Training the Military Elite

Photo Credit: Robb Rogers

Coach Robb Rogers has been a coach in the private and public sectors of the strength and conditioning world since 1980. A Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa) Master Coach and the recipient of the 1996 Coach of the Year award, he’s worked with elite level athletes in all sports as well as our military and Special Forces.
Robb began his career as a strength coach during his senior year at Missouri State University and has been a recognized international speaker and consultant in the fitness industry since 1985. In 2010, Robb began work to revamp training methods and in-service education for all law enforcement officers at the state academies. The owner of the Performance Fitness Center in Colorado Springs, CO as well as, Rogers currently trains Special Forces for the military.
ATLX went in depth with Robb as he compared the training of the military’s elite to the training of collegiate and Olympic competitors. How to train an athlete when the battle’s endgame depends on the enemy instead of the game clock.

ATLX: Coach Rogers, do you have a foundation or philosophy on which you base your coaching and training, drawn from your years of experience working with elite athletes, military Special Forces and everyday athletes?

Rogers: My philosophy starts with asking myself, whom am I training? Do they have a training age of one, or have they been training for ten years? Are they strong and highly mobile, or are they not fit and this is a first time experience for them? So, that’s one layer. The next layer is their ultimate mission, or what are they training for? In my work with the military and the Special Forces, those individuals train for a different mission than a player getting ready for a game or a season. And then the next layer is: what are their limitations? They may have an old injury. They may not be very strong yet. They may not be very experienced yet. The final layer is determining the tools they need to acquire in order to be successful in whatever endeavor that they’re going to pursue.

ATLX: You’ve trained so many different kinds of athletes, from sports like football and baseball, to, as noted, the military and Special Forces. Can you give me an overview of the people and teams you’ve worked with?

Rogers: The people and teams I’ve worked with have mostly been at a high level of university sports. I’ve been able to work with Olympians, All-Pros, first-round draft picks and All-Americans in a variety of sports. I have also worked with people off the street who, for example, want to lose weight, get fit, or get a better golf swing. These folks aren’t necessarily competitive athletes and don’t play for pay, but enjoy participating in sports and doing those kinds of things.

What’s been interesting to me is seeing the commonalities. From a Special Forces individual, to an Olympian, to an athlete who I watch grow from a freshman to a senior. The commonalities of those high achieving athletes are remarkably similar across the sports spectrum. It’s that mindset of being a high achiever, of being highly competitive, of having quality, positive self-talk. I see that from person to person across those different athletic realms.

ATLX: Do you see more similarities among these elite level athletes than we would think?

Rogers: Yes. The difference lies in the discipline it takes to be successful in the sport, and then the demands of that particular sport. For instance, the Special Forces or military personnel need to cover a lot of ground. So, short-burst training is for them – 100 yards is a short burst of action for them, or 150 meters, that kind of thing. Running that far is nothing for those guys. But then turn around and look at basketball where the court is only 94-feet long. That’s 31 yards and a foot. So sprinting from end to end in basketball becomes more important. With a football lineman on his second step, he’s engaging someone. So, running for more than 10, 15, 20 yards at a time for a lineman raises the question, why? Why do I need to do that? It very rarely happens.

The demands of the sport dictate a lot of the training regimen, but it is also the special qualities inside the athlete that sets them apart. I remember seeing one of our collegiate athletes, Mark Carrier, who is now coaching in the NFL. Mark was an all-American and a first-round draft pick by the Chicago Bears and made All-Pro in his first year. So during one game, Mark comes off the field after making an interception and everyone is high-fiving him, but he’s just looking down. I asked him later, what were you thinking about as you came off the field? And he replied, I was replaying the play in my head. So, for such elite athletes, it’s about replay and mental preparation. They’re playing the game against themselves. They want it to be to their level, to their expectations, not what’s expected of them, but what they expect of themselves. Elite athletes, like Mark, are internally motivated.

ATLX: That’s something I’ve noticed about elite athletes as opposed to everyday athletes or weekend warriors. It’s more of a mental game, more of a head game for these elite athletes. They’re competing more with themselves than with anyone else. Do you work with these guys on their mental game?

