have all these different groups."

Always looking to put High Performance tenets into more accessible terms, Korem has a come up with a metaphor to describe what he wants to accomplish in the summer months.

"I tell the guys we're developing bigger batteries, so we're going to go from triple-As to Ds," Korem said. "And then we want to develop a bigger and better gas tank. June is more about the battery and July is about the gas tank."

The battery part of the process is about improving maximum outputs in terms of power, speed and strength. In July, the Cats will work on their capacity to repeat.

Korem likes the way the student-athletes have embraced that message.

"We want these guys to take ownership of it, because it's not really what happens in the two hours they're with us; it's what happens in the 22 hours they're not with us," Korem said. "I want them to be their own coaches."

"They've done an awesome job. I couldn't be more proud of these guys because we come in with all these sweeping changes and telling them we want them to eat this way and eat that way. They have latched on and they have carried the ball and done well with it."

By doing that, Korem believes the Cats are positioning themselves for improvement on the field.

"We're going to push these guys hard, we're going to work them very hard, but we're going to work them very intelligently," Korem said. "I think that's the beauty behind what we do: We're maximizing what we've got."

Accordingly, Korem sees himself as executing the latter half of Stoops' "Recruit and Develop" mantra, but his High Performance endeavors have been a factor in UK's unprecedented success on the trail too. Visiting recruits might not want to comb through spreadsheets with Korem, but they can't help but be impressed when they stop by his office.

"They love it," Korem said. "We offer something nobody else offers, we really do. They come in and we'll show them things we're doing and they don't see this anywhere else. It's exciting for them."

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3 Comments

As a teacher I ask my students, "If you are made of what you eat, would you rather be made of steak and salad or of Twinkies and potato chips?"

Interesting article!

Is there a program like this for other sports like soccer?

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Recent Comments

  • Guy Ramsey: Good question. Football is the only one of UK's teams to employ high performance concepts to this extent, but others read more
  • Rick Underwood: Is there a program like this for other sports like soccer? read more
  • Steve in Dayton UKFBFAN: As a teacher I ask my students, "If you are made of what you eat, would you rather be made read more