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Tim Hussin, Deseret News
Baker Pritcherd of Bingham warms up with squats during the power-lifting championships at Bingham High. Many high school football players participated in the event.

Cottonwood senior Isi Sofele wasn't sure the unusual stretches he was being asked to do were going to translate into breaking tackles next fall.

But when a former Marine sergeant tells you to put your hands on your waist and swivel your hips, you do it.

"I thought they were little girly stretches," said the running back. "I wasn't sure how that was going to help me with martial arts or football."

And while some of his teammates also expressed doubt about some of those moves, they all did them anyway. Luckily, the players found out eventually how the nontraditional tasks were relevant, not just to the karate class they were taking as a team, but to their physical and mental abilities on the football field.

The Cottonwood football players were offered the opportunity to participate in a once-a-week martial arts class taught by Marshall Parnell, who owns and operates Lotus Blossom in Murray. The 10-week training program was a little different than the other classes offered at Lotus Blossom because Parnell tailor-made the program to fit the needs of football players.

Football is the only major high school sport that doesn't offer student-athletes a club or accelerated program in the off-season. So working out is left up to individual players, and many local coaches now offer some structure for their teams.

While many players are still involved in other sports, a growing number are choosing to focus on football alone, and that makes off-season activities even more important.

The goal of most coaches is simple — keep the kids in shape.

Others, however, are also looking for opportunities to provide mental training and maybe even a little team bonding.

That's why Colts head coach Cecil Thomas talked to Parnell about conducting an off-season program for his players. Thomas also has them participating in a ropes course, training in skill-specific workouts and even competing in weight-lifting events.

"Any time you get a chance to compete, I want them competing," he said. "We don't have spring football in Utah, so this gives us a chance to be in a competitive environment, in competitive situations and see where we stack up."

Thomas isn't alone, as many of the coaches who attended this year's high school power-lifting competition at Bingham High said they hoped their athletes gained more than just better fitness in the variety of off-season activities offered.

"Any time you can have your kids competing, it's a good thing," said Bingham head coach Dave Peck, who hosted the event that drew hundreds of high school athletes. "And the great thing about power lifting is that they're not competing against someone else. They're competing against what they did in the weight room."

Logan coach Mike Favero echoed those sentiments.

"It's a great opportunity to compete," he said. "It's an opportunity to compete with yourself ... to push yourself to the breaking point."

He said competing against 4A and 5A high school athletes can be intimidating for some of the smaller-school players. But overcoming that fear is exactly what coaches like Favero are hoping their athletes learn to do.

"If you're afraid to compete against your peers at Bingham High, then I can't put you on the field on Friday night," he said.

Provo head coach Saia Pope invited everyone in the Bulldogs' weight room to represent the school at the weightlifting competition. He said the off-season competition offers motivation, as well as sharpening their competitive edge and keeping players fit.

"It gets the kids motivated if they can come here and get their personal best," Pope said. "If they can just come here and see the other players, it gives them a lot of energy. Just working out day to day can be hard. But seeing how they do against other kids gets them excited."

All of the coaches just want their players to think about football in different terms as they prepare in the off-season for competition on the field.

"I want them to be able to throw their egos out the window," Pope said. "Too many times, they look at other guys and they don't push themselves. You have to push yourself to get better."

Which is exactly why Thomas had his players involved in the martial arts program.

"I'd never designed a program like this and I really enjoyed the challenge," Parnell said. "We started with about 50 kids and by the end had more than 60. ... The workouts were really challenging, but they just came back for more."

In addition to physically demanding workouts, Parnell asked them to meditate, call each other "sir" and treated them like gentlemen in an effort to help them see each other — and their opponents — in a different light.

"My goal wasn't to make them marshal artists," he said. "It was to make them better football players using marshal-arts tactics. Nothing brings a team closer than suffering ... and we ended with a very tough hike up Bells Canyon."

The players watched their coach break bricks with his bare hands, something Parnell taught him in the 10 weeks. The players said they felt the benefits to them were more than just better physical condition. They feel more cohesive as a team and have more trust for each other.

"I learned to focus a lot better," Awuley Quaye said. "It makes me feel like I'm going to be more prepared."

Cole Peraza added, "It was a lot of discipline. Our master was way strict."

"It helped with our discipline," Thomas said. "That was the biggest thing. The run up Bells Canyon, I thought that was powerful. A lot of guys struggled mentally. They'd never pushed themselves that way. I see us coming together as a group of guys. I see us being a smarter football team."

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