Rogers: Not in my work with the Special Forces because they’re already selected and pre-exposed to that. They actually go through a selection process where, if you’re not mentally tough in the first place, you won’t make it. I was privileged to be around Michael Johnson while he prepared for the ’96 Olympics. I was not one of Michael’s coaches, but I observed Michael prepare for the ’96 Olympics when he set a World Record in the 200 meters and also won the Gold Medal in the 400 meters. People don’t usually think of track and field athletes as tough. But Michael Johnson was one of the toughest athletes because of the discipline it takes to run the event, to prepare, to work out day in and day out in the Texas heat, to travel, to be in the weight room working out and to be on the track working out. Michael didn’t miss. Michael outworked his opponents and, as he grew in his experience and his expertise, he had the work capacity to handle all those races he ran in Atlanta in ’96. And to watch him prepare and watch how he did it, I could see that Michael had that self-discipline and mental compass. Michael had an abundance of it, which allowed him to double in gold medals and set a world record at home in the United States.

ATLX: He really was incredible that year. An amazing athlete. You mentioned before that you train everyday people who walk into your gym and want to get in shape, or train like an athlete. What are some of the main differences, aside from the mental aspect you noted, that you’ve seen in your work with everyday athletes?

Rogers: To put it simply, there are victors and victims. Victors achieve, regardless of the obstacles, regardless of the trials and tribulations. Victors achieve, they make it, they win. With victims, there’s always a reason, there’s always an excuse. Sometimes I hear people say they want to lose weight. How much? 20 pounds. By when? Two weeks. That’s not going to happen. Then I say, okay you’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that. You have to show up. They come in two pounds down, then they’re two pounds up, then they’re the same. We either survive, we thrive or we’re a victim.

And victims often do not achieve their goals because there are just too many things in the way. It’s too much trouble or it’s too hard. And when you talk to someone who has achieved, or a victor, what you end up seeing is that they have the same problems. They may even have more problems. But they never give in, they never quit. They always find a way to keep moving forward. So, it’s all about perseverance and persistence over time. And those people are always rewarding to be around because they make themselves and everyone around them better. And a lot of times, when I can change a victim – change their way of thinking – into a victor, all of the sudden I see huge benefits, both to that person and to those around them. Because then they’re going to make positive changes to their environment.

ATLX: Victors and victims… that’s a great way to put it. Do you have any stories that stick out specifically in your mind as inspiring or memorable in your career?

Rogers: A couple of different ones come to mind. One is a bit sad. I had the honor and privilege of coaching the NFL star, Junior Seau. Coaching Junior was like coaching your favorite son – your only son – and your favorite athlete, all in one. Junior approached life the same way each day and approached each workout like a child would, with excitement and fun. And then he played the game and he interacted with others at a level that you would hope your favorite hero of an athlete would do. So the day that I found out that Junior had passed away and what had happened, it was very sad. Because Junior always made everyone around him better.

Then I had the opportunity to work with a man named Tim Brigham. Tim is a Special Forces operator who had been shot by a sniper in Iraq and lost the use of both legs. For a year Tim was in a wheelchair. And then, through a series of 26 operations, he regained the ability to walk. Tim was sent to me by Captain Westrick, a physical therapist who said, “Hey, see if you can help him with his gait,” because Tim still had a pretty good limp and couldn’t run after four years. We got to work together for four months. And at the end of these four months, he ran 50-yards like a sprinter. And then the following Friday he ran a mile in 17 minutes. It was the first mile he had run in four years and four months.

What an honor and a privilege it was to interact with a man who just spent a year in a wheelchair. I asked Tim, Sergeant Brigham, I said, “What’s it like to spend a year in a wheelchair?” And he said, “It’ll change a man.” Then I asked him what his goal was, and he responded, “My goal was two-fold: first, I wanted to be able to kneel down and play with my children. And, second, I wanted to stand up and look a man in the eye when I shook his hand.” He achieved those two goals. It was great to be along for that. And he’s still serving in our military today.

ATLX: That’s a truly amazing story. You don’t hear that often, but when you do it’s just extremely inspiring.

Rogers: Yes, he’s a special man.

ATLX: Let’s talk a bit about the contrast between the training of collegiate, elite level athletes and the training of the Special Forces. What are some of the differences in a training regimen?

Rogers: In a military training program, they aren’t sharpened to a razor point, but the workload is bigger and broader. In sports, you know when the next game is going to be played. You know when the season starts. You know when the season is over. You know when the playoffs start. So, you can plan. In the military, the enemy sets when the competition ends.

