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Athletics addresses punitive conditioning

A volleyball match that took place in the Athletic Center during March of this year. Photo by Joe Giacco

At 1:00 a.m. on September 18 of 2022, after returning from a National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) tournament loss at St. John Fisher University in Rochester, New York, the women’s volleyball team got off the bus to run lines in the Athletic Center. The team, according to Coach Jeff Vautrin, was running after midnight to forgo the proposed alternative— waking up at 5 a.m. to fulfill an agreed-upon consequence for missing plays during the game.

However, the incident was not in accordance with guidelines that encourage athletic training personnel to be on staff in case of emergency.

Vautrin says he does not think the 1 a.m. lines violated NCAA regulations banning “punitive conditioning,” but he and Director of Athletics Kristy Walter told the Chronicle that not stopping the runs was “a mistake.” Walter said she disciplined Vautrin because of the exercise, and Director of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer, Chris Noyes said the incident highlights the importance of adhering to conditioning guidelines despite past practices in college sports throughout the country.

“I think what the hang up is, is that… when coaches were playing their sport, this is how they were punished. And it’s all they know, [there are] no other tools in their toolbox,” Noyes said. “So I think it’s a matter of helping them figure out what the tools in the toolbox are.”

The incident:

Vautrin, who has been head coach of the men’s volleyball team since 2019 and the women’s volleyball team since 2020, said the women’s volleyball and himself came to an agreement; for every three times the team let the ball drop in-game they would do a “line,” or sprints in a subsequent practice.

“At the end of the game, we end up losing the game, because we let I think it was 30 balls, or maybe like 33 balls drop... So as a team, I was like, guys, you know, we went over this, you know, I don’t want to make you guys run in between games right now,” said Vautrin. “But like, just so we know, when we get back, we’re going to do conditioning tomorrow morning, and we’re going to hold ourselves accountable because we all agreed upon this.”

With the long commute, the team and Vautrin did not return to campus until 1:00 a.m. After a conversation about accountability with the team and captains, the players decided to do the 10 sprints without an athletic trainer present, instead of at a scheduled practice of 5 a.m. that day, Vautrin said.

“...I shouldn’t have gave them that option, I should have just been hard. You know? Make them do it the next day. Because we didn’t have, you know, a trainer there, present. So that was the issue. But in the long run, I mean, you know, I think, you know, we didn’t necessarily break like NCAA rules or anything like that. It was kind of just like, I shouldn’t have given that option,” said Vautrin.

Director of Athletics Kristy Walter said she first heard about the incident in February and reached out directly to Vautrin to handle the incident internally. “No one told me. I heard about it from like just people talking. So I immediately contacted the head coach. And we talked about this and so yes, something did happen when they came back after a game in the fall. And I’ve spoken with him. I can’t really go into like the discipline thing, but we put some stuff in place. We went over it with him. It was definitely a mistake.”

Walter said no one had reported the incident and she was first made aware by word of mouth. She also said she was unsure whether or not the women’s volleyball team was aware of punitive conditioning being against current NCAA guidelines, and that the athletes might not have felt comfortable coming to her at the time of the incident.

“I also met with the team to kind of let them know that this was not right. And if they’ve ever thought that way, they should kind of reach out to somebody because we really didn’t know about it until like I said sometime this semester… before spring break,” said Walter.

What is punitive conditioning?

Vautrin said he regretted allowing the sprints, and said the main issue was having the team run without a trainer. He said he’d use different methods in the future.

“If I’m going to have them wake up at 5am, we probably just wouldn’t do a conditioning, we’d just like wake up at 5 a.m. and like go for a walk or something just to like, get the point across,” Vautrin said. “It’s not about the conditioning, you know, it was about holding them accountable and just waking up, or at least something they didn’t want to do. So I guess, in the future, just, you know, be a little bit smarter about that, make sure that we’re not putting anyone in danger by any means.”

However, Noyes said coaches need to be careful about conditioning, whether a trainer is present or not. “The big recommendation here is exercise has to be planned purposefully,” Noyes said.

All student-athletes endure some form of physical conditioning throughout their careers. Physical conditioning refers to the act of adapting one’s body to an exercise program. However, sometimes the line is blurred between basic conditioning and punitive conditioning.

Punitive conditioning is the act of punishing someone through physical conditioning, such as running or lifting. Noyes said not all conditioning comes from a place of punishment.

“If athletes are doing a drill, and a coach says for every dropped ball, we’re going to do a sprint, that’s not really punishment. Right? That’s–that’s setting out expectations and variables in the beginning,” Noyes said. “It’s more like if a team loses, and the coach is angry. He makes them run. That’s the punishment.”

“If you look at the motivation of the coach, when they’re in a mind to punish someone, it’s not in a mindset to get them better. So they’re not taking in variables, rather, they’re letting out their emotions, right? That’s not the place to go from when you’re trying to do conditioning,” said Noyes. Noyes also said that the NCAA has cracked down on punitive punishment after studies showed that conditioning used for punishment was linked to cases where student-athletes experience rhabdomyolysis.

“[Rhabdomyolysis] is when there’s an extreme amount of muscle tissue breakdown from exercise. And it basically makes the blood toxic. It’s not fatal, but it has long-term detrimental consequences,” said Noyes.

NCAA guidelines on punitive conditioning:

The NCAA first stated new guidelines on punitive conditioning in the 2014-2015 NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook. In 2019, the NCAA reinforced these new guidelines and wrote, “Physical activity never should be used for punitive purposes.”

Assistant Director of Athletics and former women’s field hockey coach, Caitlin Connolly spoke on the change in guidelines. “...coaching has changed since I’ve started coaching and we just try to communicate, you know, the parameters of why they do things in practice so that we’re prepping and preparing student-athletes for games and to be successful,” said Connolly.

Although the guidelines began to be implemented in 2019, Lasell Athletics has only fully begun to apply them this academic year. Walter said that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the implementation of the new guidelines with new pandemic guidelines.

“We’ve started looking at pre-practice planning to start having conversations about it. So we have been talking about it throughout. And again, this document from the NCAA has also been evolving. Definitions have changed, timings have changed,” said Walter. “And it’s really come out of football stuff. So it wasn’t necessarily focused on all of the--on everything that we do, but we have been talking about and working more to educate the coaches.”

Walter said she meets with Noyes at the beginning of every year to review guidelines. Recently they have added a three-hour break in between practices to abide by NCAA rules.

“...A lot of it involves coaches’ education, about proper programming, for conditioning, you know, that they have great guidelines in place. A big push is not using conditioning as punishment…there’s a whole bunch of stuff going into coach education, and Kristy’s basically supportive of that, and she’s letting us just do it, but it’s going to take some time and [we’re] hoping to roll it out in the fall before the fall preseason starts,” said Noyes, who has been heading the Catastrophic Injury and Sudden Death Prevention Task Force this year.

Some think that the new guidelines hold a lot of gray area. Vautrin said, “I think it’s definitely a challenge with the new NCAA legislature and coaches are trying their best to try to figure out the best way to do things, but it’s definitely a conundrum right now.”

“I think most coaches here, they want… to be competitive and wants to compete at the top of the conference and they want to keep their athletes safe,” said Connolly.


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