Culture Beats Talent: Time To Take This Narrative Seriously

Todd Bowles has gone from lame duck coach to possible focal point of the Jets rebuild

Every year we are enthralled by the Leicester Cities and George Masons of the sports world; teams that overcome odds to defeat adversaries of far superior talent. On the flip side, we are baffled by newly assembled ‘super teams’ that come up short on the big stage. Sometimes we forget that these elite athletes with unfathomable physical talents and skills are in fact… human beings. Human beings with feelings, emotions, good days, and bad days. Naturally, all human beings are impacted by their surroundings and environment. When things go awry off the field, it can affect things on the field.

Coming into the 2017 NFL season, the New York Jets were a laughingstock. Media experts projected them to win two, three, maybe four games at most. Yet here we are in mid-October with the Jets sitting at 3–3, and it’s arguable they could even be 4–2 if not for an inexplicable Austin Seferian-Jenkins ‘fumble.’ The Jets could very well run the table (in a bad way) and go 3–13, but it seems unlikely. Dare I say Jet fans are a bit optimistic regarding the product on the field. Forget analytics, this is a team that plays hard for each other and their coach, Todd Bowles.

How could a team that lost Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall, and Sheldon Richardson, only to replace them with Morris Claiborne, Jermaine Kearse, and Kony Ealy perform better? Granted Revis and Marshall are in the latter stages of their careers, but on paper it’s safe to say the team got much worse during the offseason.

The answer is culture.

Culture makes an enormous difference. Those who are in a position of power pretend to recognize this and will give you lip service on how important it is, but in many cases their actions don’t reflect it. Think of all the locker room cancers throughout the years across all sports given opportunity after opportunity because of their superior physical talents. Chad Johnson, Pacman Jones, Terrell Owens, Percy Harvin, Albert Haynesworth, just to name a few. Smart, successful teams don’t sabotage their culture by adding these types of players.

Losing Marshall, Revis, and Richardson was the proverbial breath of fresh air the Jets needed. There’s a lot to be said about the simplicity of being able to relax and feel comfortable at work. We are more productive and perform better when we are not looking over our shoulder or expecting the worst day by day. Last week the New York Giants went into Denver, one of the hardest places to play in the entire NFL, and dominated a well-rested Broncos team coming off of a bye week. Is it any coincidence that this happened after Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall (Sorry Brandon I didn’t intend on picking on you this much) went down with season ending injuries? It’s no secret that Beckham is a major distraction, despite his world class talent. The Giants had zero hope going into Mile High on a primetime stage that night. No one expected Orleans Darkwa to run down the Broncos’ throats.

But perhaps we should have expected it. The examples of culture change leading to success are endless, all in recent history. The Bills traded Sammy Watkins and let Stephon Gilmore walk, leading everyone to believe that are in full tank mode. They are currently 3–2, and are a tough matchup for any opponent. The Rams fired Jeff Fisher and hired Sean McVay; suddenly Jared Goff doesn’t look like the bust we all thought he was. If the Giants go on a run, it will be interesting to see how they address Beckham’s contract in the offseason. Perhaps it isn’t the sure thing we all thought it would be.

The question becomes, how can you change culture? In my opinion, the hierarchy is as follows:

  1. Ownership
  2. Coaching/General Manager
  3. Players (Quarterback in particular if we’re focusing on football)

Ownership rarely changes, especially as the NFL essentially prints money year after year. Sorry Redskins fans, you’re stuck with Dan Snyder for awhile, and he’s only 52. Even as owners get older and experience health issues, they are more likely to pass duties to their family rather than sell the franchise. This can go either way, but in most cases it’s more of the same (whether good or bad).

Coaches and General Managers, on the other hand, are extremely volatile. ‘Black Monday’ occurs at the end of each regular season, where upwards of ten coaches receive their walking papers. A team is often a reflection of its head coach. Bill Belichick’s players are disciplined, Mike Tomlin’s players are energetic, Pete Carroll’s players have personality and are outspoken. Some would argue that coaches are not given enough time to instill a culture with their team, due to the volatility of the position. Hard to argue with this, given the impatient nature of society today.