So, when September 11th happened, we had to start training differently than we had in the past because we were now going to the highest mountains, to the middle of deserts, and everywhere in between. When we’re training military personnel we don’t necessarily know when the game is going to start, so we have to be prepared at all times. They’re not training for a season; they’re training for a career.

The other aspect is, whether I’m training a high-level athlete or a high-level Special Forces operator, I want both to feel that we’re adding to the longevity of their careers, we’re training for quality, and I’m not just beating them up. I don’t have to know how tough they are because if they’re high-level athletes they should be tough enough, and if they’re high-level Special Forces operators, they are tough enough. So, I’m training them at a high-level so that they can respond and play the game as an elite level athlete and do that for the length of their career, and then be able to walk away comfortably.

The same thing goes for our Special Force operators – we want longevity. I want them to be able to train and, when they finish their careers, spend their retirement check on a boat, rather than having to go see doctors.

The thing I notice is that with Special Forces operators – men or women – it’s not about them. There is no self-promotion. There is no “I.” It’s, well, I was just doing my job and we had a great plan and we have a good team, and that’s why we were able to accomplish the mission and everybody got home. And that’s what I hear from them over and over again. So it’s a bit different than sports entertainment. In professional sports, and now in collegiate sports, the money is getting so great that it’s turning into more entertainment than sport. It becomes a lot of “I” and a lot of self-promotion. There is none of that in the other league, the league of the military warrior. It’s all about us and we, and I’m just doing my job. Which is amazing! I don’t have to motivate anybody. All I have to do is coach and educate. It’s the way it was when I started out coaching at the collegiate level in the early ‘80s. It was different then.

ATLX: How was it different?

Rogers: Well, in the early ‘80s, there was no summer school. In the summer, all of the athletes went home and they were regular students. You gave them a workout book and then they came back and you’d start the season and there you went. But if you keep everybody around, they’ll graduate and they’ll work out and they’ll be in better shape and they won’t get hurt. So gradually, in college, athletics have become year-round. That ensures that the student athletes graduate. That ensures that the student athletes don’t get hurt because they’re training to a high-level at all times. And that ensures that the team can perform at its highest level because the athletes are trained at the highest level and you have your best players playing.

ATLX: So obviously you’ve worked with a lot of different athletes. Can you name a few that stand out?

Rogers: In football, the guys I got to work with have included Tim Ryan who does Fox Sports now and Dan Owens, who owns a big gym down in Atlanta. Matt Bryant, who still kicks for the Falcons, was an athlete I worked with in college, then I worked with him during the lockout. Of course, Junior Seau, who I mentioned before. Willie McGinist, who played for years in the NFL. Rob Johnson was quarterback for a little bit who I got to work with in college. John Clay, years ago, was a first-round draft pick of the Raiders. I got to work with him when I was at Missouri. And Tony Boselli, who is the answer to a trivia question: Who was the first pick ever by the franchise in Jacksonville? Tony Boselli. Who’s the first pick ever by the franchise in Houston with the Texans? Tony Boselli! Because he was picked in their supplemental draft when they picked from a pool of NFL players. And Lisa Leslie was the highest-ranked female basketball player I ever worked with at the University of Southern California.

As rewarding as it was to work with all of these elite athletes, it was equally as rewarding to work with other athletes who have gone on to become attorneys or physicians, or leaders in their community that go out and make a difference. They may not be household names, but they’re making a positive difference in our communities each and every day and were influenced by some of the lessons they learned in intercollegiate athletics.

ATLX: Absolutely. Training builds character! Ok, so you’ve worked with all kinds of athletes – Olympians, Special Forces, collegiate athletes and even policemen. Have you noticed which group of people seems to be the hungriest to get better?

Rogers: That’s a good question! A tough one. How do you define “get better?” In pro sports, the athlete is in charge of his or her career. I’m not going to walk into a locker room in Dallas and tell Tony Romo, for instance, hey, this or that or the other thing is going to happen – you’re going to do this, and you’re not going to do this. He’d look at me like I’d just grown green horns out of my head. I’ve got to create this relationship, this rapport, and there has to be trust because he’s entrusting his livelihood and career to me. He needs to know that I will not hurt him, or diminish his ability to play. And second of all, can I help him? And as we develop this trusting relationship, then I can guide at that elite level. Then the athletes start to entrust their careers to me a little bit.

