Interview: Tyler Carpenter, Pitt Athletics [Tips + Education]
Working at an institution of higher learning for a high stakes athletic program can bring about high stress, can’t it? Today we’re talking with Tyler Carpenter who will share his insight that will help you to navigate the pressures you face in your high stakes (for you) business.
We’ll discuss his work with student-athletes at the University of Pittsburgh and how proper preparation and education are vital to the health and culture within a collegiate athletic program. Tyler also will share his tricks for making safety, rehabilitation, and the student-athletes’ ability to return to play his top priorities.
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Schimri Yoyo: Okay. This is a Schimri Yoyo with exercise.com and we are continuing our interview series with fitness experts. And today we have the pleasure of having Tyler Carpenter who is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Pittsburgh, Pitt Athletics.
Tyler, thank you for joining us.
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Schimri Yoyo: I want to jump in and talk a little bit about your background in sports. What sports did you play growing up?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, growing up, since I was a young one, I actually grew up in a small town. We did not have a whole lot to choose from. Some of the more just like simple ones, but I actually played football and basketball and baseball from a young age. And then when I got into high school I ran track and field, particularly the pole vault event and the hurdles and then I actually just focused on football outside of that and then lifting in the wintertime.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay, and during that time, is that when you would say you developed a passion for health and fitness?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, without a question. I don’t even know if it was as much of like a passion for health and fitness as it was recognition of the impact that a strength and conditioning coach or that an athletic coach, in general, could have on a life. So I, yeah, that was probably—I came into high school weighing 95 pounds and for me to be any sort of successful athlete at all, I knew I couldn’t weigh 95 pounds, especially if I wanted to play football to a high level.
So I spent a ton of time in the weight room. Like I said, I gave up my winter sport just so that I could put on some size and they made a huge investment into me, and I recognized that investment and I recognized the impact of the weight room could have on me, and that’s kind of where my love began.
Schimri Yoyo: Did you start using a personal trainer or a strength conditioning coach when you were in high school?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, no, I actually did not. And the reason why is that, I actually come from a town of about 1,500 people and we don’t necessarily have resources around us like that. You know, our physical education teacher, I don’t even know if he made any money. He just, you know, hung around after school and kind of was a weight room monitor.
I didn’t have a strength coach at all. We ran on Bigger, Faster, Stronger and that was a pretty simple plan and we just continue to repeat that throughout the course of four years. But no, actually never had a strength coach or a personal trainer in my life.
Schimri Yoyo: Okay. As you developed in the industry and started working, did you have, who are your mentors when you started working in the sports performance industry?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, I would actually probably lean on the fact that they were just generally sports coaches initially. So going back to when I got to Ohio State as an undergraduate, I started working for the football team and kind of a manager in an intern role.
And again, in that position I was exposed to, you know, the impact that guys, like a former football coach Jim Tressel could have or you know, or Darrell Hazell, who would go onto Kent State and obviously to Purdue. Coach Luke Fickell who is at Cincinnati now—and some of the impact that those men were having on other young people. So those were some of my mentors or, at least, people that I would look to in terms of how they kind of conducted themselves in life and then the impact that they were trying to have on others. So that was a huge component for me.
And then once I got into strength and conditioning, my next stop actually was at the University of Tennessee and I was introduced to Heather Mason down there and one of her assistants by the name of Holly Frantz.
Heather and Holly are, to this day, two of my biggest mentors. I am on the phone with them frequently in contact with them pretty regularly and they’re outstanding. And then there are all kinds of people that are connected to them. Again, Clare Quebedeaux, who is now the director at Ohio State and then my boss at Ohio State when I was there, Coach Anthony Glass. Those would be some of my mentors.
Schimri Yoyo: Well that’s good. That’s awesome that you’re able to keep that network of professionals and keep that collegiality even as you’ve moved on to different stocks.
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, no doubt about it. And I know this is going [a continuation of your previous question about mentors], but I would have to say coach Ron McKeefery, I would be remiss if I did not mention Coach McKeefery as well as having an impact.
