Alabama director of sport science Dr. Matt Rhea isn’t exactly who you picture when thinking about strength and conditioning in college football. The mild-mannered former kinesiology professor’s voice won’t be echoing out of the speakers in Bryant-Denny Stadium anytime soon, nor will he be seen pacing the sidelines pumping up Crimson Tide players during games.
Instead, Rhea is more known for his work behind the computer screen, analyzing a series of charts and data points to best personalize workouts for players on an individualistic basis. In layman’s terms he serves as the brains to Alabama’s new strength and conditioning staff, relaying the science to sports performance director David Ballou who handles the brawn.
It’s been a little more than a year since Alabama brought in Ballou and Rhea from Indiana in a shift to a more analytical approach to development. One undefeated season later, the change has been a hit.
“Those two, they’re great,” Alabama safety Jordan Battle said. “Just looking at the data and the improvement from last year to this year or from like the natty to spring, just looking at the data and the speed, the speed gains and the weight gains and the muscle and power gains, it’s just all beautiful.”
When describing the new approach last offseason, Ballou explained that rather than taking a one-size-fits-all method, the goal is to discover the limitations, weaknesses and flaws of each athlete and diagnose them through individual workout plans. In addition, Rhea pointed out that today’s athlete is different in that players are now interested in the reasons behind their weight-room routines.
“They don’t come into the weight room and just [lift], they want to know why you’re asking them to do certain things,” Rhea said at the time. “And if you’re able to explain that to them and they see the thought process that’s going into it, they see the data that we’re using to make decisions, they see that they’re doing something different than their teammates are doing, I think that that builds some of the buy-in.”
To use Battle’s words, that’s what makes the approach so “beautiful” to players.
“I love looking at the data,” Battle said. “It kind of inspires me to be more of a competitor in the weight room, and I like the way they’re going and the direction they’re going with this.”
Ballou and Rhea’s instant success at Alabama is especially impressive considering they were hired on March 3 of last year, 10 days before Alabama’s offseason was interrupted by the pandemic. With the absence of spring camp, the two coordinators played an instrumental role in setting up workouts last spring as the team was forced to train remotely. The two also dealt with the pressure of replacing longtime strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran, who was the longest-tenured coach on Nick Saban’s staff and thought of as an instrumental part of the Tide’s dynasty in recent years.
The last 13 months couldn’t have gone much better. On top of Alabama’s record-breaking performances on the field, Tide players remained relatively healthy throughout the season with limited soft-tissue injuries. By all accounts, the Tide can expect similar results this year as players continue to rave about Ballou and Rhea’s methods this spring.
“Dr. Rhea and Coach Ballou and the rest of the strength staff have done a great job, preparing us for last season with the amount of time we had,” receiver Slade Bolden said. “You could definitely see an improvement in our speed and explosion and also our strength. I think they’ve done a great job.
“I would never compare them to Cochran. There are different ways to approach working out and I think they’ve done a great job and they are only going to continue to do a great job in improving the way we play and I’m excited to get another year and summer with them.”