You can't teach what Alvin Kamara does, but you can help him enhance his ability to do it.
Partly, that job belongs to Dr. Sharif Tabbah, a doctor of physical therapy and strength and conditioning specialist, and a man Kamara unquestionably trusts to help put Kamara in peak physical condition during the offseason. Tabbah, co-founder of Athletix Rehab and Recovery, has worked with Kamara for four seasons and was charged with helping Kamara recover from injuries that limited his production last season.
The results, so far, have been spectacular: Through three games, Kamara leads the league in touchdowns (six) and yards from scrimmage (438), and averages 7.6 yards per touch. Dr. Tabbah explained some of the procedures that went into getting Kamara back to his pre-injury form.
TABBAH: "This year was a little bit different being that he was coming back from some injuries. He was quoted to be playing on 75 percent of a leg most of the year last year. Every year, when he and all our athletes return to us, the first thing we do is a total body assessment to just look at a grand picture of how does every joint in the body move, how is every muscle test feeling – what's strong, what's weak, right versus left and balances, all these kinds of things.
"So as we conducted that, we looked and uncovered certain things that might be hidden and also contributing, or being potentially a result, of compensation from issues to the knee and ankle from last year. And then of course, we honed in on that knee and ankle.
"This is the first year that, really, he looked beat up. He was a lot weaker, a lot of imbalances on that side. It was definitely a big difference from years past and as we got things going, I saw him struggle a bit with things that he hadn't struggled with in the past. So I tried to not quite pick up exactly where we left off, because I always know with the end of a season, with anybody we always take a little step back and then kind of rebuild foundation to some degree and then hopefully peak much higher than the previous year. But we definitely did a couple steps back in order to rebuild his foundation. Just overall single-leg strength, confidence and stability in that leg and then later on down the road, we had to resort to building power, explosiveness, responsiveness. All that kind of stuff."
Kamara's lower body looks decidedly more muscular than before.
TABBAH: "He works with another performance coach who does a lot of his traditional lifting and running and conditioning. We kind of tag-teamed him in that effect in terms of the strengthening. But I will say what we did that was a little bit more aggressive and unique is really focusing on a lot of single-leg strength and power, and then even using a machine that we have that basically is a type of electrical stimulation that will use electricity to force the muscles to contract better.
"Basically, you're recruiting more motor units. I kind of like to think of it as, your muscles are like a big house. And maybe after an injury, or whatever it might be, some of those lights are off and you just can't turn them back on. So you use the electricity, with exercise, to kind of force all those lights to turn back on and almost, like, jump-start the house. So we put on this electrical stimulation that forces this muscle to contract and then make him do various strengthening exercises over the course of weeks. That was a big part of our early process to kind of get this leg back. (Laughing). We hit him so hard that first couple of days, he was blown out the rest of the week."
If Kamara's balance is a natural gift, how can training enhance it?
TABBAH: "He's naturally gifted, absolutely. He's an amazing athlete. But I'll also say a lot of what we have accomplished and the levels of training, all these crazy, different exercises that we've gotten to, is because of his constant dedication to the process and enabling me to get him ready to continue to progress level to level to level.
"When we first met, we were doing simple things on the ground – single-leg balance on the ground, single-leg balance on a little foam pad, maybe catching the ball or whatever it might be nice and easy, to progressing to now we're doing it on a half a BOSU ball, this wobbly dome. And then from there, that got easy so he started kneeling on a ball and doing exercises. And that got easy, so he stood on the ball. And then that got easy so we added hand-eye coordination with different tasks assigned to different hands and colors, and then putting strobe glasses on to block vision. You're constantly adding layers.
"What we did a lot of this year that was unique was just trying to find ways to make the stress very multi-system. I wanted to challenge his body physically from a strength standpoint, also from a reaction standpoint and make a true reaction time, and add a mental component where he has to contemplate cognitively how to make decisions throughout this process.
"So we did an exercise where he is standing up on a box, and he steps off this box. And I've got a ball in each hand. These balls, when they hit the ground with impact, they will flash one of three different colors. So as he steps off this box, a split second before he hits the ground, I use one of my arms to bounce the ball. Based on that, he has to cut the direction of the hand and then read the color of the ball, which is going to tell him which way to cut off of that break. Then he runs up to a second level, and then we do the same thing again and now he's got to make a cut based on which hand I used and then I bounce the ball to the ground, and the color that it flashes tells him which hand to catch the ball with. So each layer of the drill was not only having to do multiple reads, but the reads were changing at each level. One might be a cut, the next one might be which hand, and then it might be a cut again. So it's like, so cognitive on top of the physical and dynamic reactives on it."
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