Justin Schwind is a human performance coach in the United States Military. A former football player himself, he started his career in the college football setting. After gaining over ten years of experience, primarily spent at the University of South Alabama, he transitioned into the military setting and worked with special operators and thousands of soldiers in the schoolhouse in Fort Bragg, NC.
Justin recently took a position as the Human Performance Advisor with the United States Air Force and the 58th Special Operations Wing. He will be overseeing many operations and coaches in order to enhance the overall performance and recovery of Air Force operators. He recently sat down with Perch to discuss his career, coaching philosophy, and how VBT is integral in the military setting. Huge thanks to Justin for his time and words of wisdom!
PERCH: TELL US ABOUT YOUR CAREER, HOW’D YOU GET YOUR START AND HOW’D YOU END UP IN THE MILITARY SETTING?
Justin Schwind: I played [football] through high school and walked on at Stephen F. Austin State University. I wanted to give back everything that was given to me because I knew from a motivational standpoint, to a work ethic, to character building, it was all instilled within sport.
So I transferred to Texas State University and started volunteering with football, and the strength coach said “hey man I need some help in the weight room” so I said “sure!” and started helping out and fell in love. I interviewed for a couple graduate assistant spots around the country, and ended up in a year long position at a neuroimaging lab at Baylor College of Medicine. We were filming exercises and then putting subjects into an MRI machine and seeing different parts of their brain light up from the motor cortex to prefrontal cortex. Basically watching the evolution of how everything relating to movement changed from a logic base to more instinctual.
Then I got a GA position at Mississippi State and was in the SEC, and that was the dream! Got my masters degree and went off to a DIII school and was the head strength coach at Birmingham Southern College and was able to be the guy for 21 sports. It was shock and awe.
From there, I headed down to the University of South Alabama and it was a start up program, I had no assistants but had 4 GAs. I was there there for about 10 years, we went from no real program to DI FBS, and it was fun! It was great to build that culture, I think the character of the person is important, you invest in each other and learn how to be vulnerable and creative, and try to take care of your staff. It was great. I went into administration for a year, thought that AD was the path I wanted to go, thinking I couldn’t be a strength coach forever in the college setting. That was the worst year we had in the 10 years I was there, so we all got let go and it came at a good time for me, my wife was pregnant and from a marriage standpoint, from being a father, I knew that this college game was not going to be my forever.
“I think the character of the person is important, you invest in each other and learn how to be vulnerable and creative, and try to take care of your staff.”
I had several former assistants who had been in the tactical setting, and I decided to give it a try. It’s pretty close to 40 hrs a week which is unheard of. I interviewed for a couple sports and asked my wife “where do you want to go” and she said “I want to move the farthest north I can” So I said “great, we’re going to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.” So I’ve been working with Special Operation Forces with SOCOM. And it was a stand up unit, they hadn’t had a strength coach for about 9 months. I spent the first month cleaning everything and shaking hands and getting to know people, and spending time getting to know the culture and the lifestyle of the soldier.
The schoolhouse which was right next door had an opening, the HP coordinator reached out to me and said do you want to come over? Where I was at I made all the calls and orders, but everyone in the SOF community has to go through the schoolhouse at some point in their career, so I said “sure, I’ll take it” knowing that it’d be a step forward in my career. I went from covering 700 soldiers to 5000 soldiers and got to join a strength staff.
My main focus was soft CCC, which is Captains Career Course, so anybody that’s an alpha or officer has to go through this career course after they pass selection. And where I’m currently at, I’ll take over the 58th SOW which is a rotary pilots program, and will also assist with the PJs. I’ll take over as the HP (Human Performance) advisor and really get to work with the culture piece.
PERCH: THERE ISN’T A LOT OF COMMON KNOWLEDGE ABOUT MILITARY STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING, CAN YOU SHED SOME LIGHT ON WHAT YOUR TRAINING LOOKS LIKE IN THE TACTICAL SETTING?
JS: Realistically it depends, but you don’t ever get to have a consistent year long training piece with a soldier. They’re always coming and going. If they’re off to some sort of school, or they get deployed, you have to get creative and get out of the box with how you’re going to communicate with them when they’re away and what is the best way to do it. I use Train Heroic, I think it’s awesome.
The second piece is that on base itself, you might be working with a soldier and they get a call and say “Hey in the next 48 hrs we’re going to the field” and so they go literally to a field and sleep on the ground and get beat to hell for 7 days and they get back and where do we go with training?
So you have to be able to adjust and adapt to that. And knowing that they might start back down at ground zero because they’re tired and broke and haven’t slept. They have been down field carrying things, setting stuff up, breaking stuff down, building things, shooting, whatever it is, you have to be able to adapt. We might do some sort of simple base assessment, throw a dowel on their back and do some squat jumps to see where they’re at from a velocity standpoint and look at that, and be able to load them accordingly.
“We might do some sort of simple base assessment, throw a dowel on their back and do some squat jumps to see where they’re at from a velocity standpoint and look at that, and be able to load them accordingly.”
PERCH: WHAT ABOUT THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SOLDIERS YOU’RE WORKING WITH, HOW DOES THAT VARY AND VARY YOUR TRAINING?
JS: What’s different about soldiers than the typical athlete is with an athlete, where you might have to take your boot and shove it up their butt to get them going. In this realm, you literally have to grab the reins like on a horse and pull them back. You have to talk to them about what recovery means, what detraining means, so they’re not overtraining or overreaching to a point where they can’t come back to a state of readiness. That’s where I’ve learned the most.
“You have to talk to them about what recovery means, what detraining means, so they’re not overtraining or overreaching to a point where they can’t come back to a state of readiness.”
