Coaching Philosophy: How The Wisconsin Badgers Practice Like They Want to Play
About the Author: The American Football Coaches Association is the only national organization dedicated to improving football coaches through ongoing education, interaction, and networking. The AFCA and Hammer Strength have teamed up to provide insights into the coaching profession, elite athletic programs, and more. (Photo credits: Game photo courtesy of Kendall Webb Road Trip Sports; practice photo courtesy of Paul Markgraff, Three Cycle Media; Coach Ross Kolodziej photo courtesy of Brandon Harrison, Wisconsin Athletic Communications.)
University of Wisconsin head of strength and conditioning for football Ross Kolodziej uses a phased approach to athletic performance training. Paired with the Badgers’ overall vision for its program and an insatiable hunger to grind its opponents into the turf, his approach helped the Badgers to a 13-1 record in 2017 and an Orange Bowl victory.
To say the Wisconsin Badgers “play a full 60 minutes” when they take the field each Saturday in the fall is a bit of an understatement. The reality is that during the 2017 NCAA football season, the Badgers were ranked third among Power 5 programs with regard to fourth-quarter scoring. Only USC and Miami were ahead of them.
In the Orange Bowl, Wisconsin forced Miami to break character, putting them on the defensive after scoring 21 unanswered points in the second quarter. Wisconsin grinded, like Wisconsin does, the rest of the way and outscored Miami in the fourth quarter to win the game by 10.
Ross Kolodziej (pronounced kah-LAH-gee) is the head strength and conditioning coach for the Badgers football program. His pedigree is above reproach. He started 45 games for the Badgers at defensive tackle from 1997 to 2000, winning two Rose Bowls. He was drafted by the New York Giants in 2001 and played seven years in the NFL. He knows a thing or two about what it takes to win at the FBS level from an athletic performance perspective.
“How you structure your workouts and how you formulate your plan dictate the results for your program,” says Kolodziej. “At its core, it’s a three-and-a-half-hour game. At a minimum, you need to meet the demands of the sport in practice. At times, you certainly need to exceed those demands, so when you do get in the game, the game should be easy. It shouldn’t be the most stressful event during your week. But, it’s on the coach to make sure preparation dictates that performance.”
The bottom line? You must prepare your athletes. Football is a violent, physical, long game. It’s a last-man-standing type of affair. It’s 14 or 15 grueling weeks long, not counting camp. You need to do the best you can in the offseason to prepare players’ bodies and minds for what the season truly is.
Part of my job is I get the opportunity to talk with scouts and NFL personnel executives, and that always comes up in conversation,” he says. “How do you guys practice? What are you doing? What are you seeing from your players? There are teams in the NFL that are having to burn timeouts during the two-minute drill because the way they practice and rep their players, they’re not in the proper condition to do multiple, repeated, high-intensity efforts.”
For Kolodziej, it always comes back to asking simple questions. What are the demands of the game? What is the worst possible situation our guys can face?
To wrap his head around “practicing like we play,” Kolodziej leans on the football coaching staff for vital information, then he adapts that information into his phased approach to athletic performance.
“Obviously, (Wisconsin head coach) Paul Chryst has a tremendous understanding of the game of football,” he says. “My job is to act as a conduit from the head coach to the players. I’m carrying out the vision. I know what our mission statement is and how it relates to the particular phase of training we’re in.”
Kolodziej determines the Badgers’ goals for the winter phase of training – which is seven weeks long – and he chops it up accordingly. Then, the Badgers transition into spring football, which transitions into summer, which transitions into fall camp.
“We really try to lay a foundation, then build layer upon layer upon layer, so when we get to the season, our ‘house is built on a rock,’” he says. “When adversity comes, it’s not going to wash out everything we’ve done because we built it on something real. In this sport, as in life, you get what you put into it.”