Workout Warlord: Travelle Gaines aces the combine
As the scouting combine has grown in public awareness, the market for trainers who can shave a tenth of a second off a 40-yard dash time, or add half an inch to a vertical jump, has exploded. What was once a niche market for a few theorists looking to "cheat the combine" has become a fairly standardized industry, where facilities all across the country turn year-round training into a laser focus at the beginning of every year. As it is with the athletes themselves, the competition between the facilities can be fierce -- word of mouth is absolutely everything in the business.
One man who has first-person experience in this phenomenon is Travelle Gaines, the Los Angeles resident who trains hundreds of players through the year through his company, Performance Gaines. When I was at the combine last week, I spoke to Gaines, whose focus was on the 24 players he prepped for the 2010 event. I first wanted to know how someone started with a dream, and wound up with four facilities and one of the best reputations in his business.
Gaines was a multi-sport athlete in high school who was drafted by the Montreal Expos and dreamed of coaching at the University of Washington (he now trains Nick Montana, son of Joe and the Huskies' five-star freshman prospect), but injuries derailed his athletic aspirations. At the same time, the treatment and rehab process opened up a window to a new world. Gaines started with a few people he knew, and one galvanic turnaround secured his future.
"The process has been a dream come true," Gaines said. "I'm really blessed to have my passion be my profession. When I first started on my own in January of 2007 in Seattle, I had a few kids with me -- (cornerback) Marcus Trufant, Erik Coleman, (safeties) Hamzah Abdullah, Oliver Celestin, and Lawyer Milloy were my first clients. My goal was to have six solid athletes per year, charge them three grand per month, and that was going to be my thing. Well, those six guys went to 30 by the end of the first summer, and it was all word of mouth -- I literally just got a Web site this week.
"I just treated people like gold; I thought that was the key -- relationships. The client list just grew because people were seeing instant results. One of the biggest early projects for me was Marcus Trufant. In 2006, he didn't have a good year with the Seahawks, he had been injury-riddled and he was at a make-or-break point. 2007 was his contract year, and he had to change something. He committed to change his lifestyle. We got him on a strict nutritional plan, got him to decrease his body fat dramatically. He bought into the program I put in place for him, went out and had a great season, started in the Pro Bowl, and received a (six-year, $50.2 million) contract a few months later. He was a huge story of mine; a lot of people wanted to know what he did. That brought in other Seahawks players. They had friends, and the friends had friends, and by the end of that summer, I had 30 guys working with me."
As much as every player is seen doing the same drills at the combine, it really is a position-specific thing as much as it's obviously far more important what 40 time a running back has as opposed to that of an offensive tackle. But Gaines starts with the overall principles he learned from legends like LSU's Tommy Moffett and Olympic strength coach Gayle Hatch. "I got what you might call a 'Hatch, PhD', because he taught me all the Olympic movements, and things like that," he said. "I formed a lot of my stuff on speed development from Dennis Shaver, who was the track and field coach at the time at LSU. I learned a lot about training for the 40 from guys like Tom Shaw. There's so much information out there, and just from being around so many great coaches. I've always welcomed new ideas and wanted to surround myself with very educated people, because you're always pulling something from somebody. That's always been my philosophy."
Once Gaines got his overall program together, he was then able to spend some time with the Jacksonville Jaguars' training staff and see how things were done on the NFL side.
"I started talking to a couple of agencies who liked my results with their veteran players, and they wanted to send me guys who prepare for the combine. Problem was, they didn't want to send any kids to Seattle, because it's a tough sell when it's 30 degrees in the wintertime. Two options were presented to me: move to Los Angeles, where there's not really a presence (as far as combine training), or Atlanta, where there are a lot of pro athletes and some other facilities there. I chose L.A. There was already a facility called Athletes Performance that was down in southern LA, and I decided to make my base on northern Los Angeles, out in Westlake Village. I knew that a lot of professional athletes lived in that area. It was an instant success -- I went from training 30 guys in the summer of 2007 to over 200 current NFL players now."