Schimri Yoyo: Now, what else do you do outside of training for fun? Are there any activities that would surprise us?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, so I actually, I’m really big into archery. This passion that started about a year ago. I do a ton of archery just in my backyard, but at the end of the day, it’s all to get better so I can, you know, get out and do some hunting.
But just generally I love the outdoors. So archery is what it is right now. And I love to golf and both of those things—my master’s degree is in Sports Psychology and Motor Behavior and the kind of the psychology that those two focus cue skills—it’s really, really fun for me—but it requires me to be totally immersed in what I’m doing if I’m going to be excelling at it. And so I kind of have to wash my brain away from everything thinking about work and I really have to hone in on those two skills.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s fun, man. I used to go to a day camp when I was younger and they [had] an archery range. And I did that for a little bit and I’m kind of sad that I didn’t keep up with it, but I enjoyed that.
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, it’s a blast, man. It’s actually become an addiction. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than golf. Well, the initial investment, probably similar, but then, you know, once you got your arrows, man, you go down range and grab them. You don’t [have to] keep hitting all these golf balls and lose them in ponds and stuff.
Schimri Yoyo: Now, let’s talk about your training philosophy and methodology a little bit. If you had to describe those things in one word, what would it be?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, not easy to describe in one word, but if I had to come up with one, I would say just, I mean, preparation. I think what it all comes down to is that we have to be prepared as professionals.
But what are we ultimately doing? We are preparing these athletes for competition, for life, or whatever it might be, physically, mentally, emotionally, right? We’re going to challenge them every day that they come in here and we talk to them about, you know, “Man, what temperature does your steel bend?” It has got to be harder tomorrow than it is today.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about general physical preparation and then introducing them to some adversity, you know, testing the limits and pushing their comfort zone to a place it has not previously been.
Schimri Yoyo: Oh, that’s good. Now, a two-part question. Why is the sports medicine staff so important to collegiate athletes? And then secondly, how do you think they impact the overall culture of the athletic program?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, so speaking both about sports medicine—athletic trainers and then us as strength coaches entirely—I think that the number of conversations that we have one-on-one with our student-athletes, they’ll come to us as they get comfortable with us.
I mean, we break them down and we build them up physically. And I think that there’s something to that. They come to us and they share a lot with us—whether it’s “How do I approach this conversation with the coach?” or we honestly get a lot of life questions and things like that. And then that really just shows them our serious investment in them. But where that kind of comes into play in terms of total culture is we’re trying to take care of the 360 athletes.
So there are a lot of entities and units within our athletic department that are better equipped to handle different topics, right? And [within those] different units, we all kind of stay on our patch and in [regards to our specific specialties], but I’m able to make sure that the information that I get from the athletes gets to where it needs to ultimately.
Unless it’s something that’s just like, “Hey, I’m going through a tough time. I need somebody to just come and talk to you about this.” or whatever it might be. But I think in terms of: “What is our role?” At the end of the day, we’re trying to keep them healthy from both sides. We’re trying to do it proactively and the athletic trainers do some preventatives and things like that.
But certainly, reactively, when injuries go down, they’re the ones that are taking care of the athletes as well. So, you know, together collectively, we’re trying to keep the athletes on the field and make sure that we’re maximizing, their human performance.
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Schimri Yoyo: You also have a background in sports psychology. How does that help you when you’re training the student-athletes?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah. In my opinion at the highest level, the physical disparity becomes more marginal and what’s between your ears is what’s going to take you to the top. So I think it’s a really important aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked. A part of some of the things that we can do simply—without kind of jumping [too far] into that as far as psychology realm—we can just be talking to athletes about goal-setting honestly and about the self-talk.
We notice body language in here all the time. We know what their self-talk is just been based on what their body language is after they miss a rep or they miss a sprint time or whatever it might be. Talking to them about their mindset as they come back in a return to play and they’ve got some anxieties in terms of return to play protocol:
“I’m not sure if this injury—whatever it might be—is going to hold up the next time I step back on the field.”