In college, athletes used to have to do what you told them. But now, because of recruiting and because you’re not around them all the time, you can’t make them do the things you could before. But if you get that rapport going and get that trust going, then they believe that you can help them achieve their goals. And when that happens, they’ll do pretty much anything you ask them to do.

The hungriest group is the group that has a goal that they want to achieve. So, in Special Forces, when I get guys ready for another selection, when they’re going to go up to another level of Special Forces, those guys are really hungry. If it’s a team or an individual in a sport that wants to win a championship and they’re all together, that’s always a joy to work with as well. But I don’t see that as much in sports anymore because some athletes say, “Well I don’t really need to work at that level because I know what’s best for me.” I’m seeing more and more of that because of the money.

ATLX: Professional players don’t necessarily play solely for love of the game – does that affect their training mentality?

Rogers: It’s a business. Professional sports are about business. Just look at the Pro Bowl in the NFL. When they had the Pro Bowl last year, those guys weren’t competing. They just showed up to cash a check. There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re professional athletes.

Now, where you can really make something happen is when guys will put their self-interest secondary to that elite program where everyone is working together for a common goal. That’s one of the things that Coach Belichick has been able to do at New England. We’re not going to pay the highest for all positions. What we’re going to do is have the best team in the league, and everybody is going to participate, everybody is going to play, and when we win at a really high level, everybody is going to end up making plenty of money. And that’s a little bit of a different philosophy than a lot of professional clubs.

ATLX: That being said, do you see a difference in the desire to improve in professional athletes compared to your armed forces or Special Forces personnel?

Rogers: At this level of Special Forces, those guys will work out every day. Some of them twice a day. You tell a football player, hey, we’re going to do two-a-days in lifting and running, they’ll look at you like you’re speaking another language. “Two-a-days? Two-a-days only happen in August.” But Special Forces guys will lift in the morning, run in the afternoon. Or they’ll run in the morning and lift in the afternoon. They’ll do it five/six days a week and think nothing of it because that’s just what they do. And it’s not just young guys. We have guys in their 30s and 40s doing it.

Our oldest operator that deployed – he was called out of retirement after 9/11 – was Billy Waugh. Billy had worked in Special Forces for years and years. He worked in his 70’s when he went with an ODA team, which is a strike team from the military. They were going out to hunt for Bin Laden right after 9/11. He was in Bora Bora in the mountains in his 70’s. In his 70’s! Why did he go? Because that is what he did. That is who he is.  Mr. Waugh is still around. With guys like Billy, 99 percent of our population has never heard of him.

Getting back to the question, what we see a lot of the time is that all athletes want to get better. But in professional sports, a lot of times what happens is that once they get that huge paycheck, they’ve arrived. But the game has just started. Now it’s up to them to prepare. And when you get these quarterbacks who really want to prepare, like an Aaron Rodgers or a Drew Brees and some of those guys, you can see it on the field because mentally they’re operating on a different level than other quarterbacks. They walk up to the line and they know what’s going on. So, when the ball snaps, they have an advantage.

ATLX: Do you have anything else to add to our debut theme, The Training of Elite Athletes? We include the Special Forces in this category. Is there anything else that you think we should cover here?

Rogers: The biggest similarities and the biggest differences are that when someone loves what they do, they’re going to do it. And they’re going to do it at a high-level and they’re going to prepare and they’re going to put every ounce and every fiber of their being into it. The stories of Jerry Rice preparing for a season, for example. He’d take ten days off and, bang, he’s running, lifting and doing those things again.

The guys who do it because that’s who they are and that’s what they love, they’re easy to coach. They’re easy to help. Then the guys who are really talented but don’t really love it, they’re harder to coach. They’re playing the game or they’re doing the job for what it brings them – notoriety or money. Those are the ones that are more of a challenge to work with because they’re not really doing it because they want to. They’re doing it because they have to. When you lose the edge of doing what you want to do, and you’re only doing it because you have to, then everything changes. We all experience that in life. I’ve been fortunate that only about two times in my life have I ever had to have a job. The rest of my life I’ve been involved in this kind of thing, and to me it’s not a job. It’s an honor, a privilege and its fun. I get paid to play, really.

ATLX: Robb, thank you so much for your time and insights.


ATLX Expert: Robb Rogers
ATLX Partner: Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association
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