I asked Gaines about the specifics of his program; I wanted to know how the program ran, from soup to nuts.
"We are one of the few that have it dialed in and down to a science. You have facilities that just have people run hills and do pushups, and that's fine, But to ace the combine, the biggest job interview of their lives, we're start-to-finish. From the moment they arrive at the facility, where they get a full medical evaluation. So every injury they've ever had, we ask them to bring in their full medical history reports. We have a team of physicians, and our rehab and regeneration team takes the kids into a full movement prep and movement screening process. We put them on a grid and find out if their shoulders or hips or knees or ankles are off. We put them through a series of movements to see how their body operates. From there, we can build out a customized warm-up for every kid that's there. So before we're even thinking about training them, we want to put them in the proper positions to warm their bodies up properly. We're not going to warm up the same because we have different aches and pains and alignments.
"That's the first step of the process. Because if the kid's not going to feel good, he's not going to run well. We're proud that we haven't had any injuries at our facility. We probably spend more time on recovery and regeneration than we do on training, because we ask them to bring their lunchboxes six days a week, twice a day. We get a lot out of them, so if they're not feeling good, it's pointless.
"After the medical, we take them through a series of tests. We chart everything, and everything's computerized. We film everything. Then, they meet with our nutritionist. Then, we talk to their agents and find out what GMs and scouts are saying. What is the ideal weight for this kid? With some, we've been able to peel off 30 pounds of fat, others, 30 pounds of muscle. We've taken others at 215 with 15 percent body fat, and they show up in Indy with 4 percent body fat. We have a culinary team on site, preparing customized meals cooked to taste for our kids. Based on their caloric intake, their goals, and the foods they like. We have a lot of kids from the south, and you're not going to give a kid from the South some tofu. It's about education. We give them a lot of literature, and we're constantly telling them, 'We are doing this because of this.'
"I think the education part translates into kids coming back. That's why we have the largest veteran NFL offseason program in the country. We have a session in February and March and another in June and July (about 30 in each). Generally, if you get 12 to 15 veterans in the offseason you're doing well -- we're doubling that. Our goal is to help players stay in the league longer. You're already there; let's not be the two-year career statistic."
One player who is just starting his NFL career is Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews, who led the nation in rushing in 2009 and needed to display the kind of consistent speed that would force evaluators to think outside the box -- when some saw his 6-foot, 220-pound frame, they were automatically going to think, "power back", and file him away accordingly. To get the kind of money and responsibility given only to the bell-cow backs, Mathews needed to turn on the jets. When Gaines started training Mathews, that's where the focus was.
"As a staff, we meet at 6:45 every morning to go over every single kid in our program -- high school, college, and pros. So, for our college kids, we'll say, with Ryan --- we'll ask his position coach how Ryan is doing. 'He needs a little help coming out of his breaks, accelerating off his left leg a little bit,' the coach might say. No problem, let's do some lateral lunges to help that out. Ryan's concerned with his weight, and we wanted to make sure that he came in as chiseled and well-defined as possible. But when it comes to being a running back, you either have it or you don't. You can't teach vision, awareness or feel, things like that. We just tried to enhance everything Ryan did."
Of the 24 combine-eligible players Gaines trained this year, Mathews may have benefited the most, running with legitimate top-end speed and cementing his place in the upper tier of this running back class. For Gaines, it was no surprise. "Electronically, between 4.39 and 4.46," he told me, when I asked how Mathews ran at his facility. "We knew we were going to run somewhere in that 4.41 range in Indianapolis. His first time was a 4.41. I know I talked to two teams about him, and they both had him in the 4.43 range. So I was definitely impressed. And to see him at 220 pounds, that's how much he weighed when he actually ran, that's very, very, very impressive. And he was chiseled and looked good, so I was excited about it."
In Part 2 of Gaines' story, we'll talk more about the Combine experience, and introduce you to the most exceptional challenge he shared with one of his players.
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