When Joe Nardella walked into Stadium Performance for the first time, I thought to myself, “look at this Italian bull!” As one of the best faceoff specialists in the country for the PLL Whipsnakes and NLL Blackwolves, Joe has spent the majority of his collegiate and professional career training to be the strongest and most powerful face-off player on the field. His strength training while in college at Rutgers University and during his tenures with the Boston Cannons and Atlanta Blaze, yielded a physique that helped produce season leading stats including a 2019 Premier Lacrosse League All-American selection by Inside Lacrosse and a national championship title, first overall in PLL groundballs, first in PLL goals, assists, and total points for all FO’s, and 2nd in PLL FO win%. Joe possesses all the physical and performance metrics of an elite Premier Lacrosse League player. But what about the NLL?
Following our first training session, our initial assessment of Joe was correct. He was strong, powerful, and gritty. But what we didn’t anticipate was his inability to express performance repeatability. As we collectively established, Nardella had previously focused so heavily on dominating his opponent with strength, hand quickness, and mental warfare, that he predisposed himself to an inability to generate the same maximal power, time and time again. The National Lacrosse League demands significant differences in skill sets as Box lacrosse has more contact than field lacrosse and is played on a far smaller playing area. Box lacrosse players share many similarities with today’s ice hockey athletes as they are required to sprint fast, change direction often, and recover from maximal burst quickly. Despite his dominant role for the Whiplesnakes of the PLL, we decided that Joe needed more acceleration, top-end speed, and muscle endurance if he was going to maximize his upcoming opportunity with the NLL’s New England Blackwolves.
A typical box lacrosse training program must carefully balance the demands of one of the most strenuous team sports. The sport requires the physical abilities of a field lacrosse player with the physiological foundation of a hockey player. Given the smaller dimensions of a box lacrosse field and the increased speed potential of the playing surface, players are almost constantly moving as they attempt to maneuver the ball into the goal. A quality strength training program will contain an aerobic foundation with the ability to repeatedly achieve anaerobic peaks. This means, that in addition to strength, we would need to ensure that Joe could run faster, change direction harder, and perform both more often than ever before.
Generally, research has shown that professional faceoff players are like American football players in that they have average aerobic fitness. Although their sprinting bouts last about eleven seconds, they are only all-out sprinting for about ten minutes per game. Midfield players, on the other hand, have significantly greater endurance than attackers or defensive players and their aerobic endurance compares favorably to more traditional distance athletes like swimmers and runners.
In addition to an increase in acceleration and anaerobic fitness, common sense told us those box lacrosse players will need to weigh a bit more to endure the increase in physical contact. The caveat, however, was to lower his overall body fat% while building lean mass. With a plan in place, just two weeks after winning his first PLL national championship, we now had a mere six weeks to establish our performance goals.
From a conditioning point of view, we focused on integrating repetitive maximal-intensity sprints with his single leg explosive movements. We used our HiTrainer sprinting treadmill to measure maximum and average power output, speed, and muscle endurance. With the data, we established his repeatability metrics and programmed his intervals to increase each bout by ten percent. To maintain the aerobic foundation required for the NLL, all rest periods between lifts would be active. This included jumping rope, rowing, jogging, and battle rope drills. To complement his increase in acceleration, we also focused on rapid footwork drills to promote enhanced quickness and change of direction skills. In addition to an increase in acceleration coming out of the faceoff circle, Joe would need to boost his ability to create separation after each change of direction. For all sports across the board, the decelerative phase of a cut is the leading mechanism of most hip, knee, and ankle injuries. For this reason, we trained with stability, instability, resistance, and assistance to promote randomized external stimuli.
Nearly two months after Joe secured the game-winning championship faceoff, we had achieved every physical and transformation. It’s the acknowledgment of personal weaknesses that provides athletes with the opportunity to physically mature, statistically improve, and ultimately surpass all previous expectations. The agony of progress will always supersede the agony of defeat.