You have some guys who are kicking down doors who are very physical. And some guys who sit in front of a computer for 12 hours a day, four days a week and then get three days off. So physicality, very minimal, but as far as stress through the eyes, nervous system stress, it’s taxing. They still need to recover even though they’re not the most physically gifted soldier in the world, they’re fried beyond belief. So working in mobility, working in recovery, working breathing, and the overall holistic approach to who they were to get them to a state of readiness.
Lastly, when you’re in the army you have to PT test once a year, so they have to get ready for it. The ability to prepare them for that, I’ve really enjoyed.
PERCH: YOU MENTIONED VELOCITY AS A READINESS ASSESSMENT. WHEN AND HOW ARE YOU USING VBT IN THE MILITARY SETTING?
JS: The military side, soldiers already know how to push hard, so we’re trying to teach them to understand what a true state of readiness is. Why do you warm up? To get you to a state of high output. If you’re not in a state of high output, it’s because you’re overtrained or under recovered. Meaning you’re probably not sleeping and probably not properly fueling your body. And we can then talk to our guys about what good looks like.
I’m going to have my guys when they come in do those dowel squat jumps and it’ll give me an understanding of what their state of readiness is for the day, because it can vary so much especially with these guys day to day. If they’re green, we know they’re fresh and we’ll go full bore. If they’re yellow, we’ll drop 10% or so from a relative intensity perspective and if they’re red we’ll go with mobility and try to get them recovered.
And then we also use velocity for fatigue. These guys know how to go go go go go, and they’ll think “unless I literally feel a burn and cannot move my legs anymore, I’m just going to keep going.” But using velocity, we can set those parameters and say “hey when you start hitting a .35m/s, you’re done” and they understand that. For soldiers, less of performance, and more injury mitigation. That’s a huge part. Injury mitigation.
“For soldiers, less of performance, and more injury mitigation. That’s a huge part. Injury mitigation.”
PERCH, SO WITH THAT IN MIND, WHAT ROLE DO YOU THINK DATA IN WILL PLAY IN THE WEIGHT ROOM SETTING, ESPECIALLY IN THE MILITARY?
JS: The big takeaways for data to look at and understand is:
- The Why. These guys love to know the whys, if they are a gun specialist, they will know the ins and outs of the gun. If they are a delta, they will know the ins and outs of keeping somebody alive. If they are a COM guy, they know the ins and outs of all the COM equipment. So when they train, the more they can understand the training more than just put a bar on your back and squat, the better and more efficient they’re going to train. I want them to know based off of velocity cut offs or zones what they’re training for. So it gives them knowledge, and it gives them the autoregulatory component. They can see when they get more output, the other factors in their life that may have helped account for it (they ate steak and potatoes instead of a greasy hamburger, they slept well etc) They’re able to get more output, and they communicate that with me.
- I’m able to regulate their program accordingly if I need to add a little more volume and say “your goal is to hit 30 total reps on this given day, compared to the 25 the week before” and if you can you can, and if you can’t you can’t but again it gives me more of a relative understanding of where they’re at and what they’re capable of from a volume standpoint, and also from an intensity standpoint too.
- If I’m working with a group or class of people and I want to make something competitive, damn skippy I’m going to use it to make something competitive! Every person who is in the military or college athletics loves competition. Why? Because it’s FUN! It has to be fun too, it can’t just be a dry day of “this is what you’re doing and this is all you do” so that piece that makes it competitive adds the purity of training. The velocity gives you those absolute definitive pieces because you can see that objective output on a screen. It gives you more attributes to pull from, more goals to set, I don’t think you can ever get too much of that. The coach has to keep it simple, but you can pick one attribute to try and train every day and the velocity based component of that gives you more opportunities to do that.
“So when they train, the more they can understand the training more than just put a bar on your back and squat, the better and more efficient they’re going to train.”
PERCH: DO YOU THINK MORE BASES AND MILITARY FACILITIES SHOULD BE IMPLEMENTING VBT?
JS: Oh dang skippy I do! But the education piece has to come. To my understanding there’s comparatively very little education on VBT out there. People are scared or stubborn in their ways and want to do what they’ve always done and so it’s just going to take time. Velocity Based Training is really not that old, so it’ll take a little longer for it to be less of a trend and more of a pillar of what we do.
PERCH: WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE INVESTMENT IN VBT
JS: From a VBT standpoint on the military side, let’s talk about dollars. Where people really see things is money, and if you can sell it from an injury mitigation standpoint, that’s where you sell the product. If I can implement VBT, [the soldiers] are going to be more proficient at what they do, be more optimal at what they do, and have less of a chance of hurting themselves, which means they’ll be more operational. It means they’re not sitting at home because they had an ACL tear and they can’t deploy. So I’ve invested over a million dollars in this soldier, and now he can’t go deploy because he tore his ACL because you overtrained him. So if you can corner that side of it, that’s how you’ll sell VBT in this setting.
“If I can implement VBT, [the soldiers] are going to be more proficient at what they do, be more optimal at what they do, and have less of a chance of hurting themselves, which means they’ll be more operational.”
The second piece of this is: by the end of their career, the soldier is still able to perform their duties at an optimal state too. So they’re 20 years in and they can still do it, they don’t get done and start making disability claims because they haven’t been hurt and aren’t necessitating additional medical care from the government. And this is why strength & conditioning is coming on like it is in this setting. Right now, in the army alone, we’re slotted to have an additional 3,000 strength coaches in the next 5 years. This allows college coaches who really believe in these applications to bring it to this setting and really enhance the overall performance of soldiers. So it’s coming on and it is here to stay, the more coaches learn to apply it the better our soldiers will be from an injury mitigation and operational standpoint.