And a lot of that stuff we will definitely forward along to our mental health and our sports psychology team. But those kinds of conversations come up and just even being educated to say, “Hey, there’s actually a resource that can help you get over something like that. You’re not alone in that.”
[Even having those kinds of conversations with student-athletes] goes a long way. And then being able to really communicate effectively with the athletes. It’s better to draw the lines and say like—process orientation. So help them to understand like, “We’re not just squatting to get better at squatting. This is going to help you run. If you’re better, you’d be more effective in your sport.”
But that process orientation that I learned a lot about in sports psychology instead of just being so outcome-driven, it has been a huge benefit to that degree.
Schimri Yoyo: Helping them understand that connection. That makes sense.
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah.
Schimri Yoyo: Now, how prevalent are body image issues among collegiate athletes and how do you promote healthy and positive body image at Pitt Athletics?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, body image issues are definitely a real thing and I guess I could probably just leave it at that. They definitely exist. They don’t discriminate at all, right? They know—like male, female, any athlete—they’re all a susceptible to body image issues.
So for us, it’s a lot about language, the way that we’re approaching topic matters. Who has the conversations? Is it the originator a dietitian that’s having those conversations? Is it our mental health people? Is it our athletic trainers who are, maybe, more equipped to have those types of talks?
We also do some education. We have our coaches, we have policies in place to where our coaches are not able to know body composition numbers. So even just having policies and procedures in place to make sure that we’re not going into that sensitive topic matter and kind of writing it off.
But yeah, I would say there are definitely a real, and then just being cognizant of language and having the awareness to pick up on things when there are changes in demeanor or there are changes in energy levels and things like that. And honestly changes in what their actual body looks like. You know, the red flag kind of goes up and we got to go talk to the athletic trainer and let them be kind of the center of that Sports Med. We’ll let them get that information to where it needs to go.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s a good answer. Thank you for sharing that. Now in your opinion, how are speed, strength, and mobility all related? And which of these is most important for an athlete?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, I think I would probably have a hard time saying which one is most important other than the fact that we always say speed kills. But at the same time though we talk to our athletes all of the time. But yes, we want to be bigger, faster, stronger at all of these things.
But if you’re not healthy then you’re parked on the bench, right? And a Ferrari is great, but if it’s parked in the garage all the time and it can’t do what it’s there to do, then it’s doing us no good. So we definitely still spend a ton of time on the flexibility, the mobility, all these things.
I would say for us it’s about sports-specific ranges of motion.
You know, if you’re a track athlete, I’m not saying you need to be all bound up and tight. I’m not going to get into the whole flexibility debate, but what I would say though is that there’s definitely a sports specific range of motion.
Like we need great front-side mechanics. Therefore, you have to be able to get into the hip flexion. We know what our hamstrings need to be able to do as well. So if you are in gymnastics, those things mean a lot to us. But I would say sport by sport, just being aware of the needs and kind of moving up our bodies in terms of what joints need to be mobile, which ones need to be stable and working through it that way.
Schimri Yoyo: Alright. It sounds like it’s a sort of contextual in that sense, right? Depending on sports.
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah. I would agree with that.
Schimri Yoyo: Alright, so what’s the relationship between strength and conditioning, injury prevention, and rehabilitation? And how do you help your student-athletes to be proactive in their training and in their recovery?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, so to begin with the relationship, we know there’s a direct correlation, right? So, we talk about joint integrity. We’re trying to keep these athletes stronger so that they’re more durable all the time. But at the end of the day, our first primary goal is to minimize the risk of injury to reduce the risk of injury.
Cause, again, we can make them more elite athletes, we can make them stronger, more fit—whatever it might be—well, I should say more well-conditioned. And our athletes can—our coaches can work with them on their technical abilities but if they’re on the bench, then it doesn’t matter.
So we’re definitely cognizant of the injury prevention piece and that’s always in our mind. So whether that means—for some sport, maybe it’s just a lot more single-leg training or it’s a sport that has a lot of posterior chain issues and just hammering that posterior chain, things like that. We’re constantly thinking about it.
