From the November / December edition of Commodore Nation
By Zac Ellis
When Vanderbilt football considered moving spring practices to the morning in early 2015, Jason Grooms did his research. The Commodores’ assistant athletics director for football reached out to three schools -- Arizona State, Duke and Oregon – who had implemented morning practices in the past. Grooms wanted first-hand knowledge of the benefits of waking his team up in the morning, from nutrition to academics and beyond.
Two years later, morning practices have become a key to Vanderbilt’s preparation, and the Commodores haven’t looked back. “Last fall was our first time doing it, and then we did it the last two springs,” Grooms said. “We made the move, and we’re going to continue with it. We think it’s good that they start the day off with a football coach in their face.”
And football isn’t the only Vanderbilt athletic program taking advantage of morning practices. A number of teams on West End enjoy the benefits of an early start to their day, from swimming to tennis to basketball, as many Commodore coaches view an early start as a perfect way to get the most out of student-athletes.
For football, the feedback Grooms received from other programs made the decision an easy one for Vanderbilt. Those schools found that an early start enhanced team nutrition; indeed, most student-athletes were less likely to skip breakfast if they were already out of bed. Class attendance, meanwhile, also improved across the board at other programs. And in game-week situations, a Friday morning walkthrough allowed for more time for players’ bodies to recover ahead of a Saturday game.
Now, for the second straight season, head coach Derek Mason’s football program kicks off practice between 8:15 and 8:30 a.m. during game week. That start time is even earlier in the spring; for the past two years, Vanderbilt has begun its spring practices around 7 a.m. If the sun is rising on West End, the Commodores usually are, too.
The benefits are three-fold for the ‘Dores. First, student-athletes get their major workout in before class. Second, players have time to return to the facility later in the day, which allows for rehab and recovery. And finally, Mason and his staff avoid having to shake their players out of a post-class lull.
“If you’re practicing in the afternoon, you’re usually getting guys coming out of class,” Mason said. “They’re shot. They’re drained. The ability to focus and push through and still give you what you want, effort-wise, becomes tough.
“If you look at these guys’ academic course work, you find that if you get them up in the morning, feed them in the morning, and get going in the morning, the brain activity and the ability to process information has already started.”
Those same benefits extend through the halls of Vanderbilt’s McGugin Center. Stephanie White, the Commodores’ new women’s basketball coach, has long been a fan of afternoon practices. But class schedules moved most of her inaugural preseason practices to around 8 a.m. this fall.
White has now recognized certain benefits of getting her players out of bed. “In terms of discipline, an early morning practice is good,” White said. “It’s helpful to get them before they go to class and have brain drain. And for me as an individual, working out in the morning really helps get my day going.”
While some Vanderbilt programs have adjusted to morning practices, others are plenty familiar with that routine.
Jeremy Organ has coached the Commodores' women’s swimming team for 11 seasons, and like most Division I swim teams, early workouts have been a staple of Organ’s tenure on West End. His swimmers are in the water from 6:30-8:30 a.m. six days a week, Monday through Saturday. They also toss in an extra afternoon swim on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Organ structures his practices that way for a reason. Championship swim meets usually feature preliminary heats in the morning and finals in the evening, so the Commodores practice to mirror that format. That allows Organ’s student-athletes to acclimate to the process of recovering between workouts.
In more than a decade at Vanderbilt, Organ has seen that structure pay off. “I do think swimming every morning and training our bodies to perform early does have a direct correlation to early performance at championship meets,” Organ said.
But one common denominator is prominent between Vanderbilt teams who utilize morning practice: The importance of time-management. In the real world, your day starts early. That’s what Commodores coaches try to impress upon their teams with structured morning routines. So, it’s no coincidence that Vanderbilt student-athletes are well-prepared for lives after college.
“The practice schedule requires all the girls to be very disciplined in time-management in order to be successful,” Organ said. “This is something that does translate into life after swimming, and it’s why so many former swimmers go on to lead very successful careers in their fields.”