I can’t help but chuckle when media personalities say things like “imagine if Team X drafted Dak Prescott, or Team Y drafted Russell Wilson!” Prescott and Wilson are two franchise quarterbacks that happened to fall in the latter rounds of the NFL draft. They were put in situations where they could grow and succeed. If the Browns drafted Dak Prescott, they would still suck. The Browns are a dysfunctional franchise that lacks the leadership and environment to develop players.

Gone are the days when Saints fans would wear paper bags on their heads

Perhaps the best example of the massive effect of culture change occurred in 2006 when the Saints hired Sean Payton and signed Drew Brees. For years the Saints were dubbed ‘The Aints’, due to their futility on the field. They did not finish with a winning record for the first twenty years of their existence. Payton and Brees’ impact was immediately felt, with the Saints making it all the way to the NFC Championship game in their first year together. Three years later they delivered the first ever Lombardi trophy to New Orleans.

So fear not Browns, Redskins, Bears, Bills, Jets, Lions, and Bengals fans. The Payton/Brees combo has taught us that ANY franchise can be saved. The question is whether or not the teams realize that talent is not the only variable for success.

Why Reverse Dieting is Nearly Impossible

Dieting for a bodybuilding show is one of the most challenging things a person can do. Life is stressful as it is, and during a contest prep there’s no junk food to turn to for relief when work and relationships are kicking your ass. A typical contest prep diet usually lasts about 12 weeks, with cardio making an unwanted guest appearance late in the process. The body does not want to be at low body fat levels, and it will do everything in its power to stop you from getting there.

After showtime has come and gone, many fitness coaches recommend that their client go through a reverse diet. A reverse diet is a systematic and slow increase in calories over a period of time to rebuild what is a now a slow churning metabolism. Metabolism is directly related to calorie intake; if your intake is low then your metabolic rate will slow to adjust to that level. On the surface, it may appear that a bodybuilding competitor has a furnace-like metabolism, but that is likely not the case. Aside from the genetically gifted, most competitors have to go through hell to be stage ready.

Reverse dieting seems quite logical. Slow increases in calories will allow the metabolism to rev up and minimize body fat accumulation in the process. A typical reverse diet will have the client adding about 10g of carbs and 5g of fat to their macronutrient totals each week. Sounds like a reasonable course of action aside from one thing; there is a huge margin of error when it comes to calorie counting.

Lets say you go to the grocery store and pick up a box of granola bars. The nutrition facts panel on the side of the box is an approximation. In fact, the FDA allows for up to 20% error on these labels. This revelation nearly throws the concept of reverse dieting out the window. You could be meticulous and perfect and weigh and track every food item, yet still be inaccurate. The only way to know exactly how many calories are in something is to put the food in an instrument called a bomb calorimeter. In a nutshell, this instrument burns the food and measures the heat generated to determine the calorie content. I assure you that many foods have not gone through this process. This is not what strict MyFitnessPal users want to hear, but it’s the truth.

So what’s the answer when it comes to post contest dieting? Personally, I have my clients go back to their pre-contest maintenance level. Will they put on body fat in the process? Probably. Is that a bad thing? No. No one will claim that bodybuilding is healthy. Walking around at dangerously low body fat levels is not optimal for hormone function and general health. Plus, I think it’s a bit irresponsible to have a client go on a 12 week reverse diet immediately after a 12 week contest prep diet. No one should be dieting for half a year.

I’m not saying reverse dieting does not or can not work. I understand the concept, but just believe the implementation is nearly impossible. Theory and practice are two different things.

Should You Hire a Fat Personal Trainer?

No one will mistake me for Dwayne Johnson anytime soon, but I consider myself to be in reasonable shape. I’ve owned my personal training company for a few years, and have been working out for over a decade. If you saw me on the street, I’m confident you would say ‘yeah, that guy looks like he works out.’ Stalk me on Instagram and decide for yourself.

This is certainly not a politically correct statement, but if you are a trainer, I believe you have a responsibility to be in shape. You should not only be a guide and resource of information to your clients, but you should also set a standard and inspire them. Personal training is not like other jobs. Credentials and experience are some, but not all of the determining factors for an ideal trainer. Would you hire a tattoo artist with cartoonish ink on their body or a stylist with hair like Sideshow Bob?

I’m not saying an overweight trainer doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Many of them are actually quite knowledgeable from my experience. But, there’s more to this job than shouting instructions. Certain clients will have high fitness levels and can be pushed to their physical limit. Is it appropriate to have a client perform an excruciating cardio circuit if you couldn’t handle it yourself? Shouldn’t you practice what you preach? Let’s be honest, when you see an overweight trainer waddle around the gym, don’t you roll your eyes just a little bit?

You may wonder why a person would become a trainer in the first place if they don’t live the fitness lifestyle themselves. The truth is, the process of getting a training certification is quite simple. Buy the book, take the test, pass the test. Boom, you can now legally train anyone you want. Pretty low cost of entry into a potentially lucrative industry. A person with good sales skills can make a successful living as a trainer, even with the extra fluff around their waist.

Conversely, many people with great physiques are completely clueless as well. There are tons of gym rats who look great in spite of themselves. Look at any ‘gym fails’ compilation and you’ll notice that quite a few of the victims actually have some quality muscle. Genetics are a major component when it comes to building a physique.  Some people can develop a well-sculpted physique doing almost any routine despite subpar form and no mind-muscle connection.

I don’t expect most people to agree with me. In their eyes, they probably think a trainer should have the knowledge and communication skills to help clients reach their goals and improve their health. There is no doubt that those are two attributes every trainer should have. In this day and age, we are scorned when we pass judgement on others based on appearance. Personally, I feel the need to display a respectable physique 24/7/365. I hold myself to a high standard. I would be completely embarrassed to huff and puff after demonstrating an exercise or joining a client for a jog as a warm-up. This is the profession I chose. If you hire me, it’s a honor.  I have an obligation to look the part.  If you introduce me to someone as your trainer, I want their reaction to be “well shit that makes sense” not “oh really” followed by muffled laughter.

How Do We Burn Fat? Do Fat Burning Supplements Work?

The process of burning stored body fat is often misunderstood, so why don’t we set the record straight right off the bat.  Your body is constantly releasing, burning, and storing body fat.  Our adipose (fat) tissue is full of stored triglycerides that we would ideally like to oxidize to get the lean, sculpted physique we desire.  A triglyceride consists of three fatty acids held together by a glycerol backbone.  Interestingly, the fatty acids don’t have to be the same.  One triglyceride molecule can contain a combination of different saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, etc. fatty acids.

When a stored triglyceride is released, the glycerol backbone breaks off and the fatty acids enter the bloodstream.  However, it is important to note that the process does not end here.  You still have to oxidize, or burn the fatty acids, ideally via exercise (although we can still burn fat at rest as well).  Otherwise, the fatty acids can become a stored triglyceride all over again through a process called re-esterification.  What a shame it would be to release stored body fat only for it to return home again.  Remember when I said the body is constantly releasing, burning, and storing body fat?  The cycle never ends.

So how can optimize this process and release and burn more than we store?  The primary method is by achieving a caloric deficit.  Boring answer I know, but hey that’s science.  A caloric deficit can be achieved by consuming less calories in our diet and/or burning more with exercise.  We can also increase our metabolic rate so that we burn more at rest.  The primary method of increasing resting metabolic rate is adding more lean muscle, which burns more calories compared to adipose tissue.

Where do fat burning supplements come into play?  How do they work, if at all?  They actually perform a little bit of each fat burning component; suppressing appetite and increasing metabolic rate.  This is achieved mainly through the stimulant-based ingredients.  Caffeine, yohimbine, and ephedrine can all help suppress appetite, thus leading to less calories consumed.  More important, however, is their hormonal effect.

Certain ingredients in fat burners can increase hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine.  These hormones signal the release of stored triglycerides into the blood to (hopefully) be oxidized.  In addition, a quality thermogenic should have adequate doses of the amino acid carnitine, which helps fatty acids enter the mitochondria of the cell to be converted to energy.  This is why most fat burning supplements instruct you to take them prior to exercise.  Remember what we said earlier, fatty acids can be re-esterified back into adipose tissue even after being released.  If you’re not an active person, these supplements really won’t do much for you.

At the very least we can agree that the scientific theory is there, but is it worth the cost?  Thermogenic supplements generally range anywhere from $50 to $100.  In my opinion, while the logical mechanism to burn fat is somewhat evident, the research is still iffy at best.  Also, there is an unreasonable expectation that these supplements will cause massive changes in body composition.  In the end, you still have to put forth the effort in the gym, which most are simply unwilling to do.  If you have the disposable income to purchase a fat burner, along with the willingness to still train hard, then by all means do so.  If you have your doubts about the research and don’t want to fork over the cash, then I wouldn’t fault you there either.

Hopefully my concluding statement didn’t appear like a cop-out.  Thermogenic supplements are ‘okay.’  Personally, I usually go with an ephedrine/caffeine stack rather than purchase a supplement off a store shelf.  It is cost efficient and gets the job done.

Why We Need to Stop Demonizing Sugar

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Any conversation with a knowledgeable nutritionist will likely result in frustration for the enthusiastic answer seeker. The reason being, very few things in nutrition are black and white. The answer to many of these ‘is this food good or bad’ questions is ‘it depends.’ Aside from trans fats, I would have a hard time coming up with a nutrient that is unequivocally bad and provides no benefit of any kind. In recent years, sugar has overtaken fat as the culprit for our country’s obesity and health problems. Are we casting blame in the right place?

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What is Sugar?

It bothers me when I hear people, especially doctors, use the words sugar, carbohydrates, and glucose interchangeably. They are not the same. Sugar is a disaccharide, consisting of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. Stay with me here, I won’t get too ‘sciencey’ on you. Glucose is our body’s preferred energy source. It provides energy for our brain (good), exercise (good), can be stored in muscle cells as glycogen (good), and stored in fat cells (not so good). So one half of the equation is pretty good, glucose has some definite benefits for us. Fructose, on the other hand, is much more limited. Fructose is stored in the liver as glycogen (no problems there). However, the capacity of our liver glycogen will eventually fill up. Once it reaches capacity, the excess fructose has to go somewhere. Unlike glucose, fructose can’t be used by most of our cells. Excess fructose in the liver is converted to triglycerides, which can then be stored as fat (not good).

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Should Fructose be Avoided Completely?

As mentioned, fructose is metabolized in the liver. What many don’t realize is that your liver is a huge organ, it’s about the size of a football. In times of need, like during low carb dieting, fasting, sleeping, or exercising, your liver will pump out that stored glycogen to be used. Your pancreas will secrete a hormone called glucagon to signal the liver to release stored glycogen in these situations. Point is, those glycogen stores in the liver will deplete over time, so fructose does serve a purpose. While it wouldn’t be optimal to get the majority of your carbohydrates from fructose, it shouldn’t be avoided altogether.

It is clear that an optimal diet would consist of proportionately more glucose than fructose, as glucose can provide more for us overall. Starchy carbohydrates like rice, sweet potatoes, and oats are nearly 100% glucose. However, glucose is not completely absolved of wrongdoing. Remember that any glucose not used for immediate energy, brain function, or storage as muscle glycogen will be stored in fat cells. You need to be mindful of your current situation, and not overeat starchy carbohydrates either.

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What About Healthier Sugars Like Agave

Marketing is extraordinary. You may find agave in the organic/healthy section of your supermarket. However, agave is about 75% fructose, which is even more than the dreaded high fructose corn syrup.

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Final Verdict

In general, do most people eat too much sugar? Absolutely. But, they overeat on starches and fats as well. It would irresponsible to cast blame on one nutrient for our collective health problems. Remember Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is often to correct one. Collectively, we eat too much and exercise too little.

Sean Felenczak, CSCS