In terms of the rehab piece, we definitely take that and we’re a big piece in that as well. I think that a lot of times where re-injury occurs is in the transition from okay, you came out of your rehab setting and now you’re going through the return to sport [protocol].
You go straight from running on a treadmill, right to playing soccer. No, there has to be a return to sport before there’s a full return to play and so we’re very fortunate here at Pitt that we’ve got great relations between sports medicine staff and ourselves that we’re constantly meeting and saying, “How can we progress this athlete’s load and get them back in a more well-thought-out way, right?” When do we introduce the ball and moving, are they controlling the drill or are they reacting to something in the drill, but even being more thoughtful and thorough in those regards.
Schimri Yoyo: And so we sometimes hear about high school or collegiate athletes having serious heat-related illnesses. What can athletes and professionals do to prevent this from happening?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, those are definitely scary topics. I think that the shortest answer that I can give you is that recently as in, you know, within the last couple of months, NCAA released a document, talking about the recommendations to the prevention of catastrophic injuries and death.
[Editor’s note: The document Tyler is referring to is called Interassociation Recommendations: Preventing Catastrophic Injury and Death in Collegiate Athletes and was released by the NCAA in July 2019]
I forget the exact name of the document, but working to achieve all of the checkboxes—the checklist that they’ve included with that document—to make sure that transition periods are appropriate, that we’re being mindful of that vibrancy, nothing for six weeks during summer session one, and when they come in that I’m not going to crush them right away. Right?
Our work-to-rest ratios have to be accommodating to the fact that we haven’t seen athletes right away. Are they playing pickup on their own? Are they not during that first week back? But those transition periods are really important to be mindful of. And then just general sensible progressions in terms of how you’re overloading the athletes.
Schimri Yoyo: And so how do you measure progress and success for yourself and for the student-athletes?
Tyler Carpenter: So for myself to begin, I would say for our strength and conditioning staff and profession as a whole, this is definitely oftentimes like a highly discussed topic. I think that it’s a multidimensional or factorial approach. I think that injury rates to a degree. But again, there are going to be contacted injuries, there are going to be non-contact injuries, right? There are extenuating circumstances. Wins and losses, does it all come down on that note? No is the simple answer. No, but we want to make sure that we’re all here to win, so we want to make sure that we’re accomplishing those things.
I think one of the best answers that I heard someone give recently is: Are your athletes coming back excited to train for the right reasons every single day?”
I mean, we sell pain for living. That’s a quote from one of my mentors that I mentioned, Heather Mason. She says that we sell pain. We don’t sell tickets, we don’t sell abilities. We sell pain.
But if you can get the athletes excited to come back every single day, then that says something about the way we’re doing things. Like, “Hey, we’re doing things right.” But again, they have to be excited for the right reasons, not coming in here just to mess around. They know like this is a place to work, this is a place where I know I’m getting better and we’re getting after it every day.
Schimri Yoyo: Oh that’s good. And now in keeping with that, what ways do you help the athletes push themselves to their physical limits or push themselves to their peak potential without burning them out or putting them at risk for injury?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, so I would say like simply like planning, right? Like periodization planning, being systematic about it. We [actually] educate our athletes a lot cause our athletes don’t always understand why we have unloaded weeks. So getting them to understand that, we might go five weeks forward, one week down, five weeks up, one week down rather than pushing for 10 weeks straight. And then on that 11th week, we go five steps back, right?
So we always account for every fourth or fifth week or whatever it might be to reduce volume or intensity or whatever it might be and then, or change the exercises and then jump back up again.
If we preplan for that, then we shouldn’t experience any of those things. We’re constantly educating our athletes about it cause they don’t always love when we unload them. But that’s what I would say. It’s just being systematic, planning those things in advance.
Schimri Yoyo: Alright. You mentioned that prior to your time at Pitt, you spent some time at Ohio State and also at Tennessee. So you’ve been a part of of the Big 10, the SEC and now the ACC. What are some similarities and differences between the universities that you’ve been at and between the athletic conferences?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, I would start simply by saying similarities would be all extremely highly competitive. I’ve been very fortunate to work in each of these three highly competitive conferences with great resources. And I’m surrounded constantly by great coaches who want to do big things as well. And they, they do it for the right reasons. They care a ton about the development of the student-athlete.
But, again, they’re here to win. I think that the differences are, honestly, it’s kind of splitting hairs, but I think every conference is kind of known for—like the ACC, that’s the best soccer conference in the country, right? You know, there are different things.
The SEC, from the time I’ve been young, I’ve been told that’s the conference of speed, you know? So there are different conversations that go around and around about that. But I would say it’s less about, you know, one’s better than another, but all the conferences are just kind of better at different things. But they’re all highly competitive and top tier. You can go one way or another any given day.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s right. Well, it looks like the ACC guys have also been pretty dominant in basketball recently.
So, we know that athletes and coaches are creatures of habit. So what is your gameday routine?
Tyler Carpenter: Hmm, great question. Oh, to be honest with you, in terms of gameday routine, it looks a little different for every sport. And that’s one of the cool things about working with the Olympic sports is that every game day looks totally different.
Women’s soccer might take the field 35 minutes before kickoff and men’s soccer might take good field 27 minutes before kickoff. And wrestling has weigh-ins. And then they have to eat and all these other things, right? Every sport is so different.
But for me, it’s just being available to do what the athletes need. So somebody needs a quick stretch. Right. Somebody needs a set of plyometrics cause they’re feeling lazy, lethargic, whatever it might be, and we need to get them activated and primed and ready to rock and roll, then I’m going to be there for them for that.
There are days that certain coaches want jogs or stretches in the morning cause they have a 7:00 PM kickoff and we got to get them up and out of bed and moving around the hotel or whatever it might be. It could be pool recovery sessions. It could be running the group that’s injured.
So everyday kind of looks different and just—you have to wear a lot of different hats and be ready to do anything. So I don’t know that there’s necessarily set schedule and I definitely don’t have any superstitions when it comes to pregame routines.
Schimri Yoyo: How does those travel affect you as the strength and conditioning coach with the different teams that you work with?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, so it’s definitely becoming more of the competitive norm that strength coaches in these Power Five Conferences are definitely traveling. Baseball, it’s pretty much a no brainer. This year, we’ll be traveling a strength coach full time with volleyball as well. Moving in that direction with soccer, absolutely. And again, when one of the coaches need a strength coach to travel that works out [the student-athletes], we want to make sure that 15 other teams are not suffering cause that strength coach is traveling with that one team. Then, we’re going to make that happen.
But it just takes a lot of organization on the back end to make sure that the teams that are still home and training, they’re able to train hard, they’re able to be pushed and they’re not— there are no lapses in training at all, but I think there’s the organizational piece that’s important. But we definitely think there’s tremendous value in training.
I’m sorry. There’s tremendous value in traveling for the purpose of running the athletes who did not contribute or helping, maybe, [to gather] sports science information—the jogs, stretches, the recovery, getting lifts in. If your Friday night guy pitched and you’re going to lift hard on Saturday, we want somebody at CSCS or CSCCA to be there, to be the one that puts them through the workout.
And also just the relationship that comes from being on the road and the athletes getting to see you outside of the weight room and being vulnerable and things like that. That goes a long way into their willingness to want to go to battle for you.
Schimri Yoyo: Well, that’s good. And what are the differences have you seen in training graduate student-athletes, upperclassmen student-athletes, and then the first-year student-athletes?
Tyler Carpenter: Definitely just, I would say body awareness for one. Honestly, even just some incoming student-athletes, there’s a ton of variety of there. Some of them have much higher training ages. Their parents got them personal strength conditioning or performance coaches when they were 14 years old and they’re coming to us with four years of training under their belts and all that training always looks different.
Some of them come here highly trained and technical in the weightlifting group and some of them come here highly trained in technical on the powerlifting movements and some of them have no idea any sort of speed mechanics. But for us, you know we definitely run a block zero or we want to make sure that we get the athletes’ bodies moving in the right way, that we’re tackling any sort of deficiencies upfront.
We’re laying a really solid foundation and groundwork so that over the course of the next three years we can build on them. But we definitely consider long-term athletic development as something that’s a really important principle for us.
But as they get more advanced, it may be as something as simple as a freshman year split squatting and then you go from that into a reverse lunge into a forward lunge or a walking lunge and do a step up. We’re always trying to find ways to progress them that as they get older in their careers, we’re still able to overload them and challenge them in different ways.
Schimri Yoyo: Makes sense. Now, how, if at all, do you use technology or social media to engage with your student-athletes and with other coaches?
Tyler Carpenter: I would say, I would put those in two totally different realms. I would say social media, the athletes definitely love the little bit of a pump up that they get from seeing themselves on our social media account, the retweets, and the likes and all those things of them hitting a heavy squat or doing something with an agility drill. So that’s really fun and we like to get them charged up through those methods.
But at the same, on the flip of that though, the technology piece, we’ve been fortunate here at Pitt to make some serious investments. Whether it’s Sparta, the software that we’re running for our force plates, that’s been a huge tool for us. We’ve got multiple teams here that are using Catapult. It’s able to do some great things with GPS and we’ve got a couple of teams that are using Polar and Firstbeat [Editor: See GPS watch comparison video below], some different heart rate technologies.
We’ve actually got a lot going on. We’re about to make an investment into general wear. I don’t think any one of these individual technologies is the end-all, be-all on their own. But what kind of really brings it all together is when you’re able to overlay some of the information and draw the correlation and say, “Hey, well we saw this how the bod pod or the Dexa, and we saw this out of Sparta, and we saw this out of Catapult, and this was a common theme, right? We’ve got some correlation going on here. What is there to this?”
But we’re definitely using technology. We’re pushing in that direction, like it or not. A strength coach is like—it’s coming and it’s coming at us fast and we’re having to become more 21st-century than what the field was for a long time.
Schimri Yoyo: Well that’s good. And again, thank you. Tyler for your time. This has been great. You’ve given us a lot of good information, a lot of good things to chew on, so I know our audience is going to appreciate that.
So the final question: What are some resources, either books, magazines, podcasts, that you would recommend for our audience and any of those who are interested in sports performance training?
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, I would say personally for me—maybe it’s the background in sports psychology, I’m not sure—but I love mental training books. I love books about leadership, culture development, things like that. So that’s probably the direction that I would go.
But the first couple that comes to mind is a book by Bob Rotella. It’s called How Champions Think, sports psychology book. I think that’s phenomenal. That’s the first one that always comes to mind when people ask me for a book.
A second one that I just read recently that was given to me by our head men’s soccer coach, Jay Vidovich is actually called The Captain’s Class. It’s written by Sam Walker. It’s a tremendous read. And the one that I’m actually working my way through right now, I saw that a colleague was reading it on Instagram, actually, and I picked it up. It’s been great so far, but it’s called Peak and it’s by Dr. Marc Bubbs.
I’m not a huge podcast guy, but I think the one that I probably look at the most, that I listen to the most is the Jocko Podcast, Shaka Willing’s podcast, gets you pretty fired up. Again, talking about communication styles and true adversity, personal development and human development, leadership development, culture development, things like that.
Schimri Yoyo: That’s great. Well, thank you for your time and thank you for those resources. I’m sure our audience will appreciate that. Again, we look forward to meeting with you again and good luck with all your upcoming sports seasons this year and hopefully we’ll see the Pitt Panthers win a lot of postseason awards this year.
Tyler Carpenter: Yeah, we’re definitely hoping for that and we’re working towards that. Thanks so much for having me and Hail to Pitt!
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Schimri Yoyo is a writer for Exercise.com and a financial advisor with active life and health insurance licenses. In a past life, he covered Villanova Men’s Basketball and Big East Football for Examiner.com. Schimri has also produced freelance copywriting, editing, and proofreading for various websites and online publications for over a decade. He is an avid sports fan, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Boston Celtics, Boston Red Sox, and San Francisco 49ers. Schimri is an educator and a storyteller who is eager to assist individuals and families to stay financially